Open Letter to President Obama ... Before You Act on Immigration

Querétaro, Mexico

Dear President Obama,

I’m aware that you are contemplating taking action on immigration and that White House staff is hard at work researching your options. Before anything happens, I wanted to make sure you heard my story, because I’m one of millions of Americans who stand to be affected by any decision you take — but our story is not often heard.

It’s been another hard year for us to be away from the United States. Not any harder than the last eight years that I have been away from my home country. But hard for different reasons.

When my father in New York was ill last December, I was unable to go visit and help him.

In California, where I lived and worked for seven years as a science teacher, two good friends had baby sons. I have not been able to meet them. One of my former students got married but I could only attend the wedding ceremony virtually.

From my home in Central Mexico, I watched one friend after another travel freely between the United States, Canada and Mexico, accompanied by their family members. I found out that a long-time dream I’ve had, to be a research associate of my alma mater, Cornell University, would not be possible. Even though the director of a lab was interested in collaborating, the University does not allow off-campus appointments.

Every time I experience these disappointments, I handle them the way I have in these past eight years of exile in Mexico — I focus on the other positive things happening in my life.

Exile? Yes, I have been living in exile in Mexico since 2006. I don’t like the sound of it, and I can’t say my plight is equal to that of other famous exilees, such as the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, or Malala Yousefi. But the reasons are ultimately the same — because of a political reality in my home country, I am forced to live away from my birthplace, and have been obligated to call another country home.

Sadly, I am not alone. Hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of Americans are either forced abroad, torn apart from their family members, or forced underground in their own country, for the same reason that I am in Mexico: our broken immigration system. Thousands of us live abroad in isolation, subject to abject poverty and violence. Thousands of Americans’ family members — spouses and parents alike, are waiting indefinitely in their home countries to be reunited with their families. Thousands of Americans are living in the shadows in the U.S., as I once did with my husband, from 2001 to 2006.

What could possibly be causing this epidemic of Americans in exile? Why have I been unable to return to the U.S. all these years? The answer lies deep within the technicalities in current immigration law, statutes that were introduced with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), signed into law by former President Bill Clinton in 1996. This law led to the plight I am in — that hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Americans are in — today.

I’ve probably talked with thousands of people about this issue. The vast majority of Americans I speak with are truly confounded by this state of affairs. They ask me, “But why can’t your husband immigrate legally? You’re married!?” So I coauthored the book Amor and Exile: True Stories of Love Across America’s Borders (Cordillera West 2013) with journalist Nathaniel Hoffman, to try and answer that question. But even as we explored many different reasons behind the plights of families like mine, I am still no closer to accepting the status quo. I actually sent you a copy of the book last summer. After publishing, we raised enough money to deliver over 600 copies of our book to legislators and officials on Capitol Hill. And we’ve continued to share our stories with thousands of Americans since then. I hope you or someone in your staff had an opportunity to read it. President Barack Obama Delivering 2013 Inaugural Address. Photo: WH/Lawrence Jackson

Because my husband was subject to a 9c immigration bar before we began dating in 2001, even when we were finally married in 2004, I was unable to confer legal status on him. He had come to the U.S. to work without papers, and had been stopped and sent back. Prior to the 1996 law, my husband would not have received a 10-year immigration “ban” for that. But in the true spirit of the marriage vow for better or for worse, I chose to stay with my partner, and that meant I took on the burden of his immigration status, even when we were told by lawyers that the only way we could obtain legal status for him was to leave the country for 10 years, in the hopes of being able to someday apply for a pardon and then maybe a visa.

This December is our tenth wedding anniversary. We have been in Mexico together for eight years. My husband has not seen my only living grandmother since then. He has not seen my only sister-in-law since we left California in 2006. I have not had income above the U.S. poverty level since then. I am afraid that even though we may make it ten years in Mexico, we will not be able to afford the legal process to try and return to the U.S. someday.

So much furious debate on immigration has yielded so few actual solutions in our Congress since I married my husband. Amor and Exile gives a thorough account of efforts like these and the history leading up to them, as well as other ideas for future relief. Some bills were more openly anti-immigrant than others. But finally, in 2013, we had hope with the comprehensive immigration bills, SB 744 and HR 15, which would grant relief to millions of hard-working undocumented immigrants. The American Families United Act, HR 3431 (now with several bipartisan co-sponsors), would help families like mine. Both bills would provide an opportunity for my husband to apply for a waiver immediately rather than continuing to wait.

But the frequent rise and fall of these bids leaves our families hanging on for dear life on this roller coaster ride on which our very futures depend. We hope and pray for legislative relief every day. Now, the long-term failure of Congress to act may finally compel you, Mr. President, to do something of your own accord. You tried for many years to prove you were “tough on immigration,” and you have received criticism for record-high deportation levels. President Barack Obama Delivering 2013 Inaugural Address. Photo: WH/Lawrence Jackson

I knew you were doing this to try and provide the right conditions for Congress to move a comprehensive reform bill forward. But in the end, all that hard bipartisan work to pass a bill has been taken hostage by the radical Right. So I applaud you, Mr. President, for wanting to do something about the immigration impasse. It’s the right thing to do, especially in a nation of immigrants.

But here’s my fear: when that executive action is revealed, the one you have been deliberating for quite some time now, it will leave families like mine — like hundreds of thousands of others — out in the cold. I’m also afraid that after executive action goes into effect, backlash in Congress could make it even harder to pass bills that would provide relief to families like mine. If we can’t get relief from either executive action or these bills, our hard-working American families, who exemplify cherished American family values so much that we’re willing to risk life and liberty for our kin, will be left to languish in limbo, and left out of the opportunity to “get right” with the laws and live under one roof together today, in America, without fear.

I support the multitude of rationales to include millions of de facto Americans who contribute to our society on a daily basis with humane executive action. My family must be included in this reform as well. My spouse should be able to seek citizenship alongside me, as our daughter has, with all the attendant privileges citizenship confers, without the cruel and unusual punishment of a ten-year waiting period abroad with no guaranteed outcome. I should have the autonomy to decide where I will live with my family. As an American citizen, I should not have to choose between my husband and living in the U.S. My great-grandparents did not have to make that choice. Nor should hundreds of thousands of my counterparts have to choose between their family and their country.

President Obama, restore my faith that you kindled in your inaugural address last year, when you said, “Our journey is not complete, until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.” Be as creative as possible and use the full extent of your powers to take the lead in finding a way to include my my family — my husband — hundreds of thousands of our American families — in that vision, and in any executive action you take on immigration, so we do not have to make the decision between family and country anymore.

Sincerely,

Nicole R. Salgado

California Voting District 18

and the Undersigned (add your name here)

 Nicole Salgado is coauthor of Amor and Exile: True Stories of Love Across America’s Borders (Cordillera West Books, 2013). Her letter was originally posted at http://amorandexile.com/2014/08/president-obama-immigration-executive-action/ on August 7, 2014.

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