WASHINGTON — In a Senate hearing room crowded with advocates of immigration reform, Sharon Courtney of Las Vegas held up a sheaf of papers, certificates of appreciation signed by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and addressed to her as the wife of an Army serviceman.
“I am an American military wife, and I have my awards to prove it,” she declared.
Yet she and her husband, James Courtney, said they live in fear. That is because she also is an undocumented U.S. resident facing the threat of deportation that would pressure their marriage of 13 years and could break up their family of three sons.
The Courtneys, both 35, were among the focal points of a rally designed to show how flaws in the immigration system were pulling families apart or keeping them apart.
The testimony — from an Illinois father recently released from detention, an Arizona woman who had to leave her daughters behind in Mexico to earn a living, and a man from Seattle separated from his longtime partner when his work visa expired — was heard by lawmakers pushing for comprehensive immigration reform.
James Courtney served 15 years in the Army, including three tours of Iraq, before obtaining a medical retirement last year. He said he suffers from traumatic brain injury and several physical ailments.
In Iraq, besides his survival, he said he also worried about his family back home. Sharon Courtney had been detained in El Paso, Texas, in 2003 and unwittingly signed a document acknowledging she was in the country illegally.
“I said to myself I had to get back to my family,” he said. “I had to get back to protect my family because that was the only thing that kept me going.”
James Courtney said his wife, who entered the United States from Mexico when she was 15, is in voluntary departure status that remained in limbo while he was in the military. Her case “has been getting delayed, delayed, delayed. Here’s the thing, they say, ‘We won’t give her a green card, but we won’t deport her either,’ ” he said.
“We want to do the right thing,” Courtney said, but the couple decided to speak out “because nobody’s listening.”
“It affects us every day, knowing they can tear our family apart,” Courtney said. He said the family is fearful of traveling and being stopped by authorities, although the Army stickers on his car usually earn the family a wave through checkpoints.
Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., said Wednesday he is seeking information about the family’s case. So is Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., according to an aide.
“It is clear it is not acceptable to treat families of our veterans in this country this way,” Horsford said at the rally.
He said the Courtneys’ story “cuts across a lot of issues at stake in immigration reform, like keeping our families together and addressing sane border patrol policies and an effective pathway to citizenship.”
“We are a true American military family who have sacrificed a lot,” James Courtney said. “My wife is very deserving of residence or U.S. citizenship.
“The United States is our home, and we would not trade that for anything,” he said. “I did what my country asked me to do, and now I am asking my country to keep my family together.”
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at email@example.com or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.