The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA) has exiled Americans like me who are living abroad with their non-American families. What exactly is our crime?
Under US immigration laws, the non-American spouse and children of an American citizen are entitled to live in the United States. This is called family-based immigration.
Like all would-be immigrants to the United States, the spouse and children of an American citizen must first satisfy the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) that they are genuinely related to the American citizen and that the family has the financial means to support itself.
From 17 December 1997, the IIRIRA has required the American citizen of an immigrant family to sign an Affidavit of Support which is a legally-binding promise that s/he will support the immigrant relatives for up to ten years, or until they obtain American citizenship. This is to ensure that the immigrants are not a burden to the American welfare system into which they have not paid.
That's fair enough. The American welfare system needs to be protected, and other countries (Great Britain, for example) expect their immigrants to make the same kind of pledge. But here's the catch:
The American citizen who sponsors his/her family must be domiciled in the United States.
Why is this a problem? Well, consider the case of an American citizen who is living abroad and who meets and marries a non-American. Suppose that after several years, the couple decide to move to the United States. In the eyes of the US Government, the American partner is not domiciled in the United States and so s/he cannot sign the Affidavit of Support, even though s/he may meet all the other requirements.
The American partner has been exiled for the "crime" of living abroad and marrying a non-American.