On a call I had recently, I was explaining for perhaps the millionth time, about the permanent bar. I was talking to a man from Mexico, we’ll call him “Jose,” and his U.S. citizen wife, whom we’ll call “Laura.” Jose had come to the USA in the year 2000 without permission. He was 17 years old at the time and needed to work to help provide for his family back in Mexico. He found work in Texas and was able to achieve his goal – his family in Mexico used his financial contribution to feed all the siblings and send them to school. Then, in 2002, Jose made a trip home to visit his beloved family. He went home and hugged his parents and siblings, ate his mom’s cooking, and enjoyed the feeling of being home for the first time in two years. Then he came back to the USA to continue working. He entered the same way he had the first time – crossed the river and got on a bus, but without a visa or permit, but without harming anyone or having anyone even ask him for papers. He has not been back to see his home or his family in more than 18 years. During the past two decades in the USA, Jose married Laura and they have three U.S. citizen children. Laura insisted emphatically that Jose is a loving and devoted husband and father, has built a successful business, earns well for his family, pays tens of thousands of dollars each year in taxes to the U.S. government, and employs several other people. Laura felt strongly that Jose deserves to be a legal resident of the USA.

However, Jose is ineligible to get legal residency – all because of that illegal entry back in 2002. When Jose entered the USA without permission for the second time, he unknowingly triggered what’s called the “Permanent Bar.” This bar, enacted into law in 1996, prohibits anyone from gaining legal status through marriage to a U.S. citizen if they have an immigration history like Jose’s. This bar is one of the most severe and unjust provisions in the immigration law. There is no way around it – there is no fine you can pay, there is no hardship-based waiver you can request. Even people with severely disabled U.S. citizen kids cannot get around the permanent bar. The only hope of overcoming it is to leave the USA for 10 years and THEN request a hardship-based waiver of the bar. Very few families are able to consider this option. The permanent bar impacts many millions of families in the USA, preventing these families from reaching their full potential, and locking immigrants inside the country with no way to return home to visit their loved ones, legalize their status, and live and work without fear of deportation. The punishment that this bar inflicts on immigrants and their families is far more severe than the victimless crime of entering the USA without a visa.

But the permanent bar is not a law of God or science. It’s not like the law of gravity or the law of cause and effect. The permanent bar is just a tiny paragraph in the immigration code. It can be changed – but only if U.S. citizens work it. Step one of this work is getting REGISTERED TO VOTE.

After listening to me explain the permanent bar, Jose and Laura asked, “So, are you really saying there is NOTHING we can do to get Jose’s legal status?” I assured them that this provision of the immigration law really is as rigid and unforgiving as I described. Then I asked a question: “Laura, you’re a U.S. citizen. Are you registered to vote?” Her answer was all too common: “No, I haven’t registered yet.”

Imagine how different our political system and our immigration system would look if all the Laura’s of the world were voting in our elections.

Is this your family’s story too?

It’s time to fight for our undocumented loved ones.