Immigration Challenges For 'Mixed-Status' Families

Feb 5, 2013
Originally published on February 5, 2013 1:14 pm

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Noncitizen meets U.S. citizen, they fall in love, get married. The immigration papers are filed, and a green card arrives in the mailbox. Right? Well, not exactly. Many citizens seeking legal residency for their spouses meet surprises, penalties that can bar their spouses from the U.S. for 10 years, 20 years or for life.

And then there are families with U.S.-born children and undocumented parents. Nobody knows for sure, it's believed millions are part of these mixed-status families. If this is your story, tell us about a time when your mixed status made a difference in your life. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And let's begin with a caller. This is Grace, and Grace is on the line with us from Indianapolis.

GRACE: Hello.

CONAN: Hi, what's your story?

GRACE: Well, I was born and raised in California, and my husband, unfortunately undocumented. And about six years ago, my brother-in-law came from Mexico illegally. And he was here, and he brought his son with him. His son was only 12, and there was a family emergency, and he went back to Mexico, and his son stayed here. So I was raising his son. And I've been raising his son the last six years.

And now his son is - my nephew is 19, and he graduated high school, and he's undocumented. And it was really hard for me, as his guardian and parent, you know, here in the United States to give him all the opportunities that all the other kids had in his graduating class because he didn't have no Social Security or anything like that.

And it was just a really bad time for him because he was seeing all his friends applying for colleges and doing all the stuff that, you know, normal high school kids are when they're graduating, and he couldn't join them in any of that stuff. And - but now Obama passed that new act, and now he's going to be able to go ahead and get a work permit and an ID.

And so I'm just really happy, you know, for kids who have that kind of opportunity because he was a child, and he was brought here. He was - they didn't ask him, you know, you want to go over there, and you want to stay there? You know, his father brought him here, and it was really unfair for, you know, him not to have the opportunities that other kids had.

CONAN: So he would qualify as one of those DREAMers, the sort-of DREAM Act, the one that was passed by presidential order last year, and this of course could change again when the - if there is an immigration reform bill. But I don't think for the - to the detriment of your - well, I guess your son, I guess we'd call him now.

GRACE: Yeah, he's my son. Yeah, that's how I consider him. And it was really hard because, like, the school where he's at, we moved from California to Indiana, and it's really different because the Hispanic community in California is so big and so overwhelming, you could be walking for miles in California, and you would be around pure Hispanics. But here in Indiana, it's a really, small, small - in Indianapolis it's a really small community.

So, you know, when he was in school, there wasn't a lot - there was only like three other Hispanics in his graduating class, and the other two were born here. And so he was afraid to go to his graduation, thinking that his counselor was going to have him arrested. So, you know, it was really hard for me at that time, too, and it was really hard for him.

And he wasn't the only one. There was a lot of kids that were like that because when - a couple of months ago when they were trying to pass, you know, those laws like the ones in Arizona here in Indiana, a lot of parents took their kids out of school, thinking that, you know, they were going to get arrested.

Or they made a law saying that you needed to represent with a Social Security number, that children needed to bring Social Security numbers to school. And a lot of kids didn't even go to school. And then they changed it because they seen that so many kids weren't going to school because of that.

CONAN: And also they - yeah, several courts ruled that was not legal. But anyway, I'm glad things are going to work out for your son, Grace.

GRACE: Thank you very much. Well, you have a good day.

CONAN: You, too, and appreciate the phone call. Let's turn to Susan Ferriss, she's a juvenile justice reporter at the Center for Public Integrity, where she's been reporting on the issue of mixed-status families and joins us from our bureau in New York. Good to have you with us today.

SUSAN FERRISS: Thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: And that story we heard, it's not uncommon.

FERRISS: No, it's not at all. I think scattered across the country there are many examples of mixed-status families, whether it involves children born here and parents who are undocumented or couples that are - one of them is a legal resident of the United States or a U.S. citizen, and the other is an undocumented spouse.

CONAN: And it turns out, at least according to the Pew research on this, which is the best studies that I think we've got, that most people who are here illegally have been here illegally for any number of years, plenty of time in fact to start families.

FERRISS: That's right. I've met people who have been married more than a dozen years who have children, and one spouse is a U.S. citizen, and the other is an undocumented. And right now it's very difficult because of penalties that are in place, that Congress put in place in 1996, for them to complete the process of getting that undocumented spouse a green card.

CONAN: And a lot of us do remember that movie by that name, and yes, the idea that if you married Gerard Depardieu, he would get an immediate green card. It turns out if you've tried to enter the country - if you're here illegally, if you've entered the country illegally, you have to pay penalties. I think people understand that, a fine of I think $1,000, but you also have to go back to your country of origin and have to wait 10 years at least, and it could be 20, it could be life.

FERRISS: Yeah, these are complicated penalties that a lot of people are simply unaware of. People involved in this situation who are couples have gradually been clued in on it by lawyers and by experience. But what happened is, in 1996, Congress wanted to get tough. There were members of Congress that felt that too many people were entering the country, getting married legitimately - even legitimately - and being allowed to stay here without paying a stiff penalty.

And they wanted to set up a series of penalties that would serve as a deterrent to show people that they couldn't come into the country and find a way to get legal whether it's through a work permit - which are rare to get - or through marriage, and end up staying here and getting a green card.

So what the penalties do is if you've resided in the States illegally for more than three months, you can get five years out of the country as a mandatory exile. If it's more than a year, which is in the vast majority of cases, you get 10 years. And there is a system built in where you can apply for a waiver, a hardship waiver, which has to be based on extreme hardship for the U.S. citizen spouse or the legal resident spouse; quite difficult to do.

But you only can apply for that after you've gone for your interview, your final green card interview, which has to take place in your home country. So there's where the catch-22 comes in. If you want to complete that process, you have to go to that interview, and at the U.S. consulate, what's been going on is people are told - the undocumented spouses are told - you know what? You are now barred from reentering the United States for 10 years. Now you can apply for a waiver, but that's - it's limited, the people who can do that.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. We'll go next to Alan(ph), and Alan's with us from Nashville.

ALAN: Hello, Neal.

CONAN: Hi Alan.

ALAN: Hi, I was calling because I - my wife is actually Canadian, and we had some similar issues with this kind of a situation. We were married in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and we drove down with all of our possessions in the car. And as we were crossing, the border guard said, you know, well, you can't move here just - you know, I know you got married, but you can't just move here. She's going to be here on a visitor visa, and you can't do things that way.

And it was very confusing. It was also around September 11th, so there was a lot of - you know, nobody knew really what immigration was going on. But we eventually got past the border not by lying but just simply her saying, well, if I have to leave, I will, and if I don't, I won't.

And we started the paperwork process, and things became so overwhelming that we, we had to hire an attorney. And thankfully, we have the resources for that. But the main thing that I kind of took away from everything was if - I mean, I'm an attorney myself, I wasn't at the time, but I had a college degree, and my wife had a college degree, and we were native English speakers. And we couldn't figure this out.

We tried so hard to get straight answers and fill out the right forms. And if people like us can't figure this system out, what hope does somebody who isn't a native English speaker or somebody who doesn't have the educational opportunities that we had or anything of that nature, what are they going to do?

I think it just speaks for the fact that we need the immigration reform that people keep talking about and pressing for and that it affects more people than just Latinos and Latinas.

CONAN: Good point, Alan, thanks very much, glad it worked out for you and your wife.

ALAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's talk to somebody who does know the ins and outs of this. Joining us here in Studio 3A is Kamal Essaheb, an immigration policy attorney at the National Immigration Law Center. He's worked with a lot of families who have mixed-immigration status. Good of you to be with us today.

KAMAL ESSAHEB: Thank you, good to be here.

CONAN: And how much of a nightmare is this?

ESSAHEB: I mean, I think we just saw from - we just heard from Grace and Alan, the immigration system is a labyrinth. It's a maze. It's - the system's outdated, and it doesn't make sense. You know, we have these three and 10-year bars that were alluded to. And the way they're triggered is if you're here for six months or a year, and then you depart the country, that triggers your inability to not return for, you know, three or 10 years.

CONAN: But what incentive do you have to leave in the first place and try to do it by the book?

ESSAHEB: That's right. So that's why we have people who are fenced in, who have no incentive to do things the right way. So we keep hearing this debate that, you know, you need to get in line or go to the back of the line. Going to the back of the line essentially cuts off your ability to be unified with your family. So we have a system that really doesn't work, and people don't have an incentive to leave and process a certain way.

CONAN: Do you have clients whose - there's one spouse living and working in the United States, and the other spouse is in Mexico or Guatemala or El Salvador, wherever, with the kids?

ESSAHEB: I don't currently have clients in my current position, but...

CONAN: OK.

ESSAHEB: ...previously I was an immigration attorney, and I've seen these cases all the time, where people whose children are U.S. citizens who are facing deportation. And just as an example, you know, it's mentioned that there's this waiver that you could apply for, that if your spouse would suffer hardship, you would - you'd be able to come back.

Hardship to a child would not be considered, right? So if you - if your child really needs you to be - if you're a single parent and you suffer - and your child would really suffer an extreme level of hardship, that doesn't count. The system doesn't take that into consideration.

CONAN: And I wanted to turn back to you, Susan Ferriss, there in New York. In your reporting, you tell us the story of Chris and Delia, who think they were that movie "Green Card" couple. They go to the immigration office to get Delia's papers in order, and the security guard puts his arm around the husband and says, you get out of here and go home.

FERRISS: Exactly. It's similar to what the man who just called in and talked about driving in from Canada. Chris thought - born and raised in Los Angeles, he'd seen lots of people become legal residents through marriage, and he married his wife in 2002, met her on the job.

He walked into a federal building in Los Angeles and told a guard, I want to get my wife's papers. And the guard did him a favor, he said, and turned him around and said, you know, you need to look at this website and you need to call this number. And you're going to have to go through a lot of paperwork.

So in his case, he waited a bit because he began to realize, oh, my wife actually was deported before. She had been caught at the border coming in with a group of women from Mexico - I think around 2000 or so - and was quickly sent back in, but then did make it in and followed the well-worn migrant trail and got a job in Los Angeles.

They finally did file in 2004, and then she became pregnant with their first child, and they delayed a bit going to Juarez. In 2007 is when they finally had their appointment down in Mexico. And he seemed very convinced he would be able to make a hardship request, decided he'd do it on his own at first, and it was denied in December 2007.

He knew he'd be - she wouldn't be allowed back in. But then they did the waiver request. It was denied, to their absolute shock. And she went to live with family, with their newborn baby down in southern Mexico. And then they reapplied, started the process over, and this time Chris amassed a bunch of letters from his psychiatrist - prescriptions, a letter about his military service. And then in April 2007, they had another appointment, and then she was told no.

CONAN: Yeah.

FERRISS: You're denied again, and you can't apply till 2017.

CONAN: We're talking with Susan Ferriss and Kamal Essaheb about mixed-status families. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And Susan Ferriss, that - the spouse of the woman in that couple now lives - there's apparently a community of Mexican or Mexican-Americans, depending on how you want to think of them, living just south of the border?

FERRISS: That's right. There's a community. I talked to another family from San Diego. The wife also lives in the Tijuana area. And there's quite a collection of people who have either been deported or who were barred and are living in Tijuana and in beach communities south of there, and family members go and visit them on weekends.

Sometimes the kids live with the family members on the U.S. side, and sometimes they live on the Mexican side. In the case of Chris, his two children live with his wife, and he's quite worried about them all the time because they live in a...

CONAN: It's a dangerous neighborhood.

FERRISS: ...a dangerous area, yes.

CONAN: Yeah. Here's an email we have from Miguel in Kansas City: My story isn't all that unfamiliar for many, but my family overstayed their visa about 18 years ago. As of right now, my oldest sister married a citizen, became a citizen and petitioned for my mother, who's now a resident. My oldest brother and my youngest sister are undocumented, but DREAMers. My father remarried and is now a permanent resident. I got married to a citizen, and I am a resident. It just goes to show how complicated it is as an immigrant. Also, I feel guilty having gotten my residency, yet knowing my siblings could be deported. My siblings left Brazil at such a young age that they would not know what to do if they went back.

And I wanted to ask you, Kamal Essaheb: Is the situation different if you crossed the border illegally, or if you then came on a tourist visa or whatever kind of visa and overstayed?

ESSAHEB: There could be different implications how you went into the country. But, again, it's very complicated. It's not the kind of thing I can explain in two minutes. And, you know, like Allen mentioned earlier, if folks or even immigration attorneys can't explain it in a reasonable period of time, how complicated is it? There is no...

CONAN: It's simple English.

ESSAHEB: There is no simple English in it. The system is simply broken, and, you know, I'm glad that we're having these immigration reform conversations these days.

CONAN: Do you expect that the immigration reform conversation we're having, if there's a bill that's passed, would it supersede this act from 1996?

ESSAHEB: Well, we would hope that as part of any immigration reform law that passes, that we actually take care of these rules. I know folks who are talking about wanting citizenship for the 11 million, and we certainly want that. I think as part of any immigration reform package that passes, we hope that we fix some of these bad rules that were put in place in 1996, you know, rules like these three and 10 year bars, or people being deported without seeing a judge, right? People being deported without having a day in court. Some of these things really need to go.

CONAN: Well, more with Susan Ferris and Kamal Essaheb after a short break. We want to hear from you if you're part of this mixed-status family. Call and tell us about a time when it made a difference in your life. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: Now back to our conversation about mixed-status families, where some members are American citizens, others are living in the country without legal documentation. And some of these families, immigrants who entered the country illegally or overstayed their visas, have children, citizens by birth. And others, a couple marries, hoping one status as a legal citizen can help the other gain citizenship. It's not always a smooth road, though, and living in mixed-status families can present tremendous challenges.

If this is your story, we want to hear from you: 800-989-8255. Call and tell us about a time when your mixed-status made a difference in your life. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Susan Ferris, a juvenile justice reporter for the Center for Public Integrity, who's been reporting on mixed-statutes families with a reporter from KQED in San Francisco, and Kamal Essaheb, an immigration policy attorney at the National Immigration Law Center, with us here in Studio 3A. Let's go next to Carlos, Carlos with us from Los Angeles.

CARLOS: Hey, Neal. Thank you for taking my call. I just would like a different perspective to the situation. I'm undocumented. I've been with my husband for eight years. We got married in California when it was legal. And so we were really excited about that I was going to - he was going to be looking to petition for me. So we sought an immigration attorney and thought that we could petition. So because - then we'd come to find out because of DOMA, he couldn't petition for me, even though he's a U.S. citizen, was born in New York, and now we live in L.A., he just can't petition for me. So we - I keep...

CONAN: DOMA, of course the Defense of Marriage Act. Yes.

CARLOS: Correct. So - and we have a child here. We had a child through surrogacy. We, you know, we've been together for so many years, but I just recently applied for deferred action, and hope to get it approved because I came here with a child. But I feel that it's really unfair that - you know, I understand that there's other issues involved, but when you're in a gay relationship, it makes that situation even that more complicated.

CONAN: And it's not just your citizenship status is up in the air, depending on what the Supreme Court rules, your marriage status is up in the air, too.

CARLOS: That's true. And, I mean, it's just really complicated and I thought, well, you know, for us, many years ago, we thought that everything was going to resolve when we got married. So we got married, we're celebrating. We were getting so excited about this whole thing, and then they just - we got this slap in the face that we have no - he has no rights to - or we have no rights. So it just makes it really hard. And now, of course, I'm in limbo. And it doesn't stop from living our lives here and doing what we can, but it's still very important.

CONAN: I can understand that. Thanks very much for the call. Susan Ferriss, we were so looking forward to it. We thought marriage would solve the problem. Do you hear that over and over again?

FERRISS: Yes. I think some people now are aware of what the repercussions are if they dare to come forward and start the process. So you do have a large population of people - nobody knows how many - who are often hiding in plain sight, especially when it's a U.S. citizen who's lived here his or her entire life and is not used living a subterranean life. I've talked to quite a few people who are - you'd be surprised, college professors who have undocumented spouses, people who are into he military. It's a large population.

And now - we haven't talked about this yet, but President Obama is going to make a change in the procedure for which people apply for green cards for spouses - for undocumented spouses, if they're married to U.S. citizens. Essentially, what they can do is apply for these hardship waivers without having to leave the country first. So they're going to get a provisional answer on that. It's unknown what happens if you don't get the hardship waiver.

CONAN: I was going to ask, aren't the provisions of that 1996 law, though, still in effect?

FERRISS: Yes, they are. And it was designed to not touch those basically. So as a consequence, too, you still have to go through your interview in your home country, and you could be denied the hardship waiver. And it's limited who can apply for it. If you have a prior immigration offense, you're disqualified from that pretty much. There might be some exceptions, but you can't get a hardship waiver. You can't even apply for it. You'll definitely get turned down.

So there are people I've talked to who won't be able to benefit from this at all. Their only hope is some other kind of reform that either alters these '96 penalties or some other path for their spouse, which is not through marriage.

CONAN: Let's see if we'd get another caller in. This is Franco. Franco with us from Centralia in Washington.

FRANCO: Hi. Thank you for having me on the air.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

FRANCO: Well, my parents brought me here when I was 2 years old. I'm about to turn 30 pretty soon. And it's just completely affected my life. I mean, the jobs I have to work just to survive are just - they're just horrible jobs. And my brothers are all citizens because they were all born after my parents came here to the States. So I'm seeing them going through what I was going through when I was a teenager, but they have all the chances to go to college, university, get state jobs, things that I'm just - I never had the opportunity to grab for.

And I maybe not an American citizen, and we're just kind of going through the stage where we're scared if I have to go back to Mexico because I've never been back since I came to the States. And my English is perfect, but my Spanish is actually accented. So when I speak Spanish to Spanish-speaking people, they always wonder if I'm actually a Mexican because it sounds different to them. It sounds like an American speaking English - Spanish.

So it just leaves me in the spot where I'm just kind of scared of what to do. I don't - I view myself as an American. I've been here all my life. This is all I understand, is the American way of life. And just the idea of someone, a judge or an immigration officer, thinking that I'm not American enough is pretty frightening.

CONAN: And are you too old to qualify for the change in status that the president authorized last year?

FRANCO: I think - I'm actually writing the, like - or I should be doing it right now, but me and my wife are just kind of scared of just everything that's going on. So, we're kind of - we're being a little cautious of, you know, (unintelligible).

CONAN: Well, let me see if I can get you some free advice here. Kamal Essaheb, should he be writing his application right now?

ESSAHEB: Well, I can't give him legal advice. But...

CONAN: All right. Not on the radio.

ESSAHEB: But if he was born after June 16, 1981, then age would not be a disqualifying factor. There are other criteria, of course, but you have to have been under 31 on June 15, 2012.

CONAN: It sounds like that's still you, Franco.

FRANCO: Oh, man, that is...

CONAN: But talk to somebody who knows your case and your individual - this is not a - we're not issuing a waiver right here on the radio.

FRANCO: Yeah.

CONAN: So...

FRANCO: No, but it's still something great to hear. Cause it's so scary just hearing, you know, 'cause I've known people who have been deported and - people who've been here almost as long as I have. And it's kind of like what would I do? I don't know anyone over in Mexico. I mean, they'd be sentencing me to starve because I would not know how to survive there.

CONAN: Well, Franco, good luck.

FRANCO: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Kevin: The false claim to U.S. citizenship, 6c2 is probably the worst violation possible of a spouse of a U.S. citizen can be cited for. This violation has a lifetime bar with no immigration waiver, not even for hardship. I'm a U.S. citizen. My non-U.S. spouse was incorrectly cited for this in 1998. And to put it one way, she has a 150-year bar, a lifetime bar. We lived in Mexico for many years. Now we live in Canada because there's no recourse to correct my wife's record. That's the lifetime bar that we mentioned at the beginning of the program.

ESSAHEB: I keep going back to this, but the laws that are in the books just don't make sense. If you have somebody coming into the United States as a 2-year-old or a 4-year-old or a 10-year-old or a 14-year-old and they present - I guess they're not even the ones presenting, they probably came with somebody who presented a U.S. document on their behalf, they're considered to have made a false claim to U.S. citizenship. Does that make sense?

I think most reasonable people would agree that it doesn't. But those are the sorts of things that we need to fix. A lot of laws, a lot of rules that were written in the books by the 1996 laws really need to be undone.

CONAN: Tweet from Canary's Tweets(ph): My husband was without status for 10 years after losing J-1 visa. Great fear of deportation to Sri Lanka at a bad time. Worst stress ever. And, Susan Ferriss, in your reporting, worst - the families that find themselves in this situation get torn to pieces.

FERRISS: Yes, they do. They're devastated emotionally and financially. One of the families, they didn't come forward, the couple, to try to legalize the wife because they were fully aware at one point that she would not be able to even apply for the hardship waiver or they wouldn't be able to apply for it. So they basically head out until she was snagged in a traffic stop by a policeman who turned her over to ICE. She ended up imprisoned for six months in detention.

Her - she has a 10-year-old son with her husband, her American husband, a software engineer in San Diego. And she tried to stay. They tried to file an asylum claim, which she lost. And one evening, she was - after they lost that, she was simply deposited on the other side of the border and had to borrow a cellphone from someone to call her husband. She now has a 20-year bar from going back into the United States. And the 10-year-old son lives with his dad and it's an extremely hard life for them.

I think what - you can really understand the consequences of these laws and how it affects people when you look at their stories. And often, their families can't imagine it. They also feel quite abandoned by their representatives in Congress who they've gone to, who have kind of shrugged their shoulders and said, well, this is the law.

Some of them - some people in Congress I think aren't even aware of these penalties. Senator Kyl of Arizona, who just left the Senate, recently suggested that in all honesty, kids who came here, childhood arrivals, the so-called DREAMers, many of them could simply become legal by applying for - by getting married to U.S. citizens. He wasn't suggesting they do it falsely, but he was saying that the process would be relatively easy for them, and that's simply not true.

CONAN: Susan Ferriss, who's a juvenile justice reporter at The Center for Public Integrity. Also with us Kamal Essaheb, an immigration policy attorney at the National Immigration Law Center. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Sarah is on the line with us from Sacramento.

SARAH: Hi. Thank you so much for taking my call. Actually, I have a little bit of a different story. I brought (unintelligible) here from Egypt. I'm a U.S. citizen. And he gained citizen or the permanent residency very shortly after. So I think we have kind of an anomaly here where within three months he had a green card, but that actually was kind of a difficult situation for us in the sunset.

We weren't able to take advantage of many government programs that were available at the time. For instance, we have looked to buy a home, and it was completely unavailable to us through the FHA loans and there were some restrictions in regards to, for instance, credit. So for us, we weren't able to take advantage of some really good things that were going on around 2008, 2009 in terms of homebuyer credits. And it just kind of was unfortunate for that end but we always kind of think of the positive aspects that we had a great experience with the U.S. CIF(ph).

And I don't think many people can say that especially when you see all these new regulations that can come out and many of them are, you know, they're trying to bring better opportunities to people but at the same time a lot of people are still falling between the gaps. So we're pretty fortunate for where we are but we do see that a lot of people are being also taken advantage of.

For instance, we have some friends that we're hoping for some help in applying for their paperwork since they saw that we had, you know, a pretty good success story. And, you know, I wasn't able to fulfill - to help her out, but she went to an attorney, and it was clear that she wasn't going to be to gain permanent residency. But the attorney was actually a fraud. Didn't - was not bar certified, took $5,000 from her.

And we see that kind of situation happened where, you know, these are these (unintelligible) operators are taking advantage of people in really kind of, you know, struggling circumstances and with, you know, the possibility of 11 million undocumented citizens that could be taking advantage of this - the new regulations that are coming out.

CONAN: It's a large pool...

SARAH: You may see some more (unintelligible) operators kind of popping up again.

CONAN: Large pool of potential victims. Sarah, I'm glad things worked out for you. I wanted to ask Kamal Essaheb this - frauds who worked in your business.

ESSAHEB: Well, I just wanted to make a point that, you know, I think when it comes to immigration we focus on status, right, people want status. But I think we also want to integrate people into our society. You know, like the caller Sarah just mentioned that, you know, her husband got his status but they couldn't get a house, right?

CONAN: Couldn't get a FHA loan.

ESSAHEB: They couldn't get a FHA loan. They - maybe they would have been restrictions in terms of access to certain, you know, to health care options, et cetera. And what we talk about at the National Immigration Law Center is, you know, we want folks to have, not just to get legalized, but to have first-class citizenship. Right? To be able to participate in our society the same way that everybody else is participating; to have access to higher ed; to have access to, you know, the Affordable Care Act; and all these things.

I mean, immigrants generally used benefits less than other people, OK? And they're not looking for special privileges. They're just looking for an opportunity to support their families, to give their families a fair shot.

CONAN: I wanted to ask you, Susan Ferriss, as you look at the debate that's going on in Washington now. Obviously, we haven't seen legislation yet. We've not seen bills. We don't know what the details of any legislation would be. But is there any discussion, so far as you're aware, of moving retroactively to address this people affected by '96 law, who are banned from the country for 10 or 20 or forever?

FERRISS: Well, there's an organization called American Families United that certainly wants to make sure that this is part of the discussion when immigration reform is drafted. One of the points of discussion they want to have is pointing out the impact its having on U.S. citizens. And many of these families have children and they don't have parents living with them. Some of these families have had to moved to Mexico or other countries and live in precarious circumstances.

One woman from North Carolina I interviewed just moved with two very small - three very small children down to the Guatemalan border because she was tired of not being with her husband. And one of the points of discussion they want to have is what purpose does - do these bars served. Are they are deterrent? Is there any evidence, really, that it's deterred people from crossing the border to come to work here? Even some opponents of immigration reform right now and creating a path to legalization acknowledge that perhaps these bars haven't really served as a deterrent.

CONAN: Well, I have to see how this legislation works out and what proposals are actually in it. But we want to thank both of you very much for your time today.

ESSAHEB: Thank you, Neal.

FERRISS: Thank you.

CONAN: That's Kamal Essaheb, an attorney at the National Immigration Law Center. And we also spoke with Susan Ferriss, a reporter for the Center for Public Integrity, who's been reporting on mixed-status families with Amy Isackson, a reporter at KQED in San Francisco. She joined us from our bureau in New York.

Tomorrow, we'll talk about K-9 units, how dogs work with police to fight crime and how they're trained. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.