Among our nation’s catalog of outdated immigration laws, the unlawful presence bars on re-entry stand tall among the most harmful. And they arguably serve as the most glaring example of the law of unintended consequences.
These bars on reentry are immigration penalties that are applied when someone has lived in the U.S. without authorization and then departs, preventing them from re-entering for years. Individuals who were undocumented for more than a year are barred from re-entering for 10 years; individuals who had multiple unauthorized entries might be barred permanently.
It is time for Congress to advance legislation to reform legal immigration bars, expand discretion when determining inadmissibility, and to restore access to existing legal immigration avenues for undocumented immigrants and their families in the United States. Voces Unidas is one of the hundreds of organizations advocating at the local, state, and national levels to recently join FWD.us to submit a letter to Congress calling for action on this issue.
Millions of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. qualify for existing legal immigration pathways to secure a permanent status, including being sponsored by a spouse or child who is a U.S. citizen. To receive their green card, they are typically required to leave the U.S. for an interview and re-enter with a legal status. At this point, many undocumented immigrants are surprised to be declared “inadmissible” to the U.S., which can happen for roughly 70 different reasons. These include past unlawful presence, multiple entries without inspection, missed court dates, making errors on paperwork, misrepresentation, and false claims to citizenship.
These inadmissibility determinations prevent immigrants who otherwise have a legal pathway to correct their status from departing and re-entering the U.S. for many years, even a lifetime. While the bars on re-entry were intended to punish unauthorized immigration, they have had the unintended consequence of actually boosting the growth rate of the undocumented population, as undocumented immigrants in fear of being barred from re-entry have increasingly chosen to remain in the U.S. permanently.
Unfortunately, current immigration law allows very little room for discretion or consideration of the full facts of these cases – and the impacts that denials have on American families – when determining if an individual should be allowed to exit and re-enter the country legally. Immigration officers and judges are bound by strict reading of the law, even though so many cases we hear clearly warrant discretion.
The lack of due process in these situations creates a significant hardship for U.S. citizens who must choose between their country and their family. An estimated 700,000 U.S. citizens have experienced family separation as their spouse was refused a visa or was removed from the U.S., according to American Families United, a volunteer-led organization of U.S. citizens with family members who cannot secure lawful status because of eligibility bars.
We have heard countless stories from families who had no idea they were going to be barred before they tried to re-enter. It happened to Jason Rochester, a U.S. citizen, and his wife Cecilia, who was undocumented. Following inaccurate advice from a lawyer to leave the U.S. to return to Mexico, she discovered she was subject to a permanent re-entry bar, separating her indefinitely from her husband and her son.
Many families face long-lasting consequences for innocent mistakes made many years ago, like U.S. citizen Matt Bryan and his wife Minerva. When she was very young and did not speak English, Minerva misunderstood a border agent’s question and mistakenly described herself as a U.S. citizen when crossing the border to attend a party in Texas. That answer has prevented her from receiving a spousal visa and has kept their family outside of the U.S. for more than a decade.
Congress needs to pass legislation to reform the bars on re-entry and to provide government officials with more discretion to review and weigh inadmissibilities in immigration cases. This would allow individuals in the U.S. to access the already-existing legal immigration avenues for which they qualify, and would affirm Congress’ intent that our immigration laws promote family unity and serve the interests of U.S. citizens, including those whose spouses are undocumented.
We know these narrow changes are not sufficient to provide relief and opportunity to all members of our community, and we plan to continue to fight for a full pathway to citizenship for everyone. Reforming the inadmissibility bars would be a significant step toward that goal.