Todd Aguilar didn’t want to risk a 10-year separation from his Mexican wife, Marisela Salazar. But it’s what the couple would have faced if they had pursued Salazar’s green card before an immigration law designed to keep families together went into effect March 4.
The new Family Unity Waiver is part of a processing tweak that allows undocumented citizens to apply for their hardship waiver without leaving the U.S. It’s a small change with big implications, according to South Lake Tahoe lawyer Kathleen Aberegg.
A person unlawfully in the U.S. can be barred from re-entering the country for up to 10 years. But to apply for a green card, that noncitizen would have to return to his or her home country — with no guarantee that he or she would be allowed back into the U.S. because of the unlawful presence bars.
Most families wouldn’t take the risk, and the Aguilars were no exception. Aguilar, who operates the South Shore’s T&D Maintenance in Plumbing and Heating, said with six children — one of whom has a terminal heart condition while another copes with mental health issues — the separation would have been too difficult.
“(Marisela) had the process going, but we were taking a huge risk with her being stuck in Mexico. There’s no way. It would have caused such hardship for the family,” Aguilar said.
Even before the Family Unity Waiver, an undocumented immigrant who proved that the ban would cause “extreme hardship” on a U.S. citizen family member could stay in the country. But noncitizens couldn’t process that hardship waiver in the U.S., and if it was denied, they faced a 10-year exile.
Aberegg said she’d seen people who didn’t want to initiate the green-card process since it meant leaving the country and risking the unlawful presence ban.
“I haven’t done too many of those cases. People were afraid of it. No one wants to do this. No one wants to go to Mexico,” Aberegg said. “But now the whole process can be done by staying in the U.S. That is so huge. This is a really big deal. If (the waiver) gets denied, there’s no consequences.”
Aguilar approached Aberegg after he read about the Family Unity Waiver online. Aberegg estimated it might take a year, but Salazar has a good chance of qualifying for the waiver and her green card. It’s a classic case that epitomizes what the waiver was designed for, she said.
For Salazar, an approved Family Unity Waiver would let her work legally in the U.S. for the first time since she came to country 25 years ago. It would solidify her situation in California, her husband said.
“Her being able to legally work and be legal in the system … She came to the U.S. for a different life and this is an opportunity to be who she wants to be,” Aguilar said. “We’re happy the laws are now starting to take effect. It’s not something we’re dreading to do. Now we’re excited about it.”
Immigration reform might take another step forward this summer if a bipartisan group of senators can pass new legislation that would provide a multi-year path to citizenship. While Aberegg believes the law will fall short of blanket amnesty, she said the reform should at least legalize Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy.
“It’s pretty much the DREAM act, but I’m hoping it will be broader ... The DREAM act is good for young people and that’s great. But I think it’s not enough. Because what about all the other people? What about the parents who came to this country?” Aberegg said.