VAN NUYS, Calif. (WOMENSENEWS)–This Thanksgiving the Barrios family will gather with relatives in Van Nuys, Calif., freed from the dread that Francis, 23, will be pulled away from her husband and children and deported to a country she barely remembers.

Francis Barrios, wife of Iraq War veteran Army Spc. Jack Barrios and the mother of the couple’s two children, both born in the United States, has narrowly averted deportation to Guatemala, the nation she left as a young child.

"This past year has been really hard, but now we are able to relax and think of the future," she told Women’s eNews recently.

Countless U.S. Armed Services families face the same struggle as Jack and Francis Barrios due to our broken immigration system, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said during a telephone press conference earlier this month. Jack and Francis Barrios and Ali Noorani, executive director of the Washington-based National Immigration Forum, were also present.

Menendez introduced The Military Families Act (S. 2757) on Veterans Day. The bill would grant lawful permanent residence status to the spouse, child or parent of an active-duty member of the Armed Forces or one who has served honorably.

The Barrios’ story was used to illustrate the havoc current immigration laws can unleash on families, even those with members who serve in the military.

Unaware of Undocumented Status

Jack and Francis fell in love in high school. Francis came to the United States with her mother when she was 6 years old, but didn’t know of her undocumented status until she was in high school.

"Because of her legal status she was not able to go to college and she had no papers so she couldn’t work," said Jack Barrios, who was born in Los Angeles.

Francis was apprehensive when Jack joined the Army in 2004, but he told her that he wanted to give back to his country.

He was deployed to Iraq in 2006 when the couple’s first child, Matthew, was just a few months old.

Jack vowed to help Francis clear up her immigration problems upon his return.

Readjusting to civilian life has been difficult for Jack Barrios. He returned from Iraq with post-traumatic stress disorder. He suffers from nightmares, insomnia and bouts of anger after what he witnessed there.

"I saw a lot of violent stuff in Iraq; kids bleeding and dying," he said. "It hurts me on a daily basis."

Jack receives treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder while working 15-hour days at two jobs–as a UPS driver and at an auto parts firm–to support his wife and two children.

In August 2008 the couple sought help from Studio City, Calif., immigration lawyer Jessica Dominguez. She discovered that paperwork submitted for Francis years earlier had led to deportation proceedings against her. Francis was due in court on Nov. 4, 2008, in Omaha, Neb., a state she had never visited and where she knew no one, Dominguez told Women’s eNews.

"It was a shock for us all," Dominguez said. "Jack was holding his wife and crying. She was expecting their second child. It was heartbreaking." Their daughter Allanna is now 15 months old.

Providing the Proof

Dominguez got the case transferred to Los Angeles. To stop Francis Barrios’ deportation, they had to prove she had been in the United States for more than 10 years, was a person of good moral character and that her removal would cause her U.S. citizen husband and children "exceptional and extremely unusual hardship," Dominguez said.

The first two were easy but proving the third to an immigration judge and the government is very difficult, Dominguez said.

If deported, Francis faced a 10-year ban from returning to the United States. That would have meant a decade of separation because the couple had decided the children would receive a U.S. education.

"I didn’t know how Jack could take care of the kids and work two jobs when he is already so stressed," Francis Barrio said.

Luck was on their side. Attorney Dominguez received a request from a member of Congress (she did not disclose which one) seeking families to illustrate the hardships resulting from the failure to come up with comprehensive immigration reform.

"I have a lot of families in difficult situations, but a young soldier who was willing to sacrifice his life for his country and was now facing a battle to keep his family together was the one I chose," Dominguez said.

On Nov. 5, 2009, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services granted Francis Barrios "humanitarian parole" that allows her to remain in the United States.

In about three months she is expected to have authorization to work and drive a car. In three years she can apply for citizenship, Dominguez said.

The Barrios family is relieved and grateful but the ordeal has taken its toll.

"It was so stressful and really hurtful to know they were trying to separate our family," Francis Barrios said. "It was hard to live normally with this on our minds all the time. There was so much fear I wasn’t able to relax and play with the kids."

Fighting Two Battles

Jack Barrios puts it this way: "I fought two battles–for my country and for my wife. It was so hard. You have no idea what I went through to keep my family together."

Noorani of the National Immigration Forum said the personalized bill that helped Francis and Jack Barrios cannot resolve a problem that confronts hundreds, if not thousands, of military families.

In 2007 the Department of Homeland Security dropped plans to deport the Dominican-born wife of Army Staff Sgt. Alex Jimenez, who served two tours in Iraq and was captured and killed near Baghdad.

Margaret D. Stock, a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves and an immigration attorney specializing in military cases, said hundreds of U.S. soldiers face a fight to legalize their spouses’ status.

"These families are key to our military members’ morale and effectiveness on the battlefield and military members’ recovery when they return home from the battlefield," said Stock in a press statement issued by the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Stock is the author of a new Immigration Policy Center report about immigrants serving in the military since 9/11.

Menendez said no accurate count of military family members facing deportation would be known until there is legislation to protect those who come forward.

The Menendez bill has the backing of several Senate Democrats: Mary Landrieu, D-La., Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, Richard Durbin, D-Ill., Kristin Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis.

Menendez said he expects support from Republicans for what he considers an interim step towards the overhaul of the nation’s immigration system.

President Barack Obama has said he wants Congress to take up immigration reform next year.

Susan Elan covered politics at daily newspapers in the New York metropolitan area for more than a decade. She has also worked as a reporter for an English-language radio station in Paris, France.

For more information:

The Barrios family Web site

The National Immigration Forum

Immigration Policy Center Report, "Essential to the Fight: Immigrants in the Military Eight Years After 9/11"