Sarah is someone who I have met only once IRL but for whom I have an immense amount of respect and gratitude for. In sharing her story she is inviting us into the complexities of this issue, and I am so glad we can all read along. Be sure to visit her blog, which has a lot of resources and information on how to best love our neighbors who are undocumented (this post is one of my favs)
Married to an Undocumented Immigrant: What I Learned About Our Immigration System
by Sarah Quezada
“Well, I don’t exactly know what it means to ‘not have papers,’ but I hope if this relationship goes anywhere, he gets that worked out.”
These were my exact thoughts when Billy - my boyfriend from Guatemala - told me on our third date he was an undocumented immigrant. I assumed it was a paperwork issue, like neglecting to update your driver’s license when you move to a new state. I figured he just needed to take a half-day off work and go to an embassy or someplace and get it all straightened out.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
In fact, I will rival anyone for “most awkward DTR conversation” when he finally told me the only way he could, in fact, “fix” his papers: marry a U.S. citizen. I was stunned. Is it uncomfortable to talk about the legal ramifications of your potential future marriage when you’ve been dating about two months? Why, yes it is. But Billy felt strongly that he wanted me to know the full situation and its implications as soon as possible. Then, he immediately suggested we break up because he didn’t want me to be concerned about his motives. My, that escalated quickly!
But we didn’t break up. And along the way, I learned a great deal about our U.S. immigration system. Many of our experiences directly contradicted statements I had heard about this topic prior to my dating and marriage. Here are five things I learned:
There’s more than one way to become undocumented
Not every undocumented immigrant crossed the border or was smuggled into the country. Billy did not cross the border. He flew into Los Angeles on a plane with a legal visa to enter the U.S.. So what happened? His visa expired after he’d been here six months, but he remained. I’ve often heard that approximately 40% of undocumented immigrants in this country entered legally, but a recent study puts it as high as 60%.
There are limited ways to gain legal residence
Visas allow temporary visitation, such as to attend university or for tourism. But for legal permanent residence (commonly known as a “green card”), there are essentially three paths. These are sometimes referred to as “blood, sweat, or tears.”
Blood: A U.S. citizen relative applies for you to gain status. Priority is given to husbands and wives (yep) or parents applying for children, but adult children can also apply for parents and siblings for other siblings, though these are lower on the priority list.
Sweat: Companies can sponsor immigrants and eventually support their access to legal permanent residence. This avenue is generally reserved for specialized positions that cannot be filled by current U.S. citizens.
Tears: Asylum seekers are fleeing violence in their home country. This is different from refugee status. Refugees apply from refugee offices in the home country and are offered resettlement support and certain benefits upon arrival. Asylum seekers apply once they arrive to this country and are given no benefits or support. This category is tricky because applicants must prove their life is in danger upon return, which can be very difficult.
The process - even to visit - is not straightforward
When we decided to get married, Billy’s parents applied for tourist visas to attend our wedding. We did everything “the right way.” They completed all the paperwork. They met all the stated requirements. They paid the fees. Still, they were denied, but encouraged to apply again. So they did, and they were denied a second time.
They missed our wedding and the births of our two children. Eight years after we were married, they applied a third time, and my mother-in-law was granted a visa, while my father-in-law was denied once again. Because of the “Blood” avenue mentioned above, it would actually be easier at this point for us to apply for him to become a resident of the U.S. rather than a visitor, except for one thing: He doesn’t want to live here.
Yes, immigrants work legitimate jobs
What industries hire undocumented immigrants? So, so many. When we were dating, Billy worked in telecommunications for two companies whose names are widely recognizable. Of course, he was never on their employee list because big companies often work through contractors and subcontractors, who do the actual hiring. This structure allows parent corporations to claim they know nothing and are responsible for nothing.
These workarounds allow companies in many industries to hire foreign workers. While my knee jerk reaction sometimes is to vilify these businesses, it’s actually just a testament to how our immigration laws do not work for anyone. I’m glad Billy had a (mostly) good job while we were dating. However, I also saw how workers without the protections of legal employment were exploited: not trained to use dangerous machinery, not paid on time (or occasionally, not at all), working obscene daily hours, and rarely given days off or breaks. However, when I traveled to D.C. to advocate for immigration reform, I was surprised to be surrounded by national leaders in fields like technology, agriculture, and food and beverage. All were asking Congress to pass working immigration laws. The current system makes it difficult for both companies and workers to follow the law.
Yes, immigrants pay taxes
I know this because I was married to an undocumented immigrant. I saw his paychecks come home every two weeks, and I saw the line item deductions printed on his pay stub. I also know that, during that season, we mostly received tax refunds each April, but he was not able to file. Interestingly, the IRS actually provides a work around called the ITIN (Individual Taxpayer Identification Number), which is a tax number specifically for those without social security numbers. It is my understanding that some undocumented immigrants use this number to file, knowing that the IRS does not collaborate with immigration enforcement. I am unaware if this practice has changed as enforcement laws have changed, but I know we were too nervous to follow-up a potential refund this way and relied on our lawyer who processed our taxes, along with our immigration adjustment.
I know there’s a lot I haven’t addressed here. And I know there’s much I’m still learning as I spend time with immigrants and as the national landscape on this issue continues to flux and change. I am doing my best to continue learning and to ask how I can love my neighbors as a Christ follower and one committed to advocating on behalf of the marginalized. If you’d like to read more of my husband’s and my story, you can do so here.
Sarah Quezada is a writer and nonprofit professional living in a bicultural household in Atlanta with her husband and two kids. She has a master’s in sociology and writes regularly about social justice, family, and living across cultures on her blog, A Life with Subtitles. You can find her on Twitter and Facebook.
Here are five posts you might want to consider reading by Sarah: