On November 20, 2014, President Obama gave a historic speech on immigration. Despite how profoundly personal this issue is to me, I didn’t watch. For the past decade, I have deliberately avoided any mention of immigration reform—hearing or reading about it causes my chest to tighten and my stomach to churn.
The topic inevitably brings me back to a window in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico in 2004. The five minutes I spent there damaged my life irrevocably. With the swipe of a pen, a blank-faced clerk denied my husband’s application for a marriage visa and shattered our family.
We had met four years earlier, working as food servers at a Mexican restaurant in a small town in Southern California. We became fast friends, then fell in love, spending hours talking after the restaurant closed and until the sun came up. He told me about how his mother had died when he was young, and his father descended into depression and debilitating alcoholism. He and his nine brothers and sisters had to fend for themselves. He arrived in the U.S. at 17, finished high school, and got three jobs to support his younger siblings in Mexico. And because he had entered the country illegally, he did all this without documents.
We got married in 2002, then moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, so I could earn a master’s degree in public policy at Harvard University. We had a beautiful, irrepressible baby boy. On the weekends, we’d go to the park and I would watch my husband do cartwheels and make faces for our giggling baby. At night, we would pile into the cheap black futon in our one-bedroom apartment. We were happy and grateful.
But we knew we couldn’t build a stable life for our son without regularizing my husband’s immigration status. So we applied for a marriage visa and, about one year later, were relieved to get the letter approving us for a visa and setting an appointment at the American Consulate in Ciudad Juarez on April 17, 2004. We had to leave the country for our appointment because anyone applying for a visa at that time had to have legal standing to receive an appointment inside the U.S. Since my husband did not have legal documents to be here in the United States, he was required to accept an appointment in Mexico. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) knew he had entered illegally, and an official representative informed me that because of his illegal presence, there would likely be a fine and a waiting period of a few months before he would be issued his visa.
So we flew to California, left our son with family, and hopped a bus to Ciudad Juarez. The morning of our appointment we found the waiting room of the American Consulate filled with couples like us. I had a thick packet of paperwork, including letters attesting to my husband’s good character from his high school teacher, city councilman, and the local police department. He had done his physical evaluation. We were as ready as we could be.
The clerk called us to the window. My husband raised his right hand and promised to tell the truth. She never looked at our documents. She only asked one question: Have you ever crossed illegally besides your initial entrance? Yes, he answered. He had returned to visit his ailing grandmother before she passed away. The clerk then shoved a piece of paper at us and informed us that my husband was barred from entering the United States for life. He was not coming home with me and never would. We were in utter shock. Can we appeal? No. In 10 years you can request a waiver, but it isn’t something many people get. It has to be special circumstances, like you have a child who is dying. She called the next couple.
When I returned to Cambridge without my family, my expectant friends were bewildered. This man was my husband, he had no criminal record, and we had an American child! Didn’t that mean he could legalize? The answer was no.
There had been no way I could care for a toddler alone while studying and working two jobs, so I left my son in Mexico, too. I came back to an empty crib and an empty bed. My husband did not come home late after his shift at a restaurant and crawl into bed, pulling me to his warm chest. My son did not cry out for chocolate when we walked past our corner bakery. I felt as though my limbs had been torn from my body. My family was gone.
I was forced to relive my trauma every time I told my story to anyone I thought could help me. I managed to find a top immigration lawyer who agreed to see me pro bono. He delivered the bad news. The permanent bar was because of the second illegal crossing. There was absolutely nothing he could do.
There is a legal principle called proportionality, which says the punishment should fit the crime. My husband had not broken any criminal laws. By visiting his grandmother, he had violated immigration regulations. For that, he was given a life sentence with no parole.
My family became collateral damage in a war against immigrants. My marriage seemed worthless in the eyes of the law—a law that left my innocent son with parents broken apart against their will. It was cruel. Draconian.
Our justice system is weighted heavily toward keeping families together. Children are sent back to abusive homes on a regular basis on the principle of the sanctity of family. But this was not the case with my family. In my son’s adoring eyes, his father is a superhero. Yet for over a decade now, my government has thrown up roadblock after roadblock to keep them apart.
I know that there are thousands of children like my son all over the country who have lost a loving parent as a result of our immigration laws. The damage—trauma, depression, anxiety—is permanent. Such losses poison their childhoods and affect them into adulthood.
Months later, I finally read President Obama’s speech on immigration. His executive order prevents people from being deported if they have American children. It’s designed to protect kids like my son until Congress passes something more permanent. But a federal judge in Texas has put the executive order on hold; an appeals court heard oral arguments on April 17 and will rule soon, but the case may eventually go to the Supreme Court. In the meantime I think of these children, and my son, as I pray for a ruling that will keep other families from suffering as we have.
Rebekah Rodriguez-Lynn studied politics at UCLA and public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She lives in Southern California with her son and her chihuahua.
She wrote this for Thinking L.A., a partnership of UCLA and Zócalo Public Square.