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False citizenship claim cost Houston couple

September 25, 2018

Tom Carson drives six hours to Rio Bravo, Mexico, to see his wife and their three children every two weeks.

Each visit is bittersweet.

“It just breaks my heart every time I have to leave her,” Carson said of his youngest daughter. “It’s the way she holds you and says I love you. It’s heartbreaking.”

Carson, a controls engineer contracted with Anheuser-Busch, met his wife, Lucia, through mutual friends at a bar in Reynosa, Mexico, in 1999 when he was restoring a plant that burned down.

Just a few months earlier, Lucia, now 45, had attempted to enter the United States with a false claim of citizenship. She was detained for a day but never arrested. Because of that thwarted attempt, Lucia is no longer eligible to cross the border, even though she married Tom, an American citizen, in 2004.

A 1996 law, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, was meant to decrease the number of people entering and staying in the country illegally. It made false claims to citizenship a permanent bar to enter the U.S.

A little-known repercussion of the law is that some couples, like Tom and Lucia, are stuck on opposite sides of the border.

“Even the president couldn’t pardon her,” said Randall Emery, president of American Families United, a nonprofit that helps U.S. citizens navigate the immigration system. “It’s an administrative violation. It’s so askew and different than the way the rest of the law works.”

U.S. citizens have the right to sponsor a spouse, but the government can deny them if the applicant has a prior immigration violation, Emery said.

“This is something that happens a lot with U.S. citizens,” he said. “They want to go through the process, but the process is cut off here for them. In this case, there’s no opportunity for a waiver. Under the law, a judge can’t even look at their case.”

The defining law impacted many aspects of immigration, including the permanent bar for false claims to citizenship, said Ruby Powers, a board certified immigration attorney for Powers Law Group in Houston.

Before 1996, it wasn’t uncommon for people to cross the border without passports or much documentation, she said. It wasn’t as strict until after Sept. 11, 2001. Powers said she remembers crossing the border as a child with just a birth certificate.

“There was a trust or honor code that you were telling the truth at the border,” she said. “I think they made the consequences so dire because they didn’t want people to take advantage of the system.”

Carson said he’s passed through the Donna border checkpoint near McAllen so many times that he recognizes some of the agents. The trip to Rio Bravo is 369 miles, so he bought a Volkswagen Jetta TDI for better gas mileage.

Carson and his wife have 11 children — seven from previous marriages and four together. The oldest of their children together is with Carson, but the other three are in Rio Bravo with Lucia.

Carson said he’s seriously considered moving the family to Canada, but that would mean separating his wife from her mother and grandchildren in Mexico.

He said he also considered getting a coyote to bring his family over last year after a neighbor in Rio Bravo was kidnapped and two men with guns pulled him and his two children over.

“You talk to people who have done it, and you get this sort of sense, you think you can do it, too,” he said.

But as a Navy veteran, Carson said he lives by the law, even when it is unjust.

The controversy surrounding President Donald Trump’s recent move to separate families seeking asylum have brought the Carsons’ situation back into the discussion. He wants Congress to amend the troublesome law.

“It’s your job to figure out where there’s injustices and fix them,” Carson said. “This is an unjust situation. There’s no way you can say the punishment fits the crime.”

Democratic U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of El Paso, who is vying for Ted Cruz’s U.S. Senate seat, and Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, who is running for governor of New Mexico, sponsored a bill to allow a request for an exception for false claims of U.S. citizenship if inadmissibility would create family hardship.

But that bill, called the American Families United Act, was referred to a subcommittee in March 2017, and has been shelved since.

“It’s been so long, I don’t know what hope looks like anymore,” Carson said.

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