New rules change benefits for undocumented spouses of U.S. citizens

Johnny and Margarita Gomez at the home of his parents in Ventura, California.

When immigrants marry American citizens, they don’t automatically become citizens too. If the immigrant is here illegally, that person generally has to return to their home country before applying for residency. But the Obama administration is changing the rules for a select few.

It’s potentially good news for people like 43-year-old Johnny Gomez. His wife, Margarita, is from Mexico, and she came here without documentation. They may benefit from changes regarding waivers for undocumented spouses of U.S. citizens.

“I’m a U.S. citizen. I’m applying for my wife’s waiver so she doesn’t have to be deported,” says Gomez. “If this doesn’t happen, she will be deported anywhere from six months to 10 years.”

The waiver would allow Johnny to start the paperwork here in the U.S. Margarita would still have to return to Mexico before getting resident status, but the wait would be reduced to days or weeks. To complicate matters, Gomez is in a tough economic situation.

“I used to have a business for about five years that I closed down due to the economy,” says Gomez. Now he works for the public health department in Ventura, California, where he makes half as much as he did with his computer graphics business. But financial difficulties alone are not enough to qualify for the waiver.

“He has to get a waiver approved, based on hardship. Unusual, extreme hardship,” says Ally Bolour, the immigration lawyer representing Gomezes. “Mere separation is not hardship. So, in Johnny’s case, they have a special-needs child. So the situation is severe.”

Gomez’s son is autistic. The child requires the constant attention of his mother, Margarita. She cries when she imagines life without her family. Without his wife, Gomez says he’d have to hire someone to take care of his autistic son. It’s an expense he can’t afford.

“If she is gone, I might have to seek government help and get on governmental assistance programs. Which is something I don’t want to do," he says. "I want to be able to fend for my own family, with my own job.” 

Attorney Bolour says the waivers could help thousands of families. “Imagine you’re the sole breadwinner, and your spouse all of a sudden has to go across the world and perhaps [you're] separated for years and years and years. It destroys families,” says Bolour.

The fees for the waiver can add up to around $1,000; money that’s hard to come by for families living paycheck to paycheck. "Johnny is fortunate enough to have legal representation, but that’s not the norm. A lot of people don’t because they can’t afford it,” says Bolour.

The government begins accepting hardship waiver applications on March 4.

About the author

Jeff Tyler is a reporter for Marketplace’s Los Angeles bureau, where he reports on issues related to immigration and Latin America.

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