I recently heard an immigration story with a happy ending. These days, heartwarming immigration stories seem to be few and far between, so I was delighted to hear about it. In 1909, while still an infant, a woman was carried across the Mexico-U.S. border. At that time, crossing the border was nothing like it is today as there were neither checkpoints nor patrol guards. The woman is now 101 years old and a lifelong resident of the U.S., but until this month she was still a citizen of Mexico, a country in which she had apparently never lived. Today, she is a proud U.S. Citizen.
Was this the right outcome ? We couldn’t possibly deny citizenship to a 101-year-old woman, or deport her… could we? Well, by her own admission, she returned from visits to Mexico on several occasions by simply stating she was a U.S. citizen, knowing that she was not, but afraid of being denied entry. Technically, because of these false claims of U.S. citizenship at the border, the law states that she should not only be deported from the U.S. but also barred for life from returning to the U.S. Yes, the law is that harsh. Making a false claim of U.S. citizenship “for any purpose under [the Immigration and Nationality Act] or any Federal or State law is” grounds for being deported and denied admission to the U.S. Although waivers exist to overcome penalties for various other violations of the law, no such relief exists for false claims of U.S. citizenship. Only a very narrow exception exists for naturalization applicants, which apparently this woman met. For most, though, there is no exception and no other form of relief.
This is a happy story that concluded the way it should have. Legally, though, in most cases this outcome is impossible. Although the Department of Homeland Security has prosceutorial discretion and is therefore not required to prosecute all cases, discretion seems to be very rarely exercised, even given recently announced ICE priorities. So, by law, had this woman not met a very narrow exception that allowed her to naturalize, she could have been deported and never allowed to return, even after living in this country for 101 years. Such an outcome would be shameful, abhorrent. Yet our laws are designed to favor that outcome, because the exception to naturalize is very narrow and likely does not apply to most applicants. This scenario provides yet another example of how overly harsh U.S. immigration laws are, and that the time to implement humane immigration laws is now.