The Sunday Rumpus Feature: Love and Immigration in Amor and Exile by Hoffman and Salgado

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I once thought I understood immigration. After all, stories of seeking a better life through migration were coded into my family’s DNA from the time my Greek grandparents arrived in America. This, however, was before I married a French national and became his sponsor for permanent residency. Before I found myself—as a newlywed, then a new mother—charting a stressful three-year course through the Department’s Byzantine bureaucracy. And well before my husband, trapped in a legal holding pattern, missed the opportunity to say good-bye to his father, who died of cancer only weeks before an immigration agent finally resolved our case.

Although I can now boast intimate familiarity with many infuriating aspects of our country’s immigration system, the truth is that in relative terms our process was an emotional and logistical cake walk compared to what Amor and Exile coauthor Nicole Salgado, her family, and other bi-national couples represented in this timely, urgent book are experiencing. The crucial difference impacting their cases: the “undocumented” status of their foreign-born partners.

Amor and Exile: True Stories of Love Across America’s Borders reads as one part memoir, penned by American expat Nicole Salgado, and one part journalism, researched and written by Nathaniel Hoffman (editor of Combining forces, the coauthors have produced a story that is in turns informative and deeply resonant, and that captures the complex, often contradictory set of laws and emotions that govern the lives of immigrants and their families.

By today’s estimates, there are more than 11 million undocumented migrants within U.S. borders—a significant population whose fate is at the heart of the current, polarized Congressional debates over immigration legislation and reform. According to Hoffman’s calculations, it is likely that at least half a million of these are married to American citizens or lawful permanent residents. Said another way, the living standards of hundreds of thousands of Americans also depend on the outcome in Congress. Yet their needs have been frequently overlooked.

At its heart, Amor and Exile is a plea for the reunification and repatriation of American families. The book’s unique contribution is that it illuminates the ways in which our increasingly punitive immigration laws, designed to criminalize and remove migrants in the name of national interests, in fact force many ordinary Americans into financial and emotional hardship and deprive them of rights otherwise considered inviolable in our society—chief among them, the “freedom of personal choice in matters of marriage and family life,” which the U.S. Supreme Court defends under the Due Process clause of the Constitution. Hoffman writes:

Certainly the demands of an organized society include control over its international borders. But where is the balance between the liberty of the individual American citizen to choose his or her life partner and the demands of the larger society in immigration policy? What is the compelling state need […] to separate mixed immigration status families?

Across multiple chapters, Hoffman does an admirable job educating readers on the political history and legal labyrinth of the current immigration system (though I would have appreciated more rigorous documentation of his research). He also presents arguments for reform and some specific recommendations that could potentially avoid a firestorm over mass legalization and help lift the burden on American family members.

The couples presented in Amor and Exile vary in their circumstances, but common to all cases is the destructive impact of a set of inflexible, punitive time bars (bans from the country of either three or ten years) that originate in the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996. It is these bars—plus a so-called permanent bar—that continue to force Americans to make a wrenching choice between living apart from their spouses, often with children who become estranged from the non-resident parent, or else following their banished partners into exile, as Salgado chose to do.

Until such time as Congress either repeals or softens the language of these time bars, Hoffman succinctly phrases the plight of American spouses—people who find themselves “stuck in that limbo between love of family and respect for the nation’s laws, torn between doing what’s right and doing what’s right.”

As can be expected with any work this large in scope, some aspects are more adeptly handled than others. Burdened by a large cast of as-yet-unfamiliar characters and an unfortunate attempt to set the whole stage at once, the beginning of the book feels disjointed, messy; one senses Hoffman’s struggle as he juggles multiple storylines with overlapping chronologies and similar themes. Not all are necessary, and the blur of names and personal details (too frequently repeated) can combine to hinder rather than facilitate the reader’s initial sympathy. Unforgiving readers might wish to skip some of Hoffman’s “how they met” passages—Salgado’s compelling voice navigates the book’s emotional terrain with much more finesse, revealing matters of the heart through frank observation and vivid descriptions. (More on her story in a moment.)

A better model of narrative reporting comes into play in the second half of the book, beginning with the chapter titled “The Waiver Scene,” in which Hoffman describes the Heller-esque difficulties couples face when they pursue what is often their sole avenue of legal recourse: the “extreme hardship” waiver, which functions like a discretionary pardon but, in post-9/11 times, requires leaving the U.S. to apply—first for a visa that will be denied, then for the waiver. For Mexican nationals, this means an extended administrative process (counted in years) that unspools in Ciudad Juárez, a border city notorious for sky-high crime rates. There is no guarantee of success in the process, or of safety.

Hoffman’s writing is more immediate from this point forward, and he joins the personal and political with greater skill and sense of purpose. Couples’ stories are now fewer and more carefully selected for their ability to illustrate a single legal aspect or consequence, or to represent a unique subset of the immigrant population, as in the case of Carlos, a “Dreamer” (named for the Dream Act legislation) whose parents brought him to the U.S. as a boy and whose inability to attend college without federal aid eventually placed him at risk for removal.

At the nexus of marriage, politics, and immigration, another important sub-group receives special focus: same-sex couples of mixed immigration status. Amor and Exile earns high marks for their inclusion, with one chapter dedicated exclusively to the double bind these couples have long faced. The book summarizes the legal history and anticipates the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act). While access to spousal-based visas and waivers is certainly a victory for same-sex couples married under State jurisdiction, Hoffman and Salgado are nevertheless quick to point out that equal treatment still means equally harsh and often unfair treatment, especially for families facing time bars.

Hardship of all kinds only intensifies in “Split by Deportation,” where readers learn how enforcement actions—a record-setting 1.5 million deportations in Barack Obama’s first term alone—often result in the insolvency of American households and businesses. American citizens can and do end up on public assistance, and thousands of U.S. citizen children have been placed in foster care after losing the presence of financially responsible but undocumented family members. One poignant story is told by a woman who, after her husband was deported, suffered the ruin of the family business and eventually lost her home to foreclosure. “I watched every door of possibility close in my face, which just left me alone with a child in each hand,” she says. Her congressional representative, the person in the best position to help, “wanted nothing to do with her.”

Through the collected stories in Amor and Exile, it’s clear that American spouses are prepared to do everything that’s asked of them. Their efforts are often heroic, but frequently it’s just not enough to hold lives and families together. Many who attempt to join their partners abroad to wait out either the waiver application process or a full-fledged time ban find themselves returning alone to the U.S. for job prospects or for their children’s safety and education—they also return with feelings of defeat, anger, and psychological adjustment challenges. It takes a certain type to continue to live in exile and not be undone by it.

Which brings me at last to Nicole Salgado and her husband, Margo (short for Margarito), the undocumented man whose border crossings in search of better prospects have earned him a “permanent” bar from the United States, only eligible for pardon and waiver (both necessary) after ten years. With help from her journals, Salgado reconstructs their courtship, commitment, and the way they were “brought down hard” by the realization that Margo’s legal problems would not be solved—not soon, not easily, and maybe never—through her American citizenship.

Starting the clock on their years in exile, Salgado returns with Margo to his hometown of Querétaro, Mexico, in 2006. There, she sums up her daily life as one that “blurs the lines between an extended vacation, early retirement, a prison sentence and an identity crisis.” Salgado does not shy away from describing the bleakness of her impoverished surroundings; she gives us the rank odors, raw sewage, dead dogs, and drainage ditches full of murky water. She records her feelings of isolation, her depression, her culture shock and chronic stress, and her bouts with illness due to poor local health conditions. All these and more Salgado enters into her “Hardship Log,” a document she will eventually use to build a case for her husband’s pardon.

Despite valid complaints, Salgado is no complainer. Her tone remains matter-of-fact descriptive throughout. This not only lends her voice credibility, it allows readers to more easily digest and sympathize with her story. Like all good friends, Salgado understands the art of telling her troubles in a way that does not mar the pleasure of her company. Rather, we are all the more captivated, as she displays a formidable ability to identify and communicate her anguish while simultaneously rising above it.

Translating her own raw experience into more refined, universal principles that help readers understand the loss of dignity suffered by American families forced abroad, Salgado pinpoints the source of the exile’s unease:

[A]s long as we have no choice but to be here, we will have a sense of an interrupted trajectory and unattainable fulfillment—the absence of personal sovereignty. […] There’s a difference between making the best of a forced situation, and having the autonomy to raise your family wherever you most want to be.

Yet she makes important distinctions between constraints imposed by law and those that are self-generated. Pushing beyond the trauma of exile and her helplessness over her family’s legal situation, Salgado demonstrates mastery of the power she does have. “Life in exile,” she writes, “has as much to do with my mind as it does my location. I’m constantly resisting the chains of the exile mentality.” This resistance is an act of defiance every bit as much as it is self-preservation: “As any survivor of trauma knows, there’s a point where you have to reclaim your life and move on. That’s why, although I’ll continue to keep my hardship log updated, I’ll be damned if I’ll let it define me.”

Salgado chooses to be defined instead by her relationships: her marriage, motherhood, and a deep connection to the land (she works as an ecologist). The birth of her and Margo’s daughter, four years into exile, provides the catalyst for finding “the place where exile ends and life begins.” And life, Salgado reminds readers, is all around: in the migratory patterns of Monarch butterflies; in the “waves of crimson, tangerine, and gold” that stain the open sky at sunrise in the Mexican highlands; and in the aspiring movements of people across borders.

In short, Salgado defines her life by what she loves. Her contributions to the book also demonstrate that she profoundly loves her homeland, despite the heartache it has caused her. Love risks everything, it is said, and Salgado’s story offers ample evidence. But far from asking nothing in return, love does make demands. It is precisely because Salgado cherishes the ideals upon which her country was founded—the freedom to improve our lives, provide for our families, and pilot our destinies (including marrying for love, not status)—that she dares to expect better from America than what she and others receive under current U.S. immigration policy.

Closing the cover on Amor and Exile, it is clear that the book’s authors together have accomplished at least this: readers may reasonably expect to be changed by these stories of love, loss, and (in some cases) redemption. Perhaps they will begin to probe more deeply what it means to be an American family. They will almost certainly be more educated about the ways in which immigration law impacts and alienates American spouses and children. And in the end, they may just find themselves missing what they didn’t realize had been banished: the abundant strength, compassion, and optimism of citizens like Salgado—shared by the foreign nationals who are their family. In an era where the United States seems to have lost its connection to its own roots, we need these qualities more than ever. It is past time for those of us still living within America’s borders to help bring these exiles home.

Allison Cay Parker was a longtime editor at Other Voices magazine and Other Voices Books, as well as at the 1990s literary magazine Fish Stories. She now writes regularly about immigration, ethnicity, and global economics. She is also an award-winning food writer whose work has been anthologized in Best Food Writing and published frequently in Leite's Culinaria. More from this author →