CHICAGO – Corina Turcinovic was sitting in the back of a federal van Tuesday night, en route to the airport. After 17 years in the United States and several close encounters with permanent resident status, she was being deported to France.
For years Turcinovic had stayed in the U.S. on a temporary visa to care for her paralyzed husband, but when he died she overstayed her visa, and she became an illegal alien.
"I called everybody and said goodbye, it was very sad," Turcinovic told FOXNews.com.
But Turcinovic wouldn't be aboard the 6:19 p.m. flight from Chicago to Paris. The van turned around when a last-minute reprieve gave her another chance to stay in the country she has come to call home.
At the 11th hour, a congressional subcommittee agreed to review Turcinovic's case under a private bill that would grant her permanent legal resident status. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency also agreed to delay her deportation.
"Injustice was narrowly averted when the car carrying Corina Turcinovic to the airport was turned around," said Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., who sponsored the bill.
The subcommittee will review the bill next month and decide whether it will ask for a report from immigration officials, which would grant Turcinovic a one-year stay of deportation during the process.
"Until you are locked up and behind bars, you don't know what the possibilities are," said Turcinovic, who had been held in a detention facility since Dec. 28. "You can do anything. I know that now."
She celebrated her temporary release with dinner at a neighborhood restaurant, walking her dog Fifi and sleeping in her own bed.
Turcinovic came to the United States in 1990 to be at her fiance's bedside after he was paralyzed from the neck down in an accident. After he died in 2004, her stay expired, ending her chances to stay in the country legally. The couple married in 1996.
Turcinovic contends immigration officials muddied up the couple's application process, leaving her in legal limbo after her husband died.
Her case caught the attention of Lipinski, who introduced the private bill.
"This is just the first step in fighting to correct the bureaucratic snafu that prevented Corina's husband, Maro, from obtaining his citizenship before he died," Lipinski said. "There is still more work to be done, but we now will have the time to make the case that Corina's situation is unique and was the result of a mistake by the government."
The bill faces several obstacles, including passage by the House and the Senate, and President Bush's signature. Turcinovic's case is further hurt because she doesn't have a hardship, such as a child or dependent, to bolster her argument for staying in the U.S.
John Colbert, Turcinovic's lawyer, said there's not much he can do legally to help her — her fate lies with Congress.
Gerald Neuman, a professor at Harvard School of Law and an expert on the rights of foreign nationals, said Congress has passed private bills allowing exceptions, but it's rare.
"In this kind of situation, there aren't many avenues of relief available other than simply tolerating her presence," Neuman said. "One might well conclude what is the hardship to her in returning to a nice place like France."
Turcinovic came to the United States on a visa waiver, living legally for 14 years through stays of deportation. But the stays ended when her husband died.
Neuman conceded that if Turcinovic is allowed to remain in the country, others could point to her case as a reason to let them stay, too.
"It would be one unusual instance that people could point to," Neuman said, adding that it was unlikely to happen. "You did it to this person, why don't you do it to me?"
This situation is rare and wouldn't set a precedent for future cases, said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
“I don’t think it sets any sort of precedent that others would piggy back on,” Mehlman said. "You hear about these odd cases where there are so many factors that go into it, but that's not a general rule of how things tend to exist or work in the real world."
Corina met her husband, Marin, in Croatia when she was working for a travel agency and he was a musician. In 1990, Marin traveled to the United States with his band. During the visit, he was struck by a car. Turcinovic says emergency room doctors failed to diagnose a broken vertabra, and Marin became paralyzed. She immediately traveled to the United States on a waiver visa to be with him.
After a medical malpractice settlement was reached with the hospital, the couple settled in Chicago to seek treatment for Marin's condition; they married in 1996. Corina was granted a stay of deportation on a humanitarian basis. "We tried all the legal avenues that were possible but we were running into closed doors," she said.
Marin wasn't able to be moved, but he was eventually granted legal residency with the ability to apply for citizenship. Turcinovic said the process was stalled when officials demanded to get Marin's fingerprints, but he passed away before the application could be sorted out.
"I would hope that somebody wouldn't mind me staying," Turcinovic said last week from jail in northern Illinois. "I feel like I'm being punished for liking this country so much. I think it's a bit harsh to kick me out in such a matter."
Turcinovic said she would like to become a translator if she is allowed to remain in America.
Immigration officials are reviewing her situation and could not comment on specifics of her case.
“We are looking at the file to see if there’s anything under the law that she would qualify for,” said Marilu Cabrera, a spokeswoman for the Chicago office for the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services.