ORANGE COUNTY, Calif.-Ten years ago, Alger Garcia Hernandez and Liliana Colin came to the United States from Mexico City looking for opportunity. They are married and both have degrees in business administration, but 9/11 wreaked havoc on the Mexican economy and they lost their jobs. The couple immigrated to the United States and immediately began looking for work.
Hernandez and Colin came here on a B1/B2 "visitor for pleasure and business" visa. The expiration date is posted in the middle of their visas: March 2012. But what the couple may not have realized is that during the 10 years the visa is valid, the visa holder cannot enter into employment with a U.S. company, start a business, or remain in the country for more than six months at a time.
With immigration a hot topic this election season, this couple's story highlights some of the problems that have plagued immigration law. Many lawyers claim the system is more complex than the U.S. tax code. Some analysts suggest that solving illegal immigration requires fixing our legal immigration system so that officials can enforce violations but offer legal opportunities to couples such as Hernandez and Colin.
Not wanting to stay past their visa's expiration date, Hernandez, 37, and Colin, 38, decided to return to Mexico. Their reason developed through a journey into the Christian faith. "I believe God brought us to this country to know Him, but God doesn't want us in bondage," Hernandez said. He was reading about God directing our paths in Psalm 23 and thought, "How about we go back [to Mexico] and glorify Him?"
Hernandez and Colin have two children and have worked diligently these past 10 years. Colin's first job was at Kmart, working from 11 p.m. until 8 a.m. as a janitor for $50 a day. "When I came back to my house I didn't know if I was going to feed my baby or sleep. When I was with my baby I was sleeping," Colin said. Hernandez, although used to having his own office and secretary in Mexico, took the first job he could find and started working at Payless Shoes for $8 an hour.
Their goal was to have jobs that matched their qualifications and an apartment of their own. They reached their rental goal but encountered numerous obstacles in the marketplace because they didn't have work visas. The couple had Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers and paid their taxes, but that wasn't enough for higher-level jobs, Hernandez told me. What he may not have realized is that any employment was considered a violation of the terms of their visas.
For many immigrants, the situation here is far better than what they left behind, Hernandez said: "Our story is pretty neat compared with the stories we hear. Some are used to working in the fields-doing jobs that we never realized existed in Mexico. So when they come and work in house cleaning they are in the shade working and are not persecuted by someone else." Many of these immigrants intend to save money and return home.
Hernandez says they had planned to do the opposite: "We came to work hard and buy a house here and become citizens. We never thought about going back." But the citizenship requirements are difficult, and there aren't enough programs for immigrants who are here legally, they said.
Despite the obstacles they encountered, Hernandez and Colin remained hopeful. In 2009, a friend invited their kids to a vacation Bible school at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif. The couple said they didn't have a positive experience growing up in the Roman Catholic Church and did not believe in God.
A client who attended the same church explained the gospel, and both accepted Christ. They started losing clients as the economic downturn hit their housecleaning business, and with their visa expiration only months away, they discussed returning to Mexico.
The couple's story appears tragic: Hernandez and Colin left Mexico because of a recession and a U.S. recession sent them back to Mexico. They came intending to obey immigration laws, but those laws confused the couple and made lawful residence unobtainable.
Instead of despairing, they saw these challenges as God's providence. "If I can share the good news with all the people I know in Mexico, it's better that I leave," Hernandez said. "If I just call them to have dinner, they will notice that something happened in my life."
Colin said that she loves the United States and will miss her church and friends-she knows few Christians in Mexico and says there are many problems there. The most difficult part of the transition was sending their kids-15-year-old Alger and 10-year-old Maria-to Mexico over the summer to live with family and start school. "This is my down payment," Hernandez said. "This is my heart, my flesh and my blood."
On Nov. 13, the couple drove to Tijuana, Mexico, and boarded their flight to Mexico City. Hernandez plans to use the cooking skills he learned while working in the food business to open a restaurant that specializes in California-style fish and shrimp tacos. Colin plans to help market the restaurant and spend more time with her kids.
These are tough realities for Hernandez and Colin, but they are quick to point out the positives: "If we didn't come to this country, maybe we wouldn't know God. He brought us here to know Him, to work hard and be humble, and to appreciate what we have every day-our family, our kids, and our relationships."
Matthew Soerens, a U.S. church training specialist for World Relief and former immigration legal counselor, says he would like to see changes to immigration law that would both open doors for immigrants like Hernandez and Colin and meet the needs of our labor market. In a case like theirs, the couple would be made aware of their visa violations and asked to pay a fine in exchange for legal status. This proposal is not "amnesty," Soerens explained, since the violation is acknowledged and the penalty paid.
Soerens says the solution to illegal immigration involves fixing a system that is "so dysfunctional and out of synch with the needs of the labor market (and with the societal goal of keeping families together) that illegal immigration is widespread." What most people don't realize, he adds, is that under current immigration laws, individuals such as Hernandez and Colin would have no chance to immigrate legally. (According to research compiled by the Heritage Foundation, an estimated 31 percent to 57 percent of illegal aliens fall into the category of visa "overstays.")
There are currently only four ways to immigrate legally and work in the United States: a family sponsor, an employer sponsor (most of these limited visas are allocated to "highly skilled workers"), winning the Diversity Lottery (residents of certain countries-including Mexico, China, and India-are ineligible) and refugee resettlement.
Soerens told me few Americans understand our immigration laws: "This is why they make statements like 'they should go back and come back the legal way' when as the couple you profiled are likely finding out now, there is no legal way for them, even though there are many jobs in sectors of our economy that rely upon low-skilled immigrants." - Jill Nelson