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Jimi Gonzalez, left, takes sons Fernando, now 12 and Jaden, now 9, on a hunting trip during a 2011 visit with Jimi in Campeche, Mexico. (Courtesy of the Gonzales family)

Not every Congressional Republican is joining the GOP rush to mend fences with Latino voters by embracing the pursuit of comprehensive immigration reform.

Rep. Steve King of Iowa, for example — one of Capitol Hill’s immigration hawks — made it plain after President Obama’s election victory that he doesn’t approve of the chatter from his party’s “establishment” on this issue. “Obama voters chose dependency over Liberty,” King said in a tweet. “Now establishment R’s want citizenship for illegals. You can’t beat Santa Claus with amnesty.”

King’s attitudes are significant, given that he’s a member of the House Judiciary Committee and vice chairman of its Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement. Judging from an interaction with one of his constituents, Bethany Gonzalez of Denison, Iowa, King believes in maintaining a hard line, even if U.S. citizens say some immigration policies have turned them into collateral damage.

Gonzalez recently spoke to the Center for Public Integrity about her attempts to persuade King to help her with a life-altering immigration problem. Gonzalez was desperate because immigration penalties she had no idea existed had forced her husband out of the U.S. in 2008, and she and their two children faced prolonged emotional and financial hardship.

King told her she had the option of moving to Mexico.

Gonzalez’s dilemma is shared by families described in a recent report by the Center for Public Integrity about punishments that Congress approved in 1996. The mandatory penalties, adopted as a method to deter illegal immigration, must be imposed on undocumented spouses (or other relatives) of U.S. citizens when they apply for legal status based on their relationships. The 1996 law requires U.S. officials to “bar,” or ban these applicants from the U.S. for 10 years, even for life, with waivers to shorten bars available only in limited cases.

Gonzalez, who is not Hispanic, met her undocumented husband, Jimi Gonzalez, a Mexican national, in 2004 and married him in 2006. Jimi had arrived in Iowa in 1996, and found work in meatpacking and construction.

The couple wanted to set things right, Bethany said. Jimi learned English and always paid taxes. Bethany had two very small sons, one a baby, from a previous marriage. Jimi stepped up and became the main father figure for her older son. An Iowa court, aware that Jimi was undocumented but married to Bethany, named Jimi the legal father of the youngest son.

In 2007 the couple applied for Jimi’s legal permanent residency. And Jimi traveled, as required, to the U.S. consulate in Juarez, Mexico, for his final interview in 2008. Jimi and Bethany were shocked when a U.S. consular officer told Jimi that because he had been deported once – and then re-entered the country in 2001 – there was no choice but to bar him from the United States for at least 10 years. Jimi returned to Mexico’s Campeche state to his father’s farm, where he ekes out a living growing crops and working at a meatpacking plant that pays the equivalent of $90 for six days’ of work.

Bethany contacted King, requesting that he help her ask authorities to find a different way to punish Jimi — perhaps with a penance that could let him earn a way to return sooner than 2018. She thought since King professed a strong belief in traditional family values that he might understand.

At first, letters show, King told her how to contact the nearest U.S. consulate to Jimi’s hometown in Mexico, and provided information about how to file a complaint about her lawyer, who didn’t fully explain the punishment Jimi would face.

Bethany asked if King couldn’t sponsor a “private bill” in Congress that might help bring Jimi back. On April 27, 2008, King sent her a letter denying her request. He told her he only pursues private bills if laws have not been broken and if “severe hardship is involved. In your case, United States law was broken and your family has the option of being reunited in Mexico.”

King’s office told the Center earlier this year that he wouldn’t discuss a constituent’s private matter. The congressman was re-elected last week by a 53 to 45 percent margin.

Bethany and Jimi remain committed to their marriage, although they can only afford to see each other a few times a year in Mexico, with or without the boys.

The family lost the house they were buying in Denison, and the boys are upset with the U.S. government for not letting their dad return. Bethany and the boys remain in Denison, thankful for family support she gets in her hometown. But said she continues to suffer substantial financial strain without Jimi. “There have been days when I stood in the store with $3 in my hand trying to figure out what I can buy,” she said. But neither she nor Jimi can imagine uprooting their sons, 9 and 12, and forcing them to live in a small town in Mexico.

“I pray every day,” Bethany said, “that God and the President will create a miracle for those people who have to live like my family for the past 4 1/2 years.”

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Susan Ferriss joined CPI in 2011 and directs its immigration project. As a Cox Newspapers Latin America...