Four years after she settled in San Antonio, her immigration status caught up with her. She couldn’t enter a military hospital to visit her husband after he came back from Afghanistan severely wounded.
“I crossed illegally so they want me to go to Mexico for one to 10 years,” she recalled.
U.S. Army Sgt. Ivan Moya was told he’d never walk again. But at least he still had Mireya by his side — the girl he had chased after his whole life.
“I first saw her when I was 8 years old in Mexico,” he said, flashing a shy but lasting smile. “My grandma lives a few houses down from her mom and one day I saw her at a wedding and from then on I knew I was in love.”
As a U.S. citizen, Ivan tried to sponsor her for legal residency. But she’d have to go back to Mexico to apply and face a wait of up to a decade to return.
But then their lawyer told them that the regional director for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal immigration benefits agency, was using his discretionary power to give a pass to military spouses so they could process paperwork here and not have to leave.
That pass is a document called parole in place.
“Once we have that document, then she’s essentially legal in the United States just as though she had come in on a tourist visa and had been inspected and admitted,” said Joe De Mott, a San Antonio immigration lawyer for 35 years, who’s representing the Moyas.
He’s had about a dozen cases approved in the last year.
The San Antonio regional director for USCIS, Mario Ortiz, declined an interview and referred calls to spokesman Tim Counts, who downplayed the program, saying it’s nothing new.
“Certainly, people have requested parole in place when it involves members of the military, but this is not something that was initiated by USCIS nor was it initiated by the San Antonio district,” he said.
That’s technically true since the first actual known case took place in Buffalo four years ago. But Ortiz was the first to essentially turn it into policy, an effort later picked up by his counterparts across the country, according to Margaret Stock, who recently retired as the U.S. Army’s top expert on immigration issues.
“Director Ortiz realized that he had the authority to do this and then other directors around the country decided to do similar things in their areas,” Stock said. “I know Denver started doing it, Los Angeles, San Diego. My impression was, however, that San Antonio pioneered the effort.”
Few seem to argue that families of active-duty military members don’t qualify for the program. In fact, in May, leading Democratic senators introduced the “Military Families Act,” a bill that would turn the discretionary provision into national law.
But opponents like Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said the law is wrong because it would give immigration benefits to spouses of soldiers that are not Americans.
“This bill is too far reaching in that it takes it another step and extends that benefit to family members of active duty military members who are only lawful permanent residents, not citizens already,” said Jessica Sandlin, Cornyn’s spokeswoman in Austin.
Other critics of the proposed law said that it’s nothing but backdoor amnesty.
“It sets up the possibility that you’re going to have people who are serving in our military simply in order to get green cards for members of their family,” said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, the country’s largest immigration-restriction organization.
For Ivan and Mireya Moya, both 25 years old, the discretionary use of parole in place worked. They got a pass. But they said there are many soldiers wondering if they’ll come home to find their spouses have been deported.
“I consider myself very lucky," Mireya Moya said."Because when we got approved, I remember I met two wives with the same situation and one of the ladies (took) like 10 years to get the papers — married with somebody in the Army.”
Her husband agrees that people with criminal backgrounds shouldn’t get a pardon. But as long as they have a clean record — other than having entered illegally — if anybody deserves a break, it’s military spouses, he said.
In his case, Mireya Moya also became his personal nurse and main supporter during his recovery.
“I wouldn’t be as far along as I am right now. I definitely wouldn’t be walking by now,” he said, letting out a long sigh. “Yeah, she was pretty much my pushing stone to push me to get better and to try to start walking all over again.
The sponsors of the Senate bill readily acknowledge it has a slim chance of passing. It has no Republican support. And with the 2012 election season kicking into gear, the controversial issue of immigration is not one candidates seem to want to touch.
Meantime, USCIS regional directors retain their power to issue parole in place. Agency officials said there are no plans currently in place to change the policy.