I Married an Illegal Immigrant: A First-Hand Account of How Screwed Up This Country's Rules for Foreigners Are

Human Rights

Immigration is an issue that always spurs heated debates. There are some decent arguments floating around, some kooky ones and one that reveals that the person making it is utterly clueless about the issue. That argument, in a nutshell, is that the system's fine.

Sure, there are around 11 million people in this country illegally; sure, many toil away in horrific conditions without any legal protections; yes, we detain suspected illegal immigrants (children included) -- meaning some number of legal immigrants and citizens as well -- in obscene conditions that human rights groups say violate international norms and, yes, those citizens who employ undocumented workers do so with something very close to impunity.

But the system's not broken, according to these folks. That's just a liberal talking point bandied about by those with a perverse desire to actually fix it. (This is closely related to the even more ridiculous assertion that the government doesn't do much to enforce the immigration laws. It does -- much more than enough, in fact, given the nature of the offense in question.)

Now, there is a significant group of people who would never, ever suggest that our immigration system is anything less than dysfunctional. That group consists of anyone who has ever had any opportunity to interact with it in any way whatsoever.

Although I am a U.S. citizen -- belonging to a fourth-generation immigrant family -- I count myself among that group. What I learned through the experience is that the difference between a "legal" and "illegal" immigrant often comes down to whether one can afford a decent, well-connected lawyer.

Here's my tale:

When I was very young, I fell in love with a woman. She had the misfortune of being born in another country, but we didn't let that stand in our way, and eventually we married. (And, for the record, it was by no means a sham marriage -- we had lived together for three years before tying the knot.)

We had lived in Germany for a while -- where my application for permanent residency was processed with typical Teutonic efficiency. Then we moved to New York and ran into the U.S. immigration system, a black hole of an agency staffed by incompetent, gray-faced bureaucrats whose performances would have shamed the DMV.

Their sole joy in life seemed to come from making applicants' lives miserable, but we soldiered on, traipsing down to lower Manhattan to file endless pieces of paper and attend about four interviews.

Eventually, my (now ex-) wife was granted a temporary permit to work while her application was being processed. She was, officially, a "legal" immigrant, one of the ones that Lou Dobbs supposedly loves.

Then we made a huge error, at least as it relates to the immigration system: We moved to Florida (I know, how rude of us?).

We paid a fee to have our file transferred and were assured that the application process would continue smoothly in the sure hands of the Miami field office (this was back when CIS was INS, and not part of Homeland Security).

Only the file never arrived. It was transferred, but to Maine. And then somewhere else (I forget where -- I think it landed somewhere in the Pacific Northwest).

Months passed. we were repeatedly told that the file was being tracked and would appear in the Sunshine State any day now. The authorities renewed my sweetie's 'temporary' authorization, and she remained, thankfully, "legal."

Until the day cruise.

If you've ever been to Florida, you've probably seen a lot of ads for these tacky junkets. They jam a bunch of pasty, brightly clothed tourists into a ship -- most of which are packed with E. coli bacteria -- and for 50 bucks they stuff them with cheap booze and fattening foods, toodle around the Atlantic for 10 hours, relieve them of a few more bucks in the casino and then back to port. We got one of these cruises as a gift.

Now, we'd been told that while the application was pending, my wife couldn't leave the country. And we weren't sure whether a day cruise constituted leaving the country or not. So we brought all our paperwork to an INS agent in the cruise terminal and asked him point-blank whether we could take the trip.

Not a problem, he assured us, as long as we didn't disembark in another country, it wouldn't be considered an overseas trip. We thanked him, got on board, and proceeded to get as sick as the other 1,000 or so suckers who took that day's cruise.

We were slightly concerned when we were asked to fill out entry cards before arriving back in port, and for good reason. A few weeks later, in an apparently aberrant act of efficiency, INS sent us a letter informing us that because we had left the country, our application (which they had not actually found yet) was rejected.

They invited us to appeal, which we tried to do. But we couldn't actually appeal, they told us, until the application had been found and transferred to Miami. In the meantime, my spouse's temporary work permit had been withdrawn.

I was then married to an illegal alien.

And let me state the obvious: that illegal alien had done nothing wrong, had no criminal record, had entered through an inspection point with a valid visa and had followed all the rules. The system, which opponents of reform claim is fine, had screwed us royally.

(And before anyone suggests that this experience was unusual, a study by the Public Policy Institute of California found that fewer than 40 percent of legal permanent residents had always had their paperwork in order; the rest had been "illegal" at an earlier point in time. In California, more than half of all legal permanent residents were "illegals" at one point in time.

Immigration restrictionists make a great effort to distinguish between lawful and unlawful immigrants -- they must, because unlike their counterparts in other wealthy countries, they have to deal with the fact that the U.S. is a "nation of immigrants" -- but the difference between legal and illegal is often a matter of simple chronology rather than a reflection of the character of the person in question.)

Again, these kinds of stories are ubiquitous among people who have tried to deal with the system, and at some point, we ended up swapping INS horror stories with another couple which, like us, consisted of a U.S. citizen and his foreign-born spouse. And they told us something that in hindsight seems incredibly obvious. They advised us that, based on their own experience, it's pretty much impossible to deal with immigration authorities without a good, well-connected attorney.

It just so happened that they had one to recommend. So, after about a year of trying to navigate the system on our own, we sat down with their guy -- a smarmy former INS official in a shiny suit. And we wrote him a retainer check for $2,000 (which I had to borrow from my father). And he said he'd see what he could do.

And ... presto! It was like magic. Our lawyer mentioned our case to the regional INS director over a game of golf one Saturday, the guy said he'd look into it, and suddenly ... the system functioned. They found our file. It appeared in the Miami office. We appealed the decision they'd made after the day cruise, and it was indeed overturned.

Suddenly, just like that, I was married to a legal permanent resident again, the kind of person Dobbs says he embraces with open arms. She was the same human being -- with the same productivity, the same attitude toward the rule of law and, yes, the same faults -- only she had valid papers, and we were two grand poorer.

Of course, not every immigrant working in the U.S. has two grand to spare for a shyster lawyer.

This story highlights the great irony of the immigration debate. With an average wait time of one to three years for status adjustment -- and some waiting for up to 20 years -- and with laws that make the it virtually imposible for the majority of lower-income, less-educated migrant workers to enter the country at all -- the reality is that those who want to reform the system so that it functions as it should are the true opponents of illegal immigration. And the politicians and pundits who oppose those reforms -- people who are content to keep those 11 million or so people living in the shadows of our society -- are the real "pro-illegals."

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