NEW YORK – As suddenly widowed newlyweds, Olga Ledezma and Miwa Neal might have expected sympathy. But that's not what they got from U.S. immigration officials, who declared them unwelcome.
Both Ledezma, a Mexican, and Neal, who's Japanese, were trapped by the so-called "widow penalty" after their U.S. citizen husbands died.
Because they'd been married less than two years, their pending applications for permanent residency were nullified. Ledezma, whose husband was killed by a drunk driver in Denver, was ordered to leave the U.S. and eventually deported, while Neal — widow of a U.S. soldier — was told she could not immigrate to Florida from Japan with their infant son.
"I just wanted to do what my husband dreamed about," said Neal. "He really wanted to raise his son in America, close to his parents."
Widely viewed as cruel and unnecessary, the widow penalty was eliminated by Congress two years ago after being repeatedly challenged in court. Both Ledezma and Neal, after years of legal wrangling, were able to settle in the U.S. within the past two months and restart the process of seeking citizenship.
But time is running out for others who suffered under the policy. There's a deadline of Oct. 28 for any widow or widower who'd been married less than two years to file a petition for residency status if their spouse died before the widow penalty was scrapped on Oct. 28, 2009.
Attorney Brent Renison of Portland, Ore., who spent years representing spouses affected by the penalty, believes there are hundreds of deported widows and widowers scattered around the world eligible to take advantage of the window of opportunity. But he worries that they may not know about the new circumstances, and is urging U.S. government agencies to do more to raise awareness.
For those widows and widowers who do apply, their cases would likely move quickly than Miwa Neal's. It took five years from her husband's death in 2006 for her to get the OK to settle in the U.S. in June with her son, Liam, who will be starting first grade this fall in Florida.
Miwa met her husband-to-be, Iraq War veteran Joseph Neal, in 2004 while studying English at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va. They fell in love, moved together to Japan after Miwa's program ended, and married there in 2005 after learning that Miwa was pregnant.
With their baby in tow, the couple returned to the U.S. in January 2006, but Miwa — still early in the process of seeking permanent residency — had to return to Japan with Liam after 90 days. In June 2006, Joseph — who'd gotten a job as an Army recruiter — was found dead in the Ohio River after a dinner with acquaintances, under circumstances that remain mysterious.
Joseph's parents, Jack and Anna Neal of Interlachen, Fla., tried to replace their son as sponsors of Miwa's pending immigration application, but their efforts were rebuffed over a period of years, and Miwa was told her application had been rejected.
"It was unconscionable ... I was actually in despair," said Jack Neal, a former magistrate in West Virginia who now oversees criminal investigations for the Florida Department of Revenue.
Finally, thanks to Renison's advocacy and the 2009 repeal of the widow penalty, the 28-year-old woman was given permission to immigrate. She lives in a subdivision near her in-laws, and says she hopes eventually to qualify as a schoolteacher.
"Miwa is now our daughter in all of the same respects as Joseph was our son," said Jack Neal. "She wanted to come here to America because she and Joseph felt Liam would have more opportunities here."
Unlike Miwa Neal, Olga Ledezma was already settled in the U.S. when a car struck and fatally injured her husband, Lucio Ledezma, as he was crossing a street in Denver in November 2002. They'd gotten married the previous April, just a few weeks after Olga legally entered the U.S. from Mexico.
In May 2003, the residency application that Lucio had filed on Olga's behalf was rejected on ground that she was no longer the spouse of a U.S. citizen, and in April 2004 she was ordered to leave the country. She remained in Denver nonetheless, until she was arrested in an immigration raid in February 2009 and deported to Mexico the next month.
"That was pretty cold," said her lawyer, Laura Lichter. "I'd rather they go after terrorists than a widow."
Over two years, Lichter litigated on Ledezma's behalf — finally winning a settlement that enabled the 52-year-old woman to return to Denver in May and re-launch an application for permanent residency.
Assuming her application is approved, Ledezma hopes to start her own cleaning company. She says she still found it hard to believe that she was able to return to the U.S.
Renison, meanwhile, is still working to alert other victims of the widow penalty about the upcoming deadline. He has formed a group called Surviving Spouses Against Deportation and offers detailed information on its website.
As he battled against the widow penalty over the years, Renison said he was struck by how inconsistently it was applied.
"There were both malicious and cruel things that happened to people, and also a lot of kindness shown to people," he said. "In many cases, authorities would let people be, but in other cases they would very actively pursue the widows."
Information on widow penalty and new legislation: www.ssad.org
David Crary can be reached at http://twitter.com/CraryAP