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. It’s 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 country–”a 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 –¦ he’s there for me,” Yolanda says. “I don’t 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 Juan’s 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 I’m afraid–” what if I’m gone and I’m stationed over in Iraq or Kuwait, and my husband’s [status] expires?'” she says. “What’s 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 aren’t collected, Lt. Col. Margaret Stock, an immigration attorney who helped establish the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s 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 tears–”soldiers and sailors who just can’t 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 offenses–”such as crossing the border illegally–”for 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 relief–”by 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 can’t afford to look at each case and keep making exceptions.
“If you’re 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 ain’t 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] don’t want anything to change,” she says.
Deborah Notkin, an immigration lawyer in New York and member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s board of governors, says the country will always have a high number of immigrants, but that shouldn’t be a reason why these families aren’t helped.
“We don’t want to be a country that turns its back on human compassion,” she says. “It’s not okay to take a woman who’s 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 Stock’s program. She’s now working with a lawyer to find a way to reverse the deportation process.
Unless the case succeeds, the family’s only hope is for the protected status for El Salvadorians to be extended before it expires in March. If it’s extended, Juan would be able to reapply for his stay. If it’s not, he faces his deportation proceeding. The deportation, Guevara says, would mean she’d have to quit the military and consider moving with her family to either El Salvador or Mexico. “I don’t really want to leave the military because I’ve 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 it’s kind of hard for me, but I will have to leave. There’s no other way.”