SHELBY TOWNSHIP — Lance Paxton is like a lot of metro Detroit fathers, in that he works multiple jobs to support his wife and children — with one striking dissimilarity.
Where most husbands and fathers go home to warm and loving families after a long day, Paxton returns to an empty house devoid of children’s laughter and a wife’s love, after his wife, Bertha, was barred from returning to the United States from her native Mexico Nov. 10, 2011.
“We were voluntarily trying to fix her status, and, in doing so, she had to return to Mexico, and that was where she found out she had a lifetime ban and, after 10 years, we can apply for a waiver,” Paxton said.
Paxton said he still recalls exactly how the phone call from his wife played out that day, as he was home in Shelby Township awaiting her return with hopes that she would be legally welcome in the United States to raise their two daughters in the only home they had ever known.
“It was tough; I didn’t know what to do,” Paxton said. “I’ve never heard her that torn apart about something. She was just hysterical, and all I could tell her is it will be all right. It’s just such a horrible feeling. Everything you know is gone. It’s all changed.”
Paxton said he initially attempted to care for his daughters, 4 and 6, but he said it was quickly apparent that his girls needed their mother.
“It’s like having your family taken away from you and you can’t do anything about it, and my children need their mother. I can’t raise them by myself and take care of them. Our home, everything, is all gone and there’s nothing there to fix it,” Paxton said.
Initially, Paxton attempted to relocate to Mexico with his family, but he could not earn enough money there to afford to place his family in a safe environment with quality schools, so he returned home to support his family.
“Every three months, I go there for a week,” Paxton said. “I tried to go there during the summer to live there and be with them, but I couldn’t do it. I can’t keep them in a decent neighborhood and going to a decent school.
“All that costs money, and the wages down there are very low, and it’s very hard for them to hire foreigners when Mexicans can do the same job. There’s a reason there’s not Americans flooding into Mexico.”
The fact that he was able to spend more than 10 years with his wife before being separated, and that he was able to experience the joy of his daughters’ births at home and their early childhoods, only served to make that separation hurt more.
“I was born and raised in Shelby Township, and at about 20, I ended up getting a job at Macaroni Grill, and my wife was a cook there, and we’ve been together ever since — 10 years now,” Paxton said.
“We fell in love, started a family, got married. Like a lot of people think, when you marry somebody, their immigration status doesn’t matter and you, as a U.S. citizen, fix it.”
Of course, the Paxton family soon found out that the storybook ending to Bertha’s immigration troubles was too good to be true.
“That’s so not true and such an important topic,” Marilu Cabrera said. “If you are here unlawfully over one year, and you leave the country, you trigger the bar and you can’t come back for 10 years. Being here unlawfully has consequences.”
Cabrera, a spokesperson for United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, said that the Paxtons’ story is a cautionary tale even beyond the common misconception of marriage solving all immigration issues.
“You need to be very careful about the advice you get,” Cabrera said. “There are a lot of people out there giving advice who may be misleading or just not clear on the law. And immigration law is very complex, which is why we have a list of accredited attorneys to help people out there.”
Paxton said that is one of the points of his story that is particularly sore, because he and his wife sought out several attorneys for legal advice they thought was sound before Bertha left the country to try and fix her immigration status.
“We were doing this voluntarily with the best intentions,” Paxton said. “She wasn’t in deportation proceedings. She wasn’t in trouble.
“What the attorneys didn’t tell us, because she was here for this amount of time, (was) that she was ineligible for a waiver.”
Because his wife was not a citizen, the family was left with no legal recourse against those attorneys.
And Paxton said that sense of helplessness haunts him at every turn, as he and his wife applied for and were denied a hardship waiver for her re-entry, which was their last hope for a timely re-entry under current laws.
Paxton is now working with American Families United, a group that is lobbying for immigration reform that would reunite citizens like Paxton with their estranged spouses.
“Since my wife’s gone, there’s nothing we can do now,” Paxton said. “So unless they do some reform for us citizens, I’ll be stuck living in Mexico, and a lot of people don’t understand this is happening to a lot of American families.
“There are a lot of people separated from their spouses in the same situation I am in, and I think, as a U.S. citizen, I deserve to be able to raise my children here and have my wife. It’s not a criminal offense what she did; it’s a civil offense.
“She was here for 13 years and never committed any crimes. After 10 years married and two daughters, it’s a tough pill to swallow. And it seems like it gets harder every day. It doesn’t get easier because you just want your life to go back to normal.”
For more information on American Families United, visit www.americanfamiliesunited.org.
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