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Mike Terry, Mike Terry, Deseret News
"Kate Romero" shares the experience of her family and their fear of immigration laws at the KSL TV studios in Salt Lake City, Utah on Thursday, March 10, 2011.

SALT LAKE CITY — It's a rare occasion when "Kate" feels comfortable enough to share her secret.

And even when she does, most don't believe her — at least not at first.

Kate is a U.S. citizen who's married to Luis, an undocumented immigrant. Together, the couple has four children between the ages of 7 and 13 — all of whom were born on U.S. soil.

For years, Kate and her family have lived in fear that the wrong people would find out that Luis is living in the U.S. illegally. And the enforcement-only illegal immigration bill passed by the Utah Legislature last week has the family even more worried.

"We have to live in the shadows," she said.

The simple answer, one might think, would be for Luis to step out of the shadows and take the necessary steps to become a U.S. citizen.

But there are no steps to citizenship for Luis — at least none that don't involve him returning to Mexico for at least 10 years with no guarantee he would be allowed to return.

"There's no path for us to adjust his papers," Kate said. "There is no way to get him documented. … When I find people I can trust to tell them (about the situation), they say, 'No, that can't be true. There's got to be a way.'"

"Kate," of course, isn't the woman's real name. "Luis" is made up, too. Their anonymity, she says, is essential to her keeping her family together.

Now, she's pleading with her fellow Utahns to listen to her story, even though they can't see her face.

"I strongly believe that if the good people of the state of Utah truly understood the situation, they wouldn't think (HB497) was OK," Kate said. "I think they're goodhearted people, and they wouldn't think it was all right for people to live that way."

Luis has a Utah driving privilege card, and he's covered under the family's auto insurance policy. But Kate worries that under HB497, if signed into law, her husband could be pulled over for speeding or a faulty tail light and end up being deported.

The way Luis entered the country, combined with some ill-timed changes in the law, complicate his path to citizenship. The couple has met with six immigration attorneys in hopes of finding another way for him to gain citizenship. Each time, they've walked away disappointed.

"We want to do the right thing," Kate said. "We want to be law-abiding people. But there's no way to fix it."

Dave Littlefield, an attorney who teaches immigration law at the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah, said Luis' circumstances make him ineligible for permanent residence in the U.S.

"If they were coming to see me, I'd tell them the same thing: 'There's nothing you can do,'" Littlefield said.

Two federal immigration laws — one past and one present — have worked against Kate and Luis, the attorney said.

Until April 30, 2001, an undocumented immigrant who was married to a U.S. citizen could pay a $1,000 fine that basically allowed them to change their status to permanent residence in the U.S., as long as they were otherwise eligible for the visa, Littlefield said.

"But that law had a sunset on it," he said. "It was extended a couple times, but it expired on April 30, 2001. It was up for consideration to be renewed when 9/11 happened. Since then, nothing has happened with immigration."

Kate and Luis married in March 2002, 11 months too late.

"We had been together before that," she said. "We just weren't ready to get married yet."

Another law that went into effect in the late 1990s began penalizing people for being "unlawfully present" in the U.S., Littlefield explained. Those living in the U.S. illegally for longer than one year become inadmissible for 10 years upon leaving the country, he said.

In Luis' case, if he were to return to Mexico to try to obtain citizenship, the soonest he could return would be a decade later.

A solution to Kate's problem and those of several others like her, Littlefield said, would be to reinstate the law allowing undocumented immigrants who are married to U.S. citizens to pay a fine to change their status.

"It's a tragedy," the attorney said. "So much could be solved just by reinstating that (law). It's already been the law. … These are mother's and fathers. These are people who raise families here."

Luis is the primary caregiver for the couple's children. Kate works "way more than full time" to support the family, as well as Luis' mother and ailing sister in Mexico.

"We live in fear every day that something could happen to him," she said. "If he's 15 minutes late coming home, we're in a panic about what could have happened to him, knowing that he could be taken away from us."

Luis was 17 when he and some of his young cousins sneaked across the border in hopes of finding employment that would allow him to support his family in Mexico.

"Because there was such abject poverty in their hometown, they all left at the same time to go work in the fields in California," Kate said.

Had Luis obtained a work visa and been admitted to the U.S., his marriage to Kate would make him eligible for citizenship, Littlefield said.

"It's all a very procedural thing," he said. "Had he had a visa, had he come on a border-crossing card, the case would be very, very simple to solve."

These days, nothing is simple for Kate and Luis. They don't go out in public very often as a family. Luis doesn't like to drive anymore. Their children have started to fear law enforcement, worrying that someone could come take their father away.

"People don't understand how broken our immigration system is," Kate said. "They don't understand that there's no remedy for us. People say, 'Get in line like everyone else.' There's no line."

And she fears that things would only get worse if HB497 becomes law.

"Until we fix the (federal) immigration system so there's some kind of path for families like ours," Kate said, "these kinds of (state) immigration laws that are so punitive and are so much based on (racial) profiling are really terrifying."

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E-mail: jpage@desnews.com