When Cristina Aldridge married her American fiancé 26 years ago in Bogota, Colombia, she underwent a seven-month process to receive the same very high security clearance level he had for his work with the Drug Enforcement Administration.
A native of Bogota, she met Michael Aldridge while he was stationed there with the U.S. Department of Justice. She had to pass the screening in order for them to marry.
A year later the couple moved to Harpers Ferry, W.V., so Michael Aldridge could work in DEA headquarters in Washington, D.C., and they began the five-year process for Cristina Aldridge to become a U.S. citizen.
“It was terrible,” Michael Aldridge said of the naturalization process.
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Amid calls this week from politicians to reform immigration law, the couple spoke Tuesday about their experiences and those of others they know, including some who are undocumented.
Cristina Aldridge said she and her husband helped to begin the process for her youngest brother, who worked for Coca Cola in Bogota, to immigrate to the United States about 15 years ago. They filed all of the paper work and paid the necessary fines.
After seven years she contacted the immigration department and learned his application was processing. She said her brother did not hear anything from the American embassy updating him during that entire time.
A year later, her brother received a letter from the embassy telling him not to quit his job or sell his home as they did not know how much longer it would take.
“We all gave up [hoping] at that point,” Cristina Aldridge said. “To this day we’ve never heard anything [about his application]. We lost the money and the time filling out all these papers. The immigration department is terrible.”
The Aldridges, who retired to Myrtle Beach in 2005, watched President Barack Obama present his plan for immigration reform Tuesday afternoon, a day after watching a bi-partisan selection of eight senators present their goals.
Both the president and the senators proposed creating a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people who are in the country illegally.
“It’s going to be a mess,” Cristina Aldridge said. “They want to give citizenship to 11-plus million people? They don’t know who they are or where they are. How are they going to start?”
Michael Aldridge agreed.
“If they do this and start processing people, how many people are they going hire?” he said. “How much are you going to spend on this? This is a difficult situation. It’s not easy at all.”
Cristina Aldridge serves as an interpreter with the Hispanic Community Ministry at St. Andrew Catholic Church in Myrtle Beach. She said legal status isn’t something that’s typically discussed with the other parishioners, but she knows many of the Hispanic people who attend her church are undocumented.
“These people are afraid of coming out and filling out papers [to gain citizenship] because they’re afraid that in a few months they’ll be told they’re being deported,” she said.
Myrtle Beach immigration attorney Jim Irvin said the rhetoric surrounding how to deal with undocumented immigrants has changed over the years.
“We’re coming around from ‘let’s get rid of all these folks’ to ‘let’s find a way to get them [legal],’” Irvin said.
One thing Irvin said he hopes is included in any reform would be that undocumented families who’ve been in the country for a certain number of years and have children here are given the ability to become citizens despite coming to the country illegally.
“It would be inhumane to send somebody’s grandmommy or granddaddy back to their country after being here for 10 years,” he said.
He said he hopes that the president and Congress should work together to do what’s best and makes the most sense.
“They need to decide, is it a political issue? Is it a social issue? Or is it a humane issue?” he said. “If they all agree it’s a humane issue then they shouldn’t have a problem passing reform.”
Cristina Aldridge said she was afraid the motives of the president and the senators is just politics at work.
“All of this, to me, is a show and is for the politicians to keep their jobs,” she said. “I hope the people get what they need to legalize their situation because they live under stress all the time. I would love for them to have a life here and live like I do – without worrying if they’re going to get caught.”
Both Cristina and Michael Aldridge stressed that they believe the people they know who are undocumented are good, hardworking people.
“These people are wonderful,” she said. “I have worked with them through the Catholic church. They’re dedicated to their families. They’re dedicated to the church. They’re good people in my opinion.”
They said they believe the immigration system doesn’t work.
“We understand why they want to get here and why they do it [illegally],” Michael Aldridge said.
Cristina Aldridge added: “Because you can’t do it legally.”