Sessions amendment would harm military families

The Senate Judiciary Committee will turn to questions of immigration enforcement in the coming week as the senators continue to mark up the immigration bill crafted by the Gang of Eight. One amendment in particular could cause huge problems for military family members by mandating the imprisonment for 60 to 90 days of people who overstay their permission to be in the United States. It’s doubtful that Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) realizes how military families would be affected by the fifth of his 49 amendments to the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act, or S. 744, but serious harm will result if his proposed amendment is adopted.

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Military family members often enter the United States and overstay their permission to be here in order to adjust status, frequently because well-meaning but ill-informed government lawyers and personnel officials tell them to do so. It has been a common practice among government legal assistance officers, for example, to tell military spouses that the immigrant visa issuance process takes too long, and they should just use a visitor's visa to get on a plane and enter the U.S. and adjust here. There have been hundreds of such cases around the country in the past few decades — some have even involved military family members who have entered the U.S. on temporary visas to take care of the personal affairs of loved ones who have been killed in combat, or to tend to injured military members who have been evacuated from overseas for medical reasons.

Under Sessions’s amendment, military family members who overstay their permission to be in the United States while awaiting immigration processing would be automatically imprisoned instead of allowed to adjust status. Aside from the daunting cost of imprisoning all these family members, the amendment would place an additional burden on members of our armed forces and their families who are often in the midst of a stressful transition to life in the U.S. after a military member's overseas military service. In some cases, family members would be doing jail time instead of attending a funeral at Arlington National Cemetery or taking care of an injured loved one at a military hospital.

Thousands of people who have overstayed their permission to be in the United States adjust their status every year as the immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, and many of them are military family members. With the global deployments of the U.S. Armed Forces, it is common for U.S. citizens serving in the military to meet and fall in love with foreigners. Often, they get married. At the end of overseas tours, military members will often seek assistance with bringing family members back to the United States, often on short notice. Sometimes the military member is injured and must return to the U.S. suddenly for medical treatment, and the family members are anxious to join them to help with their care. Occasionally, a military member has died in combat and the family member needs to return suddenly to the U.S. for the funeral. Frequently the family members are told to enter the U.S. as visitors and adjust their status later. Up until now, they have not had to worry about overstaying their initial permission to be in the United States while they work through the green card process. Under Sessions’s Amendment 5, however, these family members would face mandatory jail sentences. The law has long forgiven the immediate relatives of U.S. citizens who have entered the United States lawfully but have overstayed their permission to be here; they have long been allowed to adjust their status in the United States. Why would we now mandate that such family members be jailed?

As the senators on the Judiciary Committee consider amendments, they should consider how the changes could impact military families, who have already sacrificed for our country and who don't deserve mandatory jail sentences just for trying to stay together, take care of a wounded warrior or settle the personal affairs of a military member who has died in combat. Sessions 5 and other such amendments don’t belong in a humane, 21st-century immigration system.
 
Stock is a retired lieutenant colonel of the U.S. Army Reserve and an immigration attorney in Anchorage, Alaska.  She has represented many military family members who have overstayed their permission to be in the US and successfully adjusted status.