When Divorce is the only immigration option

By Cristina DC Pastor

Everything about this story is true, except for the names of the individuals.

Albert and Elisa have been in the country unlawfully for the last 20 years. Like many immigrants, they have been through a long line of lawyers dispensing one unfortunate advice after another.

They consulted with a lawyer from New York, someone who does not sugarcoat options and one with a solid reputation for disentangling immigration snarls committed by other attorneys. The lawyer laid it on the line for Albert and Elisa: There’s no way under their circumstances they could stay in the country. One option, albeit a long shot, is for them to return to the Philippines and, while there, look for U.S. companies that would be willing to sponsor them.

It’s a decision, the couple has heard before and are not willing to accept. Albert is a long-time manager at a casino, taking home a good monthly pay, and Elisa works at a grocery store, also in a managerial position. If they stayed in the Philippines, they lose their annual pay of $80,000, an amount they cannot hope to earn there.

“What about divorce?” Albert blurted a theoretical possibility that’s been percolating in his mind, but never told Elisa.

The lawyer, calm and unperturbed because he has heard everything, agreed that is one possibility but not something he would be willing to defend. He pointed out the risks, asking the couple, ‘why add another unlawful action to your long list of illegal actions?’

For Elisa, the conversation was heartbreaking not because there appeared to be no way to break out of their logjam but because her husband would choose to terminate their 20-year marriage to be able to stay in the country.

That night, she could not sleep, tossing and turning, and facing the back of the man she met in school, became her first love, and who she would marry after college. The tears flowed silently through the night.

Divorce as an option, according to a California law office, is quite common among Filipinos looking to adjust their status. It is, says this law firm, “possibly (an) illegal new twist in the emigrant experience.” Not every divorce application gets approved, and the burden of proof can be tough. It is not as simple as providing pictures of the happy couple and six months of shared utilities and bills coming from the same address. There are federal ways to test the emotional strength of a relationship to make sure it is truly love that binds couples, not fraud.

Two more Filipino couples I know faced the same conundrum. The Filipino man from Illinois decided against it although his wife in the Philippines gave him her support “for the sake of our children.” He decided not to break up his family.

The other couple from California was on the verge, preparing all the documentation to submit to their lawyer, but eventually held back. As parents, they gave their commitment to their teenage son that they would stay together as his parents.

Albert and Elisa are currently weighing their options, with Albert trying to sell the idea to his wife that it will be a temporary solution and that they will look for people who will not cross the marital boundary. Elisa is not sure divorce is a way out, but rather, a way to become imprisoned in their illusion of the American Dream.

One Comment

  1. S. G. S. wrote:

    Generally, an immigrant who divorces a United States citizen after 2 or more years of marriage is less likely to face deportation if the immigrant has already obtained permanent resident status. A divorce may delay the alien s citizenship process since there is only a three year residency requirement for immigrant married to U.S.

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