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Elisa Xitco, 6, the daughter of U.S. citizen Chris Xitco, stands behind the iron gate protecting her home in Rosarito, Mexico, where she lives with her Mexican mother. Her mother has been barred from entering the U.S. at least until 2018 due to legislation that imposes harsh punishments on illegal immigrants who apply for legal status based on marriage to a U.S. citizen or some other tie.. Susan Ferriss.

The new immigration proposal now before the Senate could help thousands of American citizens whose families have been shattered or forced into exile because of deportation and tough immigration penalties Congress adopted in 1996.

Grueling debate on the sweeping bipartisan proposal is ahead, with opponents, such as Numbers USA, an immigration restriction group, already mustering a campaign to denounce portions of the bill as “amnesty.” But Americans who have been forced to move out of the country to remain united with ousted spouses – or who face years of separation from spouses and sometimes children — say they are thrilled by language in the proposal that could provide them relief.

“We still have a long way to go, but this is one giant step forward for my family,” New Jersey native Margot Bruemmer, 40, told the Center for Public Integrity in a phone call from Veracruz, Mexico. She has lived there, in a remote area, since 2005, after she tried to legalize her husband and he was given a mandatory lifetime “bar” from living in the United States that can’t be appealed for 10 years.

The reason: He had crossed the border more than once unlawfully, which is not uncommon among undocumented workers. The couple has two small children.

Bruemmer belongs to American Families United, a network of Americans who have all been separated from spouses or moved abroad with them – or who fear that they’ll suffer the same fate if they dare to try to legalize spouses under the current immigration system.

As a recent Center for Public Integrity report revealed, thousands of American families have been separated – or face separation – because of these little-known mandatory immigration penalties. Bruemmer and others in American Families United recently traveled to Capitol Hill to plead with lawmakers to address their plight as part of immigration reform proposals.

Crafted by a bipartisan group of eight senators, the voluminous Senate bill calls for giving immigration judges and other officials more discretion to consider the pain and suffering that a loved one’s separation causes U.S. citizens and legal immigrants. The provisions, if eventually adopted, would allow citizens like Bruemmer and legal residents a much greater chance to bring back spouses who have been deported or forced into exile.

Others might feel more secure in coming forward, without fear, to legalize based on family ties.

Randall Emery, president of American Families United, said the legislation is unprecedented in its explicit recognition that judges can consider the plight of Americans and legal residents who suffer when a spouse or parent is forced out of the country.

The proposal says judges who review cases can decline to order an immigrant, with some criminal exceptions, to be “removed, deported or excluded” if it would be “against the public interest or would result in hardship to the alien’s United States citizen or permanent resident” spouse or children.

Although few Americans realize it, undocumented spouses, over the last decade, have been frequently assessed bars to living in the United States after they voluntarily came forward in attempts to legalize based on marriage. Right now, the idea that their children might suffer harm cannot be taken into consideration as a plea to halt their ouster.

Judges and consular officials who review applications have little to no discretion to disregard these penalties because Congress made them mandatory in 1996.

While some families can seek so-called hardship waivers to shorten a spouse’s mandatory exile, the waivers’ requirements are demanding. And anyone who has a deportation history or who even admits to crossing the border more than once is ineligible to apply for a waiver.

Douglas Stump, an Oklahoma lawyer and president-elect of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told the Center that fear of certain exile has blocked a significant number of the millions of illegal immigrants now in the United States from applying for legal status based on a close family tie.

Because her husband was barred, Bruemmer said, she made a tough decision to give up her career as a college professor and move with him.

She is now “desperate” to move back to the United States both for safety’s sake and for the sake of her children’s education. The family has faced kidnapping threats, she said, because of assumptions she must have lots of money because she’s American.

In reality, Bruemmer told the Center, the family is barely eking out a living. She was part of the American Families United group that recently visited congressional offices.

In Los Angeles, American Families United member Chris Xitco, said he was also optimistic after reading parts of the immigration proposal.

“It looks good,” Xitco said, his joy tempered by years of fighting to legalize his wife. “But now we have to get it through Congress.”

Xitco’s wife, Delia, lives with their two small children south of Tijuana, Mexico, where she moved after immigration officials told her they had no choice but to impose an exile of at least 10 years, until 2018, when she can once again apply for legal status. It did not matter that the couple had a baby.

Delia had crossed the border twice in the 1990s, and had been caught once.

A family in San Diego interviewed by the Center, headed by T.J. and Maythe Barbour of San Diego, is struggling with a 20-year bar that Maythe was given after a police officer stopped her for driving too slowly and turned her into immigration authorities.

T.J is an American citizen. A lawyer had advised the couple not to even attempt legalization for Maythe because she would surely have been barred due to a prior deportation. She was barred for 20 years because she was deported twice – the second time after she was turned over to immigration by the police officer.

She now lives in Tijuana and only sees her 10-year-old son when T.J. drives him over on weekends and one night a week. The boy has been deeply distressed by his mother’s deportation.

Emery applauded legislators for listening to the stories of members of American Families United.

“For the most part,” he said, “this is what we’ve been looking for: More discretion for judges to really look at the facts, and use more common sense to apply the law.”

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