Conflict & Justice

Deportees Wives Club

By Britta Conroy-Randall

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As the number of undocumented immigrants deported under the Obama Administration tops the one million mark, a growing number of American-born women married to deported men are sharing their experience through blogs. Bonding with each other online, the wives detail their daily struggles — from enduring long separations to dealing with complicated legal processes.

Every morning Beth Brotherton turns on her computer and logs into her blog, Diary of an Immigrants Wife. Beth met her husband in Utica, NY in 2005 and says everything about their story is pretty standard.

Except it's not.

Beth's husband, Khalid Nethagani, is a Muslim from India. He's currently under a deportation mandate from the US Dept. of Homeland Security for overstaying his visa.

"Basically what that has meant is that he can be torn away from me at any time, officials can come even at his workplace, or at home if they want to, handcuff him and take him away," Brotherton said.

Khalid's family was living in Kuwait when he first came to the US to study engineering in the late 1980's. When the first Gulf War started, his dad told him not to come back. Khalid overstayed his original student visa, and he's been more or less hiding out ever since.

Beth started a blog to chronicle her experiences as the wife of a long term undocumented immigrant. To her surprise, she discovered a growing online community of women in a similar situation.

"It was just so hard going through this process and being alone and knowing that no one in your inner circle knows what it's like," Brotherton said. "But when finally this blogging community started I started to connect with other people who could understand. And that meant everything, really."

One of the people Beth connected with was Giselle Stern Hernández. When Hernández met her husband Roberto in 1999, they assumed marriage would negate his undocumented status. But when they showed up to file for his residency, they realized they were wrong.

"We went to the offices of the Chicago Immigration and Naturalization Services," Hernández said. "We filled out some paperwork and half an hour later I was looking at him from behind bulletproof glass."

Roberto was immediately deported to Mexico and banned from the US for 20 years.

Muzaffar Chishti, from the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute says that in cases like these, it doesn't matter if you're married to an American citizen — if you're undocumented, you're considered a criminal; and you don't get a greencard.

"We changed our immigration laws in 1996, essentially enacting a scorched earth policy with respect to those people who are here unauthorized," Chishti said. "And we made this law retroactive so it applied to people who had no knowledge that this was going to affect them. And we removed the discretion from judges to take into account other factors in their lives or to waive these things."

Now Giselle travels between her husband in Mexico and Northern California where there's more work for her.

Another blogger, Emily Cruz, spent years living in the shadows in suburban Phoenix fearing that her undocumented husband Raymundo would be discovered. There were times when anti immigrant sentiment in Arizona made them afraid to even go to the movies. Then the Arizona State Legislature passed a controversial bill.

Senate Bill 1070 was the strictest anti-illegal immigration measure in recent US history. Among other things it cracked down on those sheltering unauthorized immigrants. The most controversial parts of the bill have since been blocked by an Appeals Court, but two days after the law was to go into effect Emily and her husband moved from Arizona to Juarez, Mexico

"I'm so happy because in Juarez of all places, I'm not afraid to go to the movies, we can go out and be about and be normal and not constantly be afraid," Cruz said. "I feel more-free in Juarez, Mexico than I did in the suburbs of Phoenix."

It's hard to say exactly how many American citizens are married to undocumented immigrants. Figures suggest there are around 12 million unauthorized people living in the US today.

Advocates say 10 percent of those may be married to Americans. Legislation that would legalize the status of unauthorized people has been pending in Congress for around 10 years. Some even had bi-partisan support.

Officials have said they don't want to split up families with mixed status; they're just following current laws. Despite having overseen more deportations than the previous government, earlier this month the Obama Administration announced a controversial policy that — while not going as far as legalizing their status — will suspend the deportations of immigrants who haven't been convicted of crimes.

But that's little comfort to Beth Brotherton, whose husband will remain in immigration limbo. Like many of her fellow bloggers, Beth spends a good deal of her time writing letters, signing petitions and making phone calls in an effort to push politicians to act. She says the wide reach of the online community might be able to make some difference.

"I mean when you're faced with the idea that any moment you could be separated, every moment becomes precious," Brotherton said. "You know every hug, every kiss, every time that person comes home from work and comes through the door that's an important moment."

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