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Immigration reform's tough call: illegal immigrants married to US citizens

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“The American public does not understand this situation,” says Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D) of Illinois, a leading immigration reform advocate in the House who met with Margot and two dozen other impacted individuals on Thursday. “When the government gets between two people who are in love with one another and who consecrate that love through marriage, and they get in the way, there is something fundamentally wrong.”

The policy of barring undocumented immigrants from adjusting their status while in the country was built into a 1996 law that aimed to deter illegal immigration.

Many lawmakers say preventing illegal immigrants from adjusting their status from within the United States helps make up for a lack of immigration enforcement. If the federal government can’t or won’t remove undocumented individuals, the logic goes, they will have to remove themselves in order to obtain permanent status.  

“I don’t know if this topic about or a three- or a 10-year bar has any meaning, considering [the federal government is not] enforcing the law in so many other areas,” says Rep. Steve King (R) of Iowa.

Margot says she isn't blind to the fact that her husband entered the country illegally. Rather, she sees the issue as a question of degree: “The punishment,” she says, “does not fit the crime.”

That was a sentiment echoed among many of the advocates on the Hill Thursday.

“For everybody who is involved in this nightmare who is an American citizen, you believe that with marriage, you’re going to be able to resolve that problem,” said Carla Wissel of Vero Beach, Fla., whose husband, Rafael, has obtained permanent legal status in the US. “It’s just such a shock. It comes as such a terrible, terrible shock.”

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