Bill would streamline path to residency for GI families
By Josh Brodesky
arizona daily star
Tucson, Arizona | Published: 06.01.2008
It's a story that has played out dozens of times over the five-year Iraq involvement. Non-citizen families of U.S. military personnel — some citizens, some not; some living, some killed in action — face deportation because they're here illegally.
Newspaper headlines have called it an "excessive," "harsh" and "callous" threat thousands of others could face if federal immigration officials knew about them.
U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva calls it a threat that must end.
So the Southern Arizona Democrat has joined 15 other lawmakers co-sponsoring a bill introduced by Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., to give the non-citizen family members of soldiers a streamlined path to permanent residency.
Although Grijalva has long argued immigration reform can't be done piecemeal, the bill is one of three related piecemeal measures he said he's backing because the issues are too crucial to languish in an election year.
The others guarantee immigration detainees will receive basic health care and that all unused visas will roll over to increase next year's supply rather than being written off.
Grijalva said he has given up on comprehensive immigration reform for the near future, but hopes the three bills will open the door for future reforms.
"We are nipping at the edges of comprehensive reform," he said. "But I have to be honest with myself and constituents because this is the only card we have left to play. Hopefully by doing some of this, then we can begin to build the political will to deal with something on a comprehensive level."
The bills, particularly the one involving non-citizen soldiers and families, have the backing of a number of immigration experts and attorneys. Critics, however, have blasted them as attempts at amnesty as well as frivolous, redundant measures that would have little effect.
"A lot of legislation is introduced simply for political purposes so congressmen can point to them and tell lobbyists and constituents that they are doing something," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies.
There are more than 45,000 non-citizen soldiers in the U.S. military, virtually all of whom entered the country legally, according to the Congressional Research Service.
These non-citizen soldiers already have a streamlined path to citizenship during wartime that takes less than a year. The bill would write that timeline into law, and expand it to include peacetime citizenship applications. It would also give the Department of Homeland Security discretion in granting permanent residency to a soldier's immediate family.
A law like that would have been life-changing for Navy reservist Luis Quihuis. It turned out, the lack of such a law was life changing, as his wife has been barred from entering the country for 10 years after she crossed the line illegally last year.
Quihuis, 37, is originally from Hermosillo, Sonora. But he grew up in California and eventually moved to Arizona, working for nearly 10 years as a state corrections officer while also becoming a U.S. citizen.
He and his wife have been married for 14 years, and he has three daughters who are U.S. citizens. Last year, Quihuis' wife was not allowed to re-enter the U.S. because of an issue with her visa, so she later crossed the border illegally to get back to her family in Arizona.
Once in Tucson, she began to renew her visa, but in September when authorities realized she had entered illegally, she was deported and barred from re-entering for 10 years.
"We really thought me being a corrections officer, and with the armed forces, that was going to help, and it didn't at all," Quihuis said.
To keep the family together, Quihuis cashed out his retirement plan and bought a home in Hermosillo for his family. He took a job in Nogales, Ariz., as a vehicle fuel officer, where he works during the week, living in what he called "a shack to sleep in," and spends as many weekends as he can with his family.
"It's not enough time for me," he said. "I mean, driving over there and coming back it's a pain, and then not being able to see my kids, it's just tougher."
Similar problems for soldiers are relatively common, where deployments and frequent moves can lead to missed deadlines for visas, which turn into real immigration problems.
There have been instances when active-duty soldiers, let alone their family members, have faced deportation. Mix in the stress that comes with war-time deployments and the prospect of deportation can be overwhelming, some say.
"It's not just a problem for non-citizens serving in our military. It's also a problem for citizens who serve in the military," who marry foreigners, said U.S. Army Reserve Lt. Col. Margaret Stock, an immigration attorney who also lectures at West Point. "The military as a whole has a lot of immigration problems."
Stock, who recently testified on Capitol Hill about the issue, said she personally believes the proposed legislation would help address immigration issues for soldiers and their families.
Critics who choose to blast the measure as "amnesty" are taking a shortsighted view, she said.
"The term amnesty is like calling somebody a commie," she said. "It's like a dirty word these days. For foreign policy reasons we grant so-called amnesty for lots of people. … It makes just as much sense that we do this for military families."
The second Lofgren bill Grijalva is backing would ensure basic health care for all immigration detainees, requiring the Department of Homeland Security to, among other things, provide medical screenings and examinations to all detainees and continued care for any health problems until they are released or deported.
The measure is in response to media reports about several cases of detainee neglect that led to deaths when Homeland Security officials overruled medical staff opinions. This measure would not allow that.
"If we are going to do this detention thing, then let's at least provide some international standards and federal standards," Grijalva said.
The final measure would roll over all unused visas to the next year as a way to ease lengthy wait lists that can stretch back years. "For all kinds of reasons, they don't get used, and then they disappear," Grijalva said. "The number varies from year to year."
Five of the bill's 13 co-sponsors are Republicans, including Arizona Rep. John Shadegg, and the measure has business community backing.
Grijalva said he expects to catch some flack from immigration activists, who are among his strongest supporters, for not pursuing more comprehensive reform.
So far, though, the response has been measured.
"I think that we have got to support any legislation right now that gives any type of attention and care," said Isabel Garcia, of the liberal, Tucson-based Coalición de Derechos Humanos.
Garcia added, though, "It needs to be done with the full understanding that this will not take care of the situation."
Krikorian, of the Center for Immigration Studies, called the measures "outrageous."
Closer to home, Republican Randy Graf, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2006 largely on a border security platform, was more contemplative.
Graf was reticent to talk specifics about the bills because he hadn't read them. But after hearing descriptions he said he had questions about the number of people who would be affected, how much it would cost to provide basic health insurance to detainees, and how many work visas are actually not used up.
"The one with the health-care thing is probably the most complicated one," Graf said. "That particular bill there could become a tremendous expense."
For Grijalva, though, the measures are both past due and not enough.
"I have been to two memorial wakes in which the young man's family has buried that kid on the other side of the border, and you try to tell that to people and they are just so rabid about one part of the issue," he said.