IMAGE: Jacqueline Coats
Rich Pedroncelli  /  AP
Jacqueline Coats, pictured at the Capitol, in Sacramento, Calif., on Wednesday, is the widow of Marlin Coats, an American citizen who drowned while trying to rescue two boys from drowning at a San Francisco beach in 2006.
updated 8/31/2007 6:05:32 AM ET 2007-08-31T10:05:32

Jacqueline Coats’ husband drowned after he dove into a fierce Pacific Ocean riptide to rescue two boys. Now the immigrant from Kenya might be forced to leave the United States because he died before filing her residency application.

She is among more than 80 foreign-born widows across the nation who face possible deportation because their husbands died before immigration paperwork was approved. Some attorneys want to challenge the government’s policy of rejecting green card requests if an immigrant’s American spouse dies before the application is processed. At least one lawyer plans to file a class-action lawsuit.

“This is a wrong that definitely has to be righted,” said immigration attorney Ralph Pineda of Orlando, Fla.

‘It’s an outrage’
A group of California congressional lawmakers filed a bill in January asking the Congress to grant Coats legal status, but similar measures for other immigrants have seldom passed.

“It is an outrage and an injustice to the memory of this courageous hero that his wife should suffer the loss of family and livelihood once again,” said Democratic Assembly member Mary Hayashi.

The government has also generally denied applications for permanent residence — so-called “green cards” — for surviving spouses of U.S. citizens if the death occurs during the first two years of marriage.

Coats came to U.S. in 2001 to attend San Jose State University. During her stay, she met Marlin Coats — a U.S. citizen and a dependable, family oriented man. He wooed her with flowers and his flair for comedy. Two years later, they were married.

Her husband’s large family — he had seven siblings, some of them married with children — became like her own. They celebrated Christmas and Thanksgiving together, and grew to rely on each other.

“They’re my family here,” Jacqueline Coats said.

But while she was a student, she lost her legal immigration status. She had come on a student visa, which requires a full-time schedule. When time conflicts between classes left her three units short, immigration officials were notified.

Deportation proceedings began 11 days before her wedding, she said.

After the wedding, attorneys advised Marlin Coats to enter a petition for residency in his wife’s name. Although her immigration status had lapsed, she had entered legally, so nothing prevented her from staying.

The papers were signed and ready to go last year when Marlin Coats and his siblings took their mother to San Francisco’s Ocean Beach for Mother’s Day.

Died as a hero
Marlin Coats was on the sand when he heard two children screaming from the chilly water. He was a great swimmer and a former lifeguard, so his family didn’t worry when he kicked off his shoes and dove in.

A rescue crew saved the two boys, but the fierce currents were too much for Coats. After his death, he was awarded one of the Coast Guard’s highest honors, the Gold Lifesaving Medal.

Attorneys for some of the estimated 85 widows affected nationally say the government has interpreted federal law too harshly.

Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the case was unusual because the Coatses had not submitted an application before Marlin Coats’ death.

If a couple has been married for less than two years, and the application has been approved, the foreign-born spouse can seek a review that is considered on a case-by-case basis, according to immigration officials.

But if an application is pending at the time of death, “then it’s not considered,” said Chris Rhatigan, a spokeswoman for Citizenship and Immigration Services in Washington, D.C. Exceptions include widows of active military personnel.

Will the law change?
Brent Renison, a Portland, Ore., immigration attorney, has led the effort to change the law or ease its interpretation. He said lack of response from the government and the failure of immigration reform in Congress forced him to consider a class-action lawsuit, which he plans to file this week in Los Angeles federal court.

Widows named in the complaint include Carolyn Robb Hootkins, a former personal chef to the British royal family and the widow of actor William Hootkins, who had roles in “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Batman” and other films.

Jacqueline Coats’ deportation proceedings have been suspended while lawmakers consider the bill in Congress seeking residency on her behalf.

In Florida, Pineda’s clients include Dahianna Heard, a Venezuelan woman whose husband was shot last year by insurgents while he worked as a contractor in Iraq. The couple’s son, who is a U.S. citizen, faces an uncertain future if his mother is deported.

“A lot of these people have exhausted their resources, have been denied work permits, driver’s licenses, a regular life,” Renison said. “The ironic thing is that if they just remarried, they could reapply. But outside of that, they don’t have any other options.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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