“Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/ The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me/ I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
The words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty were meant to serve as a tangible meaning of hope to immigrant communities seeking greater opportunities in America. What it has become is an empty promise in a socio-political landscape whose economy benefits from the oppression and exploitation of the immigrant communities it refuses to recognize as legal citizens.
The fear instilled in undocumented or mixed status families does not sleep; it is the ever-present ghost, haunting communities who have lived here for generations as Americans.
As mighty as the Statue stands, so do families seeking legal citizenship. One family is Alysa Maria Medina’s, an American citizen and Community Organizer for the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC), whose husband has been undocumented for 21 years.
“His father passed away when he was 8 years old and he has brothers and sisters — 8 children in his family. He came here because he knew there weren’t many opportunities in Mexico,” she said. In an effort to provide economic security to his family, her husband worked in an apple orchard in California before moving to North Carolina, where he could find work in construction. He followed the company after they relocated to Tennessee and met Alysa 10 years ago.
“It’s really a beautiful story,” she says, describing how they met.
After Alysa and her husband were married, they sought to change his legal status. Then, Alysa’s husband had sole custody of two children from his previous marriage and would risk losing it if he filed for citizenship at that time, due to laws that require undocumented immigrants to return to their home country to complete the paperwork. Further, a 3 to 10 year ban is imposed leaving them unable to return to the United States and separated from their families for up to a decade. If the undocumented family member is caught returning to the United States they are permanently deported and will never be eligible for citizenship.
“It was not a good way to go,” Alysa recalls. “The lawyers told us, ‘just wait for immigration reform,’ or ‘you’ll lose custody of those children. We’ve been in limbo for a very long time.”
Last year, President Obama expanded hardship waivers to undocumented immigrants if they had a family member living in the United States and could prove their family would endure “hardship” if separated. Alysa explained her husband most likely does not qualify because it’s generally extended to families in which one person in emotional, physical or mental distress needs the support of the undocumented person. Therefore, their only options are to be separated by the imposed ban or for her husband to remain undocumented.
Alysa eventually adopted her husband’s two children and they went on to have two more children together. This prevents him from losing custody of his children but not the risk for being barred from the United States for up to 10 years.
As she tearfully lists the milestones her husband would miss if he were to return to Mexico to complete his citizenship paperwork — college, graduations and prom — she says, “We have to choose between being separated for 10 years or if we want to keep the family together and united,” Alysa said.
Recently, Alysa and her 7 year-old son Chavin went to a Town Hall Meeting hosted by Representative Diane Black (R-Tenn.). Chavin signed up to ask Rep. Black a question about immigration reform and was denied.
“She passed over all the questions about immigration reform,” says Alysa. She recalls asking if Chavin could ask his question and having security guards walk over to her. “I’m really disappointed and it makes me sad,” she laments.
Chavin’s bravery in the face of injustice is something to admire and at 7 years old, his cognizance of a complex issue is evident of how deeply families are wounded by the broken immigration system.
Of his experience with Rep. Black, Chavin says, “When my dad goes to work I’m afraid he won’t come back because he doesn’t have his papers. I love him very much and I wanted to tell her to pass immigration reform. And to keep my family together. She didn’t even let me ask.”
The future of undocumented and mixed status families is in the hands of Congress. While efforts such as the TIRRC and We Belong Together are making great strides in garnering support for comprehensive immigration reform that keeps families together, they remain at the mercy of far-reaching anti-immigration hostility.
Alysa is an optimistic realist when she speaks about her family’s future.
“It’s hard to fight off anti-immigrant state legislation. We need comprehensive federal immigration reform,” she says. “America was founded on immigrants and I hope we can get back to our principles and open our arms again to the immigrants that are here already. We must find a way to make this system work for everybody.”