SAN ANTONIO – At least 200 immigrants nationwide face deportation under what's become known as the "widow's penalty," a federal policy ordering widows and widowers out of the country if their U.S. citizen spouse dies before their immigration application is approved.
Immigration officials maintain they are simply enforcing the law, but some advocates for the immigrants say it's a cruel injustice to spouses who were following U.S. immigration law and suffered the loss of a husband or wife, the San Antonio Express-News reported Monday.
"Our great nation cannot be seen to invite foreign fiancees, authorize them to become married to American citizens, sanction their application for legal status, allow them to establish families and a home life together, then throw the spouses out when the American dies during bureaucratic immigration processing," said Seattle lawyer Brent Renison in a federal court filing on behalf of Gwendolyn Hanford, a Filipino woman fighting deportation.
Her husband died of a heart attack in 1998, before the government approved her green card application. She was notified in 2002 that although couple had a child together, her application was denied.
"Your former fiance, later your husband, has died," the government informed her. "Consequently, your application ... cannot be approved as you are no longer the spouse of a citizen of the United States."
Renison has filed lawsuits on behalf of several immigrants affected by the policy, and new Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has ordered her staff to look at the issue and offer potential solutions.
Even some backers of efforts to crack down on illegal immigration agree the issue should be looked at further.
U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, backed a bill last year that would have given people like Hanford a break. The bill failed to pass, but Smith said the cases of surviving spouses should be considered.
"Those who follow our laws and begin the process to immigrate the right way should not be penalized when tragic circumstances make the completion of the process impossible," Smith said.