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Love, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

Posted: 07/01/09 05:35 PM ET

This Independence Day, I hope to spend time with my wife to celebrate our first three months of marriage. But I must leave the country to do so, due to a broken and outdated immigration system that needlessly separates thousands of American families.

Few social institutions represent the pursuit of happiness like marriage, and ours began on a gloriously happy day marked by the rambunctious union of our Irish-American and Argentine families in the verdant foothills of the Andes. The afterglow of a beautiful honeymoon was quickly expunged when my wife and I were separated upon our return to the US.

At the airport in Houston, Customs and Border Protection officials detained my wife, and held her incommunicado for several hours. Eventually, we were granted three minutes to say farewell under armed guard, and I was forced to continue my homecoming alone, as they had decided to rescind my wife's visa and return her to Argentina. The charge? A suspicion she would overstay the terms of her visitor's visa.

There was plenty of evidence to the contrary: no previous overstays; a signed affidavit stating she would abide by the time limit; and phone calls from an immigration law firm and the Argentine Consulate begging for clemency. But such evidence and pleas were ignored, and the customs staff in the airport acted as judge, jury and executioner, meting out preemptive punishment based on a groundless suspicion.

Our intention was for my wife to visit me briefly in the US -- where I work and have lived legally for much of my life -- before returning to Argentina to await my sponsorship of her green card application after my pending naturalization. But, in the space of a day, our dream was deferred and we became another couple of statistics in the growing heap of families separated by visa processing backlogs.

US citizens face drastically shorter wait times than permanent residents who sponsor legal immigration of their spouses or children. Because immigration law does not classify them as "immediate family members," an estimated 322,000 spouses and minor children of green card holders wait years -- and sometimes decades -- for their visa applications to be processed.

During this processing time, family members of US permanent residents are almost categorically denied non-immigrant visas -- such as tourist, student or temporary work visas -- to spend time with their loved ones, even if they otherwise meet all the requirements. Meanwhile, green card holders cannot spend long periods outside the US to be with family, since the naturalization process has requirements for them to be physically present and in continuous residence in the U.S.

In the 1967 Supreme Court ruling in Loving v. Virginia, Chief Justice Warren wrote that "the freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness." The freedom to be united with one's spouse through a timely and efficient legal immigration process is surely just as vital to the proper functioning of family life, a basis of American values.

There is a remedy to this conundrum. Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA) recently introduced the Reuniting Families Act in the Senate (S. 1085) and House (H.R. 2709) respectively. If enacted, this legislation would reclassify spouses and minor children of permanent residents as immediate family members, make more visas available, and reduce processing times.

"Family unity is a deeply rooted American value, and it should continue to be a main ideal by which we draw our newest Americans," Menendez said. "Strong, unified families help maintain stable communities and tend to work hard, pay taxes and start businesses that create jobs. We have clear societal and economic reasons to ensure that family reunification is at the core of our legal immigration system. As a nation with a history rooted in immigrants arriving here to reunite with their loved ones, this approach embodies our American values. Our family immigration system is broken -- it has not been updated in 20 years and many families wait decades to immigrate legally to this country. This bill will help legal immigrants reunite with their families rather than forcing them to wait for years apart."

I love America's hope, and its promise of unalienable rights, like the pursuit of happiness, for all. But I am ashamed at how current immigration law forces apart young families. America should do better by all those who have the hope, the skills and the wherewithal to prosper on its soil. Americans can change this by urging their elected legislators to pass the Reuniting Families Act this year. Permanent residents are productive members of American society and the citizens of tomorrow, and it is senseless and insensitive for the government to curtail our pursuit of happiness by needlessly separating us from our families.