OVERLAND PARK, Kan.—When Kecia Sales and Juan Marquez were married, they were like scores of other couples: very much in love with plans to live together for the rest of their lives.
But it wasn’t to be.
After their December 2004 marriage, he told her he had been living illegally in the U.S. since 1999. After leaving Mexico, Marquez had made his way to her hometown of Kansas City, Kan., where they met and married, and she took his name.
They became one of an estimated two million mixed families, where at least one member is a citizen or lawfully living in the country and the other isn’t. The vast majority of those families, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, involve an illegal parent and legal children—yet another shade of the ongoing immigration conundrum in the U.S.
That he’s among some 12 million illegal immigrants didn’t change Sales’ love for Marquez. They lived in her hometown with a couple of dogs and both worked to make ends meet.
“It didn’t bother me,” she said. “It doesn’t make him any worse of a person.”
But Marquez, 26, and his wife, 40, finally decided he should return to Mexico and begin the long, uphill fight to re-enter the United States legally.
Marquez’s decision came as Kansas and some 40 other states try to pass legislation this year dealing with illegal immigrants because Congress has failed to act. It’s a move Hispanic advocates say affects more than illegal immigrants.
“It impacts also documented immigrants because families tend to be of a mixed status. Hurting one individual hurts the entire family. It creates an unwelcoming atmosphere to all immigrants, whether legal or not,” said David Ferreira of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
El Centro Inc., a Hispanic advocacy group in the Kansas City area, said its 2006 survey showed 63 per cent of Hispanics questioned said they lived in some type of mixed family status.
Why Juan Marquez came to the United States is a familiar tale. He wanted a better life for himself and his family, which includes two younger brothers, his mother and disabled father back in Hidalgo state.
“They have no money for food. My parents don’t work,” he said. “I wanted to do whatever I have to do to put food on the table for my family.”
He said each week he sent $100 to his family back in Mexico—a practice known as “remittances,” which the Inter-American Development Bank says accounted for some $23 billion sent to Mexico in 2006.
The couple talked about the decision for him to return to Mexico in the office of their immigration attorney, Mira Mdivani, shortly before Marquez left last month.
“You don’t feel safe in the streets. You don’t feel safe anywhere because of a lot of things going on right now,” he said. “The police pull you over for no reason.”
“I want to be free, to go wherever I want to go and not be scared. In the long run, it will be worth it. We can have a better life and we won’t be scared anymore,” Marquez said.
When he was in the U.S., he worked at construction jobs, doing everything from picking up garbage to cleaning sewers and provided about two-thirds of the household income.
Kecia Marquez said she worried daily that her husband would be arrested at work by immigration agents, so much so that she called him three or four times a day to check on him.
Her worries continue about whether he will be allowed back in the United States anytime soon.
“It’s stressful, very stressful, because I don’t know if he’s coming back. It’s just that I’m sure we’re doing the right thing. This is my home, and I want it to be here with my husband,” she said as both teared up.
Mdivani said because Juan Marquez entered the country illegally and stayed more than a year, the law bars him from coming back for 10 years, unless the government approves a waiver request from his wife. She said the waiver request was denied March 13 by the U.S. Consulate in Juarez, Mexico, but it agreed to give Kecia Marquez 30 days to submit new evidence of hardship. Then it could take up to a year for a decision about whether he can return.
“The law is extremely unforgiving,” Mdivani said. “But I think Kecia has a compelling case. She takes care of a disabled sister and uncle. She won’t have the opportunity for any kind of decent job there and she will lose the house.”
She also won’t be getting much sympathy from those pushing tougher immigration legislation.
“I have compassion for them, but I’m also concerned about Kansas citizens. I’m responsible to the citizens to protect them,” said Republican state Senator Peggy Palmer, who is pushing this year for stronger laws to discourage illegal immigration in Kansas.
Kecia Marquez has her own feelings about what legislators are trying to do.
“It’s making it hard for everyone. It’s like we’re being punished just because my husband is Hispanic,” she said.
Not so, says Kris Kobach, state Republican chairman, who helped draft the legislation.
“It’s a reflection of the fact that we’re a nation that respects the rule of law,” he said. “There are millions of people waiting patiently in line to get in and we shouldn’t forget they are playing by the rules when talking about those coming here illegally.”
If she can’t get the waiver approved, Kecia Marquez says she will move to Mexico.
“That’s what I’ll have to do. That’s my husband. I have to go where he goes,” she said. “I love him, I can’t forget about him.”