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Deployed And Deported -- Immigration law hurts military families

The Chicago Reporter, News Report, Beth Wang Posted: Jan 11, 2009

Editor's Note: Yolanda Guevara in the Army Reserve worries that while she is away in Iraq or Afghanistan, her husband could be deported. This report was produced by The Justice and Journalism Fellowship Program for Ethnic Media, supported by the McCormick Foundation at the USC Annenberg Institute for Justice and Journalism.

Yolanda Guevara knows she could be called up at any moment.

Guevara is a rear detachment commander for her Army Reserve unit, which has already been deployed to Kuwait. Its a matter of time before she would have to leave her husband and three children in North Carolina to join her unit. Even now, she is sent away from home for anywhere from three days to two weeks to various places in the countrya job she says would be difficult to manage without the support of her husband.

He works part time but whenever I have to go out hes there for me, Yolanda says. I dont think I could be in the military without him.

For many military families, the thought of being deployed would be enough to deal with, but Guevara also faces the possibility that her husband, Juan, will be deported back to El Salvador in a few months.

Juan crossed the border into Arizona without inspection in 2000. A year later, severe earthquakes hit El Salvador, and he was able to apply for Temporary Protected Status that gives him permission to live and work in the U.S. Every year, the two fill out forms to renew this status.

In 2007, after saving up enough money, they decided to apply for Juans permanent residency. But at the immigration appointment late last year, they were told he is ineligible for citizenship because he crossed illegally.

When Guevara explained her situation to the immigration officer, the response was less than helpful. I told him, My unit is going to be deployed, so Im afraid what if Im gone and Im stationed over in Iraq or Kuwait, and my husbands [status] expires? she says. Whats going to happen to my kids?

She says the officer responded, You worry about that when that happens. Advocates say many military families are in the same boat. Though official figures arent collected, Lt. Col. Margaret Stock, an immigration attorney who helped establish the American Immigration Lawyers Associations Military Assistance Program, says she gets at least one phone call a day from military personnel with immigration troubles.

Stock says it is a problem that not only interferes with the lives of soldiers and their families, but ultimately also hampers military readiness. You would not believe the amount of resources that are being spent right now trying to deal with these problems, says Stock, whose program provides military families with pro bono assistance. We just have soldiers who are in tearssoldiers and sailors who just cant deal with their family situation being unsettled.

Most problems stem from the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which established a strict set of changes in immigration laws, including a rule that does not provide waivers for any offensessuch as crossing the border illegallyfor immigrants who are seeking permanent residence or other legal status.

Stock says the 96 law is responsible for a large chunk of undocumented immigrants that the country has today. In testifying before Congress earlier this year, she referred to the parole policy for undocumented Cubans and said putting a similar policy in place for the military families could provide a solution.

In May, U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren introduced a bill, H.R. 6020, that would provide such reliefby allowing for discretion that currently lacks in immigration law in handling noncitizen military families members.

But Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think-tank that advocates for controlled immigration, says making exceptions for the noncitizen spouses of soldiers is like giving a criminal a get-out-of-jail-free card. With 12 million undocumented immigrants, the country cant afford to look at each case and keep making exceptions.

If youre saying the law needs to have wiggle room, I agree, he says. But our immigration law is nothing but wiggle room. The immigration lawyers have a motto: It aint over til the alien wins.

Stock says that people who tend to make that argument never actually intend to let immigrants through. The irony of the whole immigration debate is that [they] dont want anything to change, she says.

Deborah Notkin, an immigration lawyer in New York and member of the American Immigration Lawyers Associations board of governors, says the country will always have a high number of immigrants, but that shouldnt be a reason why these families arent helped.

We dont want to be a country that turns its back on human compassion, she says. Its not okay to take a woman whos been here for 20 years and has four children and say we have to turn our back on them because we have too many here already.

Rather than sit back and wait to see what would happen, Guevara decided to look for help. She discussed the issue with her commander who then talked to her battalion commander. They decided to put her in charge of her unit from a station in the U.S. After two months of pushing for help, a battalion lawyer referred her to Stocks program. Shes now working with a lawyer to find a way to reverse the deportation process.

Unless the case succeeds, the familys only hope is for the protected status for El Salvadorians to be extended before it expires in March. If its extended, Juan would be able to reapply for his stay. If its not, he faces his deportation proceeding. The deportation, Guevara says, would mean shed have to quit the military and consider moving with her family to either El Salvador or Mexico. I dont really want to leave the military because Ive only been with it for seven years, she says. I want to stay and get a career in it, but my family comes first. So its kind of hard for me, but I will have to leave. Theres no other way.

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