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Immigration law can tear apart 'mixed' families

A week-long sweep by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement resulted in the arrest of 58 in illegal aliens with prior criminal convictions.

There are eight to 10 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, all of whom are central to the heated immigration debate in Washington D.C. 

More specifically, there are undocumented immigrants who are part of a mixed family - in which one family member is undocumented while the rest of the family are American citizens. 

"It's a horrible tragedy and a national shame, but looking on the bright side, [mixed families] have reframed the debates and things are finally looking like something might happen on immigration reform in Washington," said David Koelsch.

Koelsch is an immigration lawyer and a professor at the University of Detroit Mercy Law School.

"You can talk about the eight to 11 million [undocumented immigrants], but all of those people have loved ones and employers...it has a much broader effect in our society and economy beyond just those people," he said.

These families are the center of a very complex facet of immigration reform. 

Cindy Garcia is a mother in a mixed family, a Detroit auto worker, and an American citizen.

When Jorge, Cindy's husband, was ten years-old, his parents brought him to the United States from Mexico. Here, he attended elementary, middle, and high school. In 2002, he married Cindy. And in 2004, they decided to fix his status.

"Everything was going well, but in 2008, he was told, 'no, he would have to go back to his country,'" said Garcia. "He was told he was here illegally and that he committed a crime."

Garcia said they spent $50,000 on a lawyer and lost their home in the process. 

So, why was it so hard for Jorge to become a citizen?

In 2002, immigration law changed, but Cindy and Jorge hadn't paid attention to it at the time.

Today, they have to start all over again. They're filing a new form, but because Jorge is still in the United States, they're not able to complete the second part of the form, and they're not sure if it will work. 

"The fact that an immigration lawyer was part of their problem is really disheartening," Koelsch said.

"Cindy's story really shows that in a system that's so convoluted and so confusing, that having the right or wrong lawyer can make all the difference," he said. "Cindy and her husband are smart people but they can't figure this thing out by themselves. It's like alchemy. It's like spells...having a sharp lawyer who knows what they're doing can make all the difference in the world."

 Due to the amount of publicity they had to put on the case, Cindy said her husband chose to quit his previous job before he was fired. Cindy and her husband have been fighting for his citizenship for almost ten years. As of last year, Jorge has been able to work with an employer who understands his situation.

"We're still struggling, still trying to do what we can and push the movement forward," she said. "I'm not the only person who is facing [this situation]. I get phone calls and I try to encourage people, 'don't give up the fight, you're here in the United States. Your children are here in the U.S., and I'm here for you."

Though Cindy offers as much support as she can to others, her own family struggles.

Her three children worry about their father and where he is. Her youngest son wakes up at night and asks where his dad is. At school he worries about his father too, which takes a toll on his education.  

When you look at the political side of the immigration debate, politicians often forget that families like Cindy's exist.

"My hopes are that they'll not forget about people like Cindy and Jorge in the push for a bipartisan bill." Koelsch said. "I'm all for bipartisanship, but...don't be afraid to tackle the tough issues. There are real people suffering."

The chances of something productive happening are good, according to Koelsch. 

"There's two components [of immigration reform]," Koelsch said. "There's the family side, but there's also the business side of it. The employment side of immigration is a mess. We're trying to run a 21st century economy with a 19th century immigration system, so companies like Microsoft, GM, and the Big Three auto suppliers are all pushing for immigration reform because they need it to run their business."

If some sort of bill is passed, Koelsch hopes that lawmakers recognize the contributions of undocumented immigrants.

"These are hardworking people and we all benefit from them," he said. "The fact that they made the choice to come here  - whether that was the right or the wrong choice - they've been in this country. They've been contributing and haven't been drawing on the social services programs to the same extent that U.S. citizens do."

But for families who have been fighting for citizenship for years, any sort of immigration bill wouldn't be an immediate guarantee. 

According to Koelsch, there would still be an eight to ten year wait for a Green Card. 

"People like Jorge would go to the back of the line, behind people who have already applied for a Green Card," she said.

The good part about any sort of law would be that Jorge would get a work permit and would be able to stay in the United States. 

For Cindy, a Green Card isn't enough.

She and her husband have been fighting for so long that she wants the real thing - not only for her family, but for the countless others who have experienced the same struggle.

"For kids who were brought here as infants, they know no country but the United States, so [citizenship]  is what they want," she said. "They wake up every day and go to school and they pledge allegiance to the American flag...they don't know Mexico, they know the U.S."

Cindy hopes that politicians realize that whatever is passed will affect more than just immigrants, it will affect the families and children who are American citizens. 

"One day, those children are going to be leading our country, so what kind of example are we leading for them?"

- Lucy Perkins, Michigan Radio Newsroom

Listen to the audio for this story by clicking the link above. 

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