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A 'Mixed' Family Tells What It's Like When One Member Lives In U.S. Illegally


One issue that the candidates running for president continue to debate is immigration. And much of that debate has been about keeping future migrants out or deporting those already in the U.S. without authorization. Rarely talked about are the tens of thousands of people in so-called mixed-status families. These are American citizens married to people who have no legal status and no clear path to get there. For NPR's Code Switch team, Jasmine Garsd has one family's story.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: It's snowing in New York, but Sonja's (ph) apartment is like a greenhouse full of plants. We're sitting on her couch watching TV. On the screen, a peroxide blonde recites today's horoscopes.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "Capricorns might be moving soon," she says. Sonja gives a wry smile. Earlier this year, Homeland Security ramped up its immigration enforcement efforts towards people with deportation orders and recent arrivals. Sonja's neither but she worries a lot about being deported back to Mexico and what it'll mean for her two kids, now 4 and 7, both citizens, and the new baby due in a month. The family is so worried, they've asked that we not use their last name.

SONJA: (Through interpreter) Yes it worries me because I'm here with nothing.

GARSD: Sonja says money is the biggest problem with her legal situation. When she and her husband Carlos (ph) got married, they knew about each other's legal status but didn't think it would affect them much. He works legally. She used to work at a deli and got paid under the table.

SONJA: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: Six days a week, 12 hours a day for about $650 a week. A lot of that money went to child care. Eventually, they decided it was better for her to stay at home with the kids. Sonia says she tried to enroll in nursing school. But without proper documents she couldn't. That's when she decided to apply for a visa.

ERIN OSHIRO: Even amongst immigrants themselves, there's confusion about, you know, what it means to marry a U.S. citizen or green card holder.

GARSD: Attorney Erin Oshiro is a director of immigration and immigrants' rights at Asian Americans Advancing Justice, a nonprofit. She explains that someone like Sonia has to leave the country to get her U.S. visa, even though she's married to a U.S. citizen. And here's the problem - since Sonja has been unlawfully in the U.S. for years, she can't reenter for decade. Oshiro says that's unless she gets what's called an extreme hardship waiver, something immigrants have been able to apply to in the U.S. since 2013.

OSHIRO: You have to show that your not being able to come back to the country would be an extreme hardship to a U.S. citizen, spouse or parent or a green card holder

GARSD: Since it became available, over 70,000 people have applied and the majority have been approved. Anti-immigration activists say it's another example of this administration's far-too-lenient stance on the issue. Oshiro says cases like this aren't limited to Latin-American immigrants but also affect people from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. Sonja has been told she has a strong chance for winning the visa.

SONJA: (Through interpreter) We have to wait. It's frustrating.

GARSD: But it's been a year and a half. The family has been discussing a plan B in case Sonja decides to just go back or someday gets deported. She says it's hard to talk about this with her son.

SONJA: (Through interpreter) I explained to him that if I go to Mexico, he would come with me. And he says no, I want to stay with my dad. And my daughter says the same thing.

GARSD: Later in the evening, Carlos is back from work and helping the kids do homework. He says he worries that Sonja's not safe at home.

CARLOS: (Through interpreter) I tell her not to answer the door, ask who it is, who they're looking for.

GARSD: Carlos reminisces about his childhood in Mexico fondly, but he doesn't want his kids growing up there.

CARLOS: (Through interpreter) The neighborhood I'm from, it's very hard for a kid to get ahead. So I tell her our kids have more opportunities here than they do in Mexico.

GARSD: Sonja tenses up. That's not her plan B. She told me earlier should she leave or get deported, the kids are coming with her to Mexico. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jasmine Garsd is an Argentine-American journalist living in New York. She is currently NPR's Criminal Justice correspondent and the host of The Last Cup. She started her career as the co-host of Alt.Latino, an NPR show about Latin music. Throughout her reporting career she's focused extensively on women's issues and immigrant communities in America. She's currently writing a book of stories about women she's met throughout her travels.