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Witnesses tell Congress that Americans, legal residents’ families suffer due to immigration laws

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American families that have been split up for 10 years or more — or forced into exile — by immigration laws took their fight to Capitol Hill Thursday. Representatives testified before a House Judiciary subcommittee that is a crucial forum for public debate over possible immigration reforms.

“It is often said that our immigration laws are broken, but not why. It’s simple: Our laws contradict our values,” Randall Emery, president of American Families United, told members of the Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, which is under the Judiciary Committee. 

American Families United represents American citizens and U.S. legal permanent residents whose families have been separated for a decade or more by punitive immigration mandates.

As the Center for Public Integrity and KQED public radio reported recently, the undocumented spouses of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents are forced, under a 1996 law, to serve a 10-year exile or more outside the United States before they can finish their applications to become legal residents.

Some undocumented spouses can obtain waivers to cut short these so-called bars, but many thousands are not eligible. Thousands of people are too afraid to even try to sponsor their undocumented spouses out of fear of being separated or forced to move abroad to remain together.

The Center’s story recounts the hardship families with children are facing after applying to legalize undocumented spouses — only to have U.S. officials ultimately order those spouses to stay out of the United States for 10 years, 20 years, even for life.

“What does America gain if a husband and wife are separated, or the children are separated?” asked Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat and member of the subcommittee. She said she strongly disagreed with the adoption of these bars in 1996 and warned that they would harm Americans.

American Families United is urging Congress to reform this system of inflexible punishment, arguing it serves no purpose because it does not deter illegal immigration and harms U.S. citizens.

On Feb. 27, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the Juciary Committee, suggested to reporters that he was open to discussions on changing these bars.

Thursday’s hearing — about divided nuclear families — also focused on the many years that U.S. permanent legal residents must wait before their spouses and children are also given visas to immigrate.

The minimum waiting time for a spouse of a legal immigrant to gain admission legally is currently more than two years. At one point, because of country quotas, the minimum wait time for a Mexican permanent resident’s spouse was eight years.

Emery told the subcommittee that American Families United is also urging Congress to shorten this waiting time for legal immigrants, whose families are strained by these waits.

Emery suggested it was a contradiction to force permanent legal immigrants’ spouses to wait so long to come to the United States while allowing certain temporary workers to bring spouses with them for the duration of their work visa.

“On the one hand, we welcome legal immigrants as permanent residents and urge them to become U.S. citizens, so that ‘they’ become ‘us,’ “ Emery said. “On the other hand, our laws block some of the most basic human values for both legal immigrants and U.S. citizens — marriage and family.”