If you haven’t read Alex Burness’s story on Christina and Jorge Zaldivar, I urge you to take a moment and do so. It presents, in detail, a one-family illustration of the very real, very human, very painful challenges that long have been before us when it comes to immigration.
Here you have one of the millions of mixed-status families in this nation. Christina is a citizen. Jorge is undocumented.
Here you have a person who has spent half of his life in the U.S., who has worked and raised a family and stayed out of trouble, and yet who occupies a world in which his family has to use secretly coded door knocks, who chose a home that would give him a hiding place, who keeps at the ready an emergency go-bag because one day, one night, one early morning when the house is quiet and all are still sleeping, immigration agents may come pounding on the door.
Here is a family who says goodbye when he goes to work not knowing if he will come home after. And, yes, none of us know if those we love will come home when they leave our sights, but few of us live with that thought ever-present.
Here is a man who runs into a guardrail on his drive down from the mountains, gets cited by police, ends up on ICE radar and then, who, for years, has checked in regularly with immigration as his family has sought to secure him legal status.
Easier said than done.
I must have said that a thousand times to those who believe that because an undocumented immigrant marries a U.S. citizen, it’s all easy street from there. I don’t blame people for not knowing otherwise. Immigration law is complicated and ever in flux and it is a topic to be approached as one approaches a dog that might bite: humbly.
Jorge crossed the border illegally. This is a whole different matter than entering the country legally and overstaying a visa, which most of those here illegally have done. (Put another way, no wall will ever stop them.) Someone who crosses the border illegally and then marries a citizen has to go back to his or her home country to be processed. In the illogic of the immigration system, the moment that person crosses the border back home, he or she is subject to bans of varying length on returning to this country legally. Usually that ban is 10 years. This is the punishment for entering our country without permission. It has been so since the Clinton era. Someone who goes back and forth multiple times and is caught faces a permanent bar on legal reentry. The real life consequences of this policy have been what one might predict. Migrants send for their families rather than risk going back and forth. Mixed-status families remained mixed-status families because the other choices are separation for a decade or so — or citizen spouse and children join undocumented partner in another country.
Perhaps this has been Christina and Jorge’s dilemma. Every story is unique.
But when I say their story sheds light on the problems with our immigration system, I use the word “immigration” and not “illegal immigration” deliberately. Jorge is undocumented, but the issue is not that one or 100 or hundreds of thousands of men and women are here without authorization. The issue is that almost none of them could come legally. Our policies do not accommodate those who are not highly skilled or wealthy or who do not have immediate family members who are citizens.
And so today in Denver, you had representatives of the Farm Bureau and chambers of commerce and homebuilders standing alongside politicians who say all the right things about immigration reform but have accomplished none of them. Today, you saw the business community attempt, again, to expand the argument for reform beyond partisanship to economics, to labor and profit, offering up the image of a pie of ever-expanding opportunity and investment. It is an argument designed to win minds and I have not lost hope that it will work because if children behind fences, children who are terrified and traumatized, children who have drowned, do not sway the hardliners who are fine with blaming desperate parents, then the argument of the heart is already lost.