November 25, 2008

Immigrant Widows Left In Limbo

Everybody loves a love story - everybody it seems, except the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services. In our post-9/11 world, immigration has become increasingly tough on, of all groups, widows.

A foreigner who marries a U.S. citizen is entitled to become a U.S. resident. But as correspondent Bob Simon reports, immigration wants to deport several hundred widows-and a few widowers-foreigners who had been married to American citizens when the Americans died.

Immigration claims basically that a widow is not a wife, and that if the widow did not complete the process to become a U.S. resident while her husband was alive, she cannot remain in the country.

If that sounds a little strange, wait till you hear what happened to Raquel Williams when she met up with immigration.

Raquel Williams, a young nursing student from Brazil, was visiting Florida when, one night, she and three girl friends drove into a gas station. They caught the eye of a car full of guys who were also getting gas.

"I guess they noticed that we were, you know, not from here," Raquel remembers, recalling when she first met her future husband. "Well, they're like, 'Oh, Where you guys from?' You know? 'Oh, my name's is Derek. Nice to meeting you.'"

That chance meeting with Derek Williams led to love, marriage, and eventually parenthood. Two years after they met, their son Ian was born.

But then the unthinkable happened.

"I woke up 4:30 in the morning, 5:00 and to find my husband laying on the couch. I could see that something's wrong. Get closer. And he's not breathing. And called 911 and they stay on the phone with me. And then I hear that they coming. And I said, 'Please, please. Oh, come fast. Fast.' And it was, he was, he was gone by that time," Raquel remembers.

Derek had insomnia, so he'd watch TV on their couch during the night. But he also had breathing problems and an irregular heartbeat, which proved fatal. After he died, Raquel and her son Ian moved in with Derek's parents, and three months after Derek died, Raquel finally had the immigration interview that shed been asking for for a year - the interview to prove that her marriage was legitimate.

She went to the interview with Ian, and brought all the documentation needed to prove she had been married to Derek; she also brought the death certificate.

"And I explained what happened. 'My husband pass away. What can I do from now? This is his death certificate,'" she remembers. "'Oh, your case, your case is gonna be denied.'"

"And they said, 'You're gonna have to go back to Brazil.' And I said, 'I have my son. You know? This is my son. He's American citizen.' And they said that, 'You can go. He can stay.'"

Ian was five months old at the time.

Raquel, like all the other widows 60 Minutes met, had entered the U.S. legally. Still, immigration has been rejecting requests for permanent residence if the American spouse died before they had their immigration interview to prove their marriage was based on love.

But the government can take months-sometimes more than a year-to schedule that interview. Raquel's mother-in-law, Linda, says Raquel shouldn't be penalized because the bureaucracy didn't move fast enough.

"They were doing things legally. They filed the right papers. They filed them in a timely manner. Things were not processed in a timely manner. And they're and then my son died. This was not something that you can foresee," Linda says.

Raquel and her in-laws are raising Ian together. They've managed to hold off deportation while they appeal immigration's decision; but they know a knock on the door can come at any time. They know it, but they still can't believe it.

"We're Americans. You know? This is our country. And my country is threatening to send my daughter-in-law and my grandson out of the country? He's an American citizen," Linda says.

"They're not threatening to throw your grandson out of the country," Simon remarks.

"But who would separate a mother and a child? Who? My country would separate? His mother Raquel? Ian's mother and him? It isn't right. That is not right. And this is America," Linda says.

Monika Monroe is still grieving over the death of her husband Tim. Monika is a movie make-up artist from Germany, who met Tim when they were both vacationing in Prague, where, she said, it was love at first sight.

"It's a beautiful place to fall in love," Simon remarks.

"Yes, but we [were] even blind to the place because all we could see were each other," she says, laughing. "It's like the whole world changed. We felt like we cannot survive without each other anymore. So he begged me to come to Los Angeles, so I came two weeks later."

And two months after that, Tim took her out in a boat in Sequoia National Park, where he got on his knees and proposed.

Tim was an artist, and their house doubled as his studio. She told Simon her life had never been better, until it all fell apart. "Everything happened so fast. It was, like, we were in our life and then he died of a heart attack. And then he was gone," she says.

And now she's fighting deportation, trying to stay where she and Tim built their life together.

Asked why it's important to her to stay in the house, rather than to return to Germany, Monika tells Simon, "Because it's my home. And it's the place that I was the happiest in my life."

While a foreign spouse can become a U.S. resident, immigration argued in court that a widow is not a spouse, citing Black’s Law Dictionary, which defines spouse as "a married person."

"That rules out widows," said immigration, "because a widow is no longer married." But the federal court in Massachusetts rejected that argument because just a few lines down the same law dictionary defines a surviving spouse as one who outlives the other. So, the court said widows are spouses and are eligible to become U.S. residents.

But immigration is appealing that decision and three other federal court rulings that have all gone against them.

60 Minutes tried to find out why the government is being so tough on widows, but immigration and its parent agency, Homeland Security declined our requests for interviews. So 60 Minutes went to the top, to a press conference held by Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff.

Asked why his department is refusing U.S. residency to legitimately married widows, Chertoff says, "All I can tell you is, without getting into you know, specific cases and arguing the facts and circumstances that I think the lawyers have an obligation to pursue the matter through the system until we get a final resolution from the courts."

"Four courts, sir, have ruled in favor of the widows. And your department appeals the cases every time," Simon points out.

"I think what you’re seeing is a normal part of responsible lawyering, if I may so," Chertoff replies.

But attorney Brent Renison says the government could accept all the court decisions instead of appealing them. Renison is working pro bono for many of the widows. He's filed a class action suit to force immigration to simply examine each marriage to determine whether it was legitimate. That is, instead of automatically turning all of them down. He says making sure the marriage was bona fide would cost the government a lot less than to keep fighting in various courts.

"All we're asking for is a bit of common sense. We need someone to tell the agency to stop this madness or Congress to enact some laws that provide for this," Renison says.

Bills are pending in the House and Senate to direct immigration to change its policy. That can't happen soon enough for Diana Engstrom. Her husband Todd was killed in Iraq. They'd met in her native Kosovo, fallen in love, and gotten married near Todd's home in Illinois. Then he signed up with a private contractor to train Iraqi soldiers.

Asked why Todd went to Iraq, Diana says, "He told me he wanted to serve his country. It was his duty to do that."

Then one day, the truck Todd was riding in was hit by a rocket propelled grenade.

Todd's father Ron got the first call, explaining how his son had died. "A rocket propeller grenade hit basically where Todd was sitting. Todd was killed instantly. It's the kind of call that no parent should have to receive," he remembers.

And soon after that, Ron heard that immigration wanted Diana to leave the country. His reaction? "Disbelief. We had buried our son. Was in the shock of that. We were just in shock again."

"I don't think that any other country would treat a widow like that. So, it's just unbelievable," Diana adds.

Immigration said Diana couldn't become a resident because she hadn't had her immigration interview with Todd, so she couldn't prove her marriage was bona fide. "There was no question that they were in love, that they were happy; that they were gonna build a future together. No question," her father-in-law Ron says.

Diana is part of Renison’s class action suit, so she hasn't been deported - yet. She and the other families feel the government has betrayed them, and worse, betrayed their dead husbands and sons.

"Cindy, what do you want our viewers to understand," Simon asks Todd's mother.

"That our son gave his life for this country," she says. "And our government should stand behind him and do what he would have wanted."

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