CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico - Erika Orrantia is a tall, slender Arizonan with curly, light-brown hair. She is not shy about speaking her mind.

But that's inside her home.

The 31-year-old mother of two hardly ever ventures outside, except to go grocery shopping and to church. When she does leave her house, she usually stays quiet because she doesn't speak Spanish.

Erika was born in El Paso but raised in Arizona, where her children, Jared and Maya, were born. But two years ago she faced one of the hardest choices of her life: Stay in the Tucson area or move permanently to Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, to keep her family together.

She chose the latter.

Sixteen years ago, her husband, Luis Orrantia, 40, made an irreversible mistake when it comes to immigration law. He falsely claimed to be a U.S. citizen at a port of entry - a tossed-off lie that got him barred for life from living legally in his wife and children's country.

Their only chance to return to the U.S. is if Congress changes the law. And with the possibility of comprehensive immigration reform closer than it has been in years, the Orrantias feel a glimmer of hope.

'96 law changed rules

People who falsely claimed citizenship used to be able to seek a waiver of their lifetime immigration ban. To qualify, they had to prove that not having a green card would cause an extreme hardship to a spouse, parent or child who is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.

But that changed with the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which aimed to cut down on fraud and encourage better adherence to immigration laws. The law drastically changed the penalties for people who violate certain provisions.

"Until you are in the situation or know someone who is in exile, you never understand what it's like," Erika said. "There are 4 million people in line for permanent residence cards. All we want is to be able to get in line."

She knows her husband did wrong, she said, but "all we want is an opportunity to be able to live our lives in the states like an American family."

They surrendered that right when Luis broke a federal law, proponents of stricter immigration laws say. "Marriage to a U.S. citizen shouldn't be a way out," said Jon Feere, a policy analyst with the Center for Immigration Studies, a national think tank that advocates lower immigration levels.

The one-word lie

Luis first entered the United States in 1995 using his border-crossing card, a visitor's visa given to Mexican citizens.

Two years later, he traveled back to Juarez to introduce his then-fiancée, a U.S. citizen, to his mother. On their way home to Arizona an officer at the port of entry saw he had gym membership and bank cards in his wallet and concluded he was living in the U.S. The officer took away his border-crossing card.

They tried to cross again several days later. Luis thought he'd have a better chance of getting through if he answered the question of his citizenship with, "American." He didn't know the consequences that one word would bring.

The young couple got married and had two children. His wife later sponsored him to get a permanent-residence card, and he was able to secure a work permit while the application was being processed.

But in 2003, during his interview for the green card, the immigration officer pressed him on how he entered the United States. He confessed he had falsely claimed to be a U.S. citizen.

That was it. He was ordered to leave the country.

An Arizona life

Luis didn't comply.

He stayed in Arizona even after he and his first wife divorced nearly a decade ago.

In 2005, he met Erika on a Christian dating site.

She fell in love with a guy whose profile picture showed him with his two sons. A man who put his family first, she thought.

He fell in love with a beautiful girl who was down to earth.

"He told me he had been living in the states undocumented and was working on an expired visa, but I never thought in a million years he'd end up deported," she said from her two-story house in Juarez, just a few minutes from the border.

After they married, life was looking good, Erika said. They had struggled financially at first because of Luis' illegal status, but things were getting better.

Her parents helped them buy a five-bedroom home in Sahuarita. She was teaching. He was working with troubled youth.

Then, in 2010, his past caught up to him. He was a passenger in a car that was pulled over for speeding in Arivaca. The officer asked all inside for their identification and found Immigration and Customs Enforcement had a hold on Luis.

He accepted a voluntary removal. After 15 years of living in the United States, he was dropped off in Nogales, Sonora.

Move to Juarez

At first, Erika stayed behind with her children.

Luis tried to make a living in Guaymas and Cabo San Lucas, but eventually returned to his hometown of Juarez, where he could be close to his mother and sister. He found a job in a call center.

Erika had never been to Juarez except to visit, but had heard plenty about the border town. It became known as the "murder capital of the world" several years ago when drug violence skyrocketed.

The U.S. State Department still warns against any non-essential travel to the city of 1.5 million people. Nearly 2,000 people were killed there in 2010, down from more than 3,000 the previous year.

Her friends thought she was crazy for even considering a move there.

But "I love my husband more than life itself," she said. "This has been the best thing I've done for my family. Even though it's hard to be away from my birth country, we are happy as a family."

Still, it's been three years since Luis saw his two sons from his previous marriage.

Since Erika rarely ventures out, she's pretty much shielded from what happens beyond her home. Some Americans she's met there haven't been so lucky.

"One of my friends heard the screams of five people as they were being killed right behind her house," she said.

Americans abroad

The Orrantias aren't like most families in Juarez.

Erika has learned to cook Mexican standards like carnitas, mole and chilaquiles. But she usually makes casseroles, spaghetti, or meat and potatoes cooked in a crockpot.

Sundays are family days, when they all dress up for church and then play a game of charades or Sorry.

English is the only language spoken at home.

Luis always wanted to fit in when he was living in the United States so he worked hard to learn English. He earned his high-school equivalency diploma and even took some college accounting classes in Phoenix.

He's proud he can speak fluent English.

The children, 6 and 4, love the Disney Channel and their mom's peach cobbler.

But Erika wonders what they are missing out on.

"The kids' school is a cement building with plug-in fans. They are not going to learn about George Washington or Abraham Lincoln at school," she said.

She worries they'll be terrible spellers. That their father won't be able to join them on their graduation day if they choose an American college, as Erika and Luis want them to.

What if they meet another U.S. citizen and want to get married in the United States?

His wish for his kids, Luis said, is for them to live the American dream he once enjoyed.

"I know the kind of life you can have in the States," he said, "and that's the life I want for my children."

The fight for families

Over the years there has been repeated lobbying efforts in Congress for waiver reform and due process for U.S. citizens and their unauthorized spouse or close relative.

Randall Emery co-founded a national group called American Families United in 2006 to represent U.S. citizens caught in what he calls a "broken immigration system."

For Emery, the issue is personal.

The FBI background check for his wife, a native of Colombia, was delayed for many years when he sponsored her. It was a simple case, he said, but they were told they needed to make sure she was not a terrorist.

Emery's situation was resolved in court, and the Orrantias pray they'll find resolution, too.

Erika's father, Gale Thompson, was part of a small group that met recently with staffers from Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake's office.

"When you have families that are honest, hardworking, tax-paying, they are not a burden to society, they should be given consideration," said Thompson, who lives in Green Valley.

He and his wife have supported Erika and Luis, from helping him find a job to paying for some of their expenses because they believe in the importance of keeping a family together, he said. Erika is the youngest of six.

Erika and her father have traveled to Washington, D.C., with other members of the group to meet with lawmakers and share their stories. The organization feels there's momentum.

"The big push right now is that U.S. citizens are treated at least as generously as any other group in immigration reform," Emery said.

Talks about comprehensive immigration reform include a path to legal status for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country. American Families United wants those who had to leave the country, like Luis and Erika, to be considered as well.

One of the problems in addressing these types of issues, Emery said, is not knowing exactly how many U.S. citizens are affected. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates there are about 17 million families in mixed-status households where at least one person is unauthorized.

Not everyone is as optimistic something will get done this time around.

Muzaffar Chishti, director of the New York office of the Migration Policy Institute, which studies the movement of people, doesn't know how realistic it is to think Congress will take up these measures. "I know for sure it's not in the present proposal in the Senate," he said.

"I don't see Congress focusing on this," said Feere, who supports stricter immigration policies. "Right now they are focusing on what to do with illegal immigration here and continue to debate how much legal immigration we should have in the future."

Meanwhile, the Orrantias are living one day at a time.

"I can't think about what's going to happen 30 years from now," Erika said. "It's too depressing."

Contact reporter Perla Trevizo at or at 573-4213.