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Widows face U.S. deportation

Legal experts say that at least 25 foreign-born surviving spouses and perhaps many more — most of them widows — are on the brink of deportation from the United States.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Carla Arabella Freeman's descent into the looking-glass world of U.S. immigration law began two years ago when a Pepsi truck crushed her husband to death.

The truck jumped a median strip, pulverized her husband's car and, as she found out early this year, made her a widow who must leave the United States.

Freeman, 27, a South African who came to the United States as an au pair, was married for nearly a year to Robert Freeman, an American who worked for Costco. As his wife, she had applied for permanent resident status and was waiting for what usually would have been routine approval.

But the truck that killed Robert Freeman also set in motion an inexorable legal procedure that in May put his widow in shackles in a holding cell in Portland. An immigration officer here ordered that she be deported. Under the law, a foreigner married to an American for less than two years loses his or her right to permanent residence if the spouse dies.

‘Everything has just crumbled’
On Thursday afternoon at Kennedy Airport in New York, Freeman will fly back to South Africa to see her father, who has been sick, giving up what scant hope she had of any successful appeal. Once her plane leaves the ground, she cannot return to the United States for at least 10 years.

"Everything has just crumbled," she said in Portland this week, after a long day of packing and scrambling to get travel documents for her dog, cat and parakeet. "I guess it is hard for Americans to trust anyone coming to this country anymore — even people like me, who want to live here legally."

Legal experts say that what has happened to Freeman is happening across the country. At least 25 other foreign-born surviving spouses and perhaps many more — most of them widows — are on the brink of deportation, according to the American Immigration Lawyers Association in Washington.

Many of these widows have infants — U.S. citizens — who will be de facto deportees when their mothers exhaust their appeals and are ordered out of the country.

"Deporting widows and children says bad things about our country," said Judith E. Golub, senior director of advocacy for the immigration lawyers group. "This is just another example of the inflexibility and injustice in our immigration laws that call out for thorough and systematic reform.

"Carla Freeman had to deal with the death of her husband, and now she has to deal with this. Inflexible laws breed intolerable situations."

A two-year rule
The two-year rule was added to immigration law in 1990, when there was widespread concern about foreigners using sham marriages to get "green cards" for permanent residence. Since then, Congress has passed exemptions for widows of the 2001 terrorist attacks and for surviving spouses of active-duty service personnel killed in combat.

There are no exemptions, however, for spouses of Pepsi-truck victims, and immigration lawyers said successful appeals of the two-year rule are extremely rare.

"This is a crack in the law, and Carla fell into it," said Brent W. Renison, Freeman's attorney and an immigration specialist.

Renison said that in many other areas of immigration law where time limits are imposed on foreigners seeking permanent residence that there are waivers when spouses, parents or children die.

"But in this particular circumstance, Congress just forgot to do it," Renison said.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), ranking minority member of the House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, introduced a bill this summer to amend the law. It would have nullified the two-year rule in cases in which a surviving spouse could prove a good-faith marriage.

The bill remains in committee, but Republicans in the House say there is a possibility they might act on it.

"Nobody has made a policy decision on its merits," said Jeff Lungren, a spokesman for the Judiciary Committee. "It very well may be meritorious, and if so, it would likely be considered next year."

Carla Freeman said she is luckier than other women caught in the web of the two-year rule. She has no children. She won a $3 million wrongful-death settlement after her husband's accident. She can afford a first-rate immigration lawyer, who has appealed her case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

"There are women in my situation who have it worse," Freeman said. "They have babies and in-laws who are devoted to the grandkids."

In Orlando, Maria Raquel Pascoal, 26, is one of those women. The Brazilian had been married one year and eight months when her husband died in bed of sleep apnea. He was 30. The couple had a 3-month-old son.

"Now I am waiting for this law to force me to leave," Pascoal said in a phone interview. "We are shocked by this. It is very difficult to go back to Brazil and start a new life with my son. He is very attached to my parents-in-law. We live with them."

Pascoal, who is studying nursing at Valencia Community College in Orlando, said she prays that the law will change or "someone with a good heart will decide that I can stay."

That seems unlikely.

In Carla Freeman's case, three U.S. senators from Oregon and Washington and a congressman from Portland wrote a letter to the head of customs enforcement in Portland, asking for mercy.

"We encourage you to explore whatever means possible to exercise prosecutorial discretion in this case and take no action to remove Ms. Freeman from the U.S. at this time," the letter said.

Three days later, the answer came. At a hearing, Freeman was handed an order from an immigration officer that said: "You are not entitled to status as an immediate relative."

Her jewelry was taken from her, her ankles were shackled, and she was kept in a holding cell for seven hours until her attorney obtained her release on the condition that she not travel outside the state without permission. She got permission last weekend to visit her husband's grave site for what may be the last time.

'So now I leave'
Freeman, a rail-thin woman who is just over 5 feet tall, met her late husband in a karaoke bar in Chicago. That was in March 2000, and her job as an au pair was coming to an end.

She returned to South Africa, but Robert came after her eight months later. After receiving her father's blessing, they were married in February 2001 and moved to Merrillville, Ind., where Robert was a manager at a Costco store.

They had been married 11 months when Robert, on his morning drive to work, was killed by the truck. In mourning, Freeman moved to her late husband's home town of Clarkston in eastern Washington state, where she lived with her sister-in-law's family for a year. She later moved to the Seattle area and then Portland, where she looked for work in the hotel trade.

"My dad has been in the catering business for years, and I grew up in the business," she said. "If they hadn't taken away my right to work, I probably would have had a really good job by now in a really good hotel."

Freeman did not have to leave Thursday. She could have stayed until her appeal was exhausted, probably for a year or so.

But she said she is worried that, if something were to happen to her father, it could take weeks to sort out the paperwork that would allow her to travel outside the United States.

"After the death of my husband," she said, "I wasn't prepared to take that risk. So now I leave."