Immigration: Love across the lines

'Amor & Exile' charts stories of binational relationships through immigration reform, same-sex marriage

Margarito Resendiz, Nicole Salgado and their daughter in Mexico
Courtesy photo

If and when immigration overhaul is passed, and Nicole Salgado can bring her husband home with her from Mexico, the first thing they’ll do is visit her now 91-year-old grandmother in Syracuse, N.Y. Salgado chokes up as she talks about how her grandmother hasn’t seen her husband since 2004, before they got married. For the last six years, all Salgado’s visits to her family have been solo, or in the company of her 2-year-old daughter. She and her husband, Margarito Resendiz, have been living in voluntary exile in Querétaro, Mexico, and he’s banned from re-entering the United States after staying too long on an entry with inspection permit.

Resendiz was upfront about the fact that he was a migrant when they met in California, Salgado says. When the two got engaged, they looked at options for him to get a green card through her sponsorship as his spouse, but an act that allowed immigrants to adjust their status while in the United States had expired about a year before. They had few options: stay in the country and wait for him to be discovered and deported, or leave voluntarily, triggering a permanent bar for Resendiz that they could appeal after 10 years out of the country.

“I was nervous for the longest time that he might get a tail light out and get pulled over and that would be that. Next thing I’d know, I’d be flying to meet my husband in Mexico,” Salgado says. “We just couldn’t live like that, we couldn’t live with that feeling of fear and risk — no one should have to, right? So I decided that making the sacrifice to uproot my life and move to Mexico would be a wiser choice.”

They left in 2006, shortly after Salgado finished her master’s degree at San Jose State University in California.

“The thing that’s really important to remember is that we are trying to do the right thing, and we’re trying to get into good standing with the law,” Salgado says. Coming over without the correct papers was an error, she says, “But the thing that is important for people to keep in mind is, in this day and age, there really isn’t a line for a lot of people like our partners to get in. There really isn’t an opportunity of a legal pathway from the get go, and and that’s part of what generates this problem in the first place.”

Salgado’s story forms half of Amor and Exile: True Stories of Love Across America’s Borders. In the other half, journalist Nathaniel Hoffman reports on the stories of other binational couples and the legislation and policies that keep them living underground or out of the country.

Hoffman started covering families split by immigration laws while working as a reporter at the Contra Costa Times in California. In his first story, an American-born woman’s husband had gone home to Mexico to visit his dying mother and was turned back at the border when he tried to come home to his wife and children.

“I did this story about how even if your spouse is an American citizen you’re not guaranteed access to this country, and I wasn’t satisfied with it,” he says. “After the story came out, I still had questions.”

Those questions followed him as he moved to Idaho, and he eventually left his position as news editor at the Boise Weekly to write Amor & Exile.

About the time he was covering that first story, Salgado and Resendiz were meeting (Salgado and Hoffman met when both were at Cornell University).

“It just kind of dawned on me that there must be other people meeting undocumented immigrants and realizing that it doesn’t work the way they thought it did,” Hoffman says.

He went on to find dozens of couples in similar situations. A professor at Boise State University has analyzed the numbers and estimated that half a million U.S. citizens have an undocumented spouse.

The common misconception is that immigrants who marry American nationals can be sponsored for a green card, but a loophole allowing illegal immigrants to use that sponsorship expired in September 2001 — a hearing scheduled for Sept. 11, 2001, was canceled and never revisited.

“So there’s been a growing number of couples in this situation since 2001,” Hoffman says. “We don’t really think of immigration reform as impacting American citizens, but in this case there are a lot of Americans who have spouses who need some kind of reform.”

While the Senate was deliberating on the recently passed package on immigration reform, Hoffman and Salgado were hand-delivering copies of Amor & Exile to their offices. They’d run a crowdfunding campaign that received full funding to deliver books to each member of Congress. Some offices turned them away, and they ran short on time, but were able to drop books at 125 congressional offices. They also sent copies to the Supreme Court justices, the President, Vice President and Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“After being sort of politically disempowered for this many years, I had some feelings of residual nervousness about going to my own country’s capital,” Salgado says. “You would think you would feel all righteous and empowered to go to your own country’s capital.”

If the bill approved by the Senate and waiting on deliberation in the House passes, it could help several million people, including some of the couples mentioned in his book, Hoffman says. Obtaining a waiver for a foreign national with a permanent ban requires demonstrating “extreme hardship” currently, and that will be loosened to demonstrating a “hardship” and applications will be taken from immigrants still in the country and will take children into account. The current system doesn’t consider American citizen children.

Hoffman and Salgado’s book

But the approach is a bit punitive — Salgado says she was disappointed to see the militarization that was attached to the bill, and Hoffman contends that the immigration system needs to focus on family values at least as much as it weighs national security and business interests. After all, except the 1.7 percent of the U.S. population that’s American Indian, we’re all just generations from being immigrants ourselves.

“It just kind of seems like a no-brainer to me — how did all of our ancestors get here without having been permanently barred from the country?” Salgado says. At best, immigration reform will take a couple years off the time until Salgado can take her husband to meet her family and friends.

“The bill that the Senate and the House is now considering kind of reframes our immigration system more along the lines of employment, the need for workers, and my contention in the book is, immigration has always been about, as much if not more, relationships. People go places because they have relationships with those places,” Hoffman says. That’s proven particularly true with Mexico, he says, where generations of a family will come to work in the same place in the United States at places where family or friends have contacts.

There are also some 30,000 same-sex couples that are binational in the United States. They had no access to immigration benefits and were unable to sponsor a partner for a green card until the Defense of Marriage Act was overturned in June.

“The day they overturned DOMA, immigration started processing same sex green card applications,” Hoffman says. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office had essentially been stacking up those applications for a year while waiting for the Obama administration to make a call on the act and has now announced plans to expedite them.

The decision on the Defense of Marriage Act is a signal, and a potential influence, of the United States opening up its policies to accept more people.

“I think the long term prospect in our country is toward justice for immigrants,” he says. “But I don’t think it’s going to be immediate. I think it’s going to take some time, sort of politically and philosophically, for the United States to figure out how to incorporate mixed status families.”

For now, American citizens who partner with foreign nationals find themselves pulled semi-underground through the situation or living in exile.

“I just can’t think of something that could turn your life more upside down — other than, for example, a terminal illness in a family,” Salgado says. “It just completely takes away all of the empowerment that you’ve had as a citizen and you’re basically at the behest of a foreign country. … Putting an American citizen through that is actually kind of cruel.”

A couple from Denver Hoffman profiles decided not to go into exile. The husband continues to work as a contractor on jobs found through referrals while his wife puts all the banking and paperwork in her name. They can road trip around the states, but he cannot go home to Mexico to visit his family. If he’s found out — and every new business contact is another chance he’ll be caught — he’ll be sent home with a mandatory ban to be appealed in a decade. For now, they wait for immigration laws to change. Small inconveniences stack up in things like cashing checks, or getting a driver’s license.

“On top of all this they have to learn to embrace their partner’s culture, learn Spanish, learn foods they share,” Hoffman ways. “There’s all kinds of beyond the legal, there’s social issues also. They’re difficult, challenging, but really cool, too, and increasingly common.”

“It’s such a long period of time out of my comfort zone and my culture,” says Salgado, who now holds dual citizenship for the U.S. and Mexico. As they were leaving in 2006, she recalls joking that maybe after 10 years in Mexico she wouldn’t need to come back to the U.S. Now, she’s wondering if that may be true. Some of her friends in Mexico in a similar situation say they’re completely integrated and may not go back.

“In my case, we’re eking out a life that’s pretty close to comfortable,” Salgado says. But despite her Ivy League education, she hasn’t made a salary that’s above the U.S. poverty line in more than 10 years. She’s taught English, written a cookbook about regional cuisine and is just starting a temporary position in the environmental department with Peace Corps Mexico — the closest she’s come to using her education as a biologist.

“I think that what we want to do is just to be able to establish our autonomy of choice,” Salgado says. “We want to obtain the opportunity for us to come and go as we please.”

Members of her family and some of her friends from high school have never met her husband, she says.

“For me it definitely has been hard, planning my life,” Salgado says. “Part of me has always wondered, how many roots do I put down here if they’re just going to get uprooted again?” For ideas to change, and reform to come, she suggests a little critical thinking, looking around at neighbors and thinking about family history and the country’s legacy. After all, she says, if the laws governing immigration now were in place decades ago, she wouldn’t be an American either.

“Everybody knows somebody in this situation and they may not realize it,” Hoffman says. “We all know somebody who’s undocumented and think that they’re fine, but then we may have different views about the border or immigration reform. Once you realize that you know somebody in this situation, it changes.”

Amor & Exile: True Stories of Love Across America’s Borders is available in print and Kindle editions on the website as well as through Amazon.