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Love Endures, But Green Cards In Doubt For Immigrant Widows

A different sort of immigration rally is happenined on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol Tuesday morning.

It's organized by a Portland lawyer and a cohort of unlucky widows and in-laws. They're chipping away as what has come to be known as the “widow penalty.”

Correspondent Tom Banse explains what that is and what makes it compelling at the highest levels of government.

Who can resist a love story? This one begins in a club near a U.S. Army post in Korea. Rosalie Scrabeck had just started working there as a bartender and hostess when a certain soldier caught her eye.

 Rosalie Scrabeck
Immigrant widow Rosalie Scrabeck waits in limbo in Dallas, Oregon.

Rosalie Scrabeck: “He's kinda cute, so I just came and introduced myself. He's not snobby and stuff like that.”

She's describing infantry Sgt. Derek Scrabeck. He hailed from the small Willamette Valley town of Dallas, Oregon. Rosalie is a citizen of the Philippines. Soon they were dating.

Rosalie Scrabeck: “So we went out and then he said, ‘Babe, I really want to marry you.'”

To make a long story short, they were married at the American Embassy in Seoul, South Korea. The couple moved to Oregon in December 2007.

The U.S. requires a two-year waiting period before an immigrant spouse can receive permanent residency. That's to weed out sham marriages.

In this case, tragedy struck 20 months into the marriage. Derek drowned when the small fishing boat he was riding in capsized along the Oregon Coast.

Still grieving for her husband, Rosalie got a second shock at her next appointment with Immigration.

The Filipina discovered she was deportable because she's technically no longer married to an American.

Rosalie Scrabeck: “I was thinking about if they are going to send me back. It's not right because I came here legally.”

Tabor Scrabeck: “Basically they told us, there wasn't anything they could do for her. They couldn't help her.”

That's Rosalie's American mother-in-law, Tabor Scrabeck. She was appalled.

Tabor Scrabeck: “In Rose's case, she lost her husband. She lost her whole life. And then to have that fear of losing the dreams that they had is so unfair!”

The fix the Scrabeck's find themselves in is nicknamed the “widow penalty.” It affects foreigners whose American spouse dies before they've been married long enough to get their green card.

Immigration lawyers know of 60 to 70 other such cases in the western U.S.

There's the au pair from South Africa who married a young Costco manager from Clarkston, Washington. Before she got permanent residency, he was killed in a crash with a Pepsi truck. The immigrant widow was subsequently ordered back to South Africa.

In a case from Washougal, Washington, the wife is the American and the husband British. After 14 months of marriage, the wife dies of sudden respiratory failure. Her husband wants to stay on to grieve with her family, but is denied.

The widows' and widowers' plight came to the attention of Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano within days of her taking office. That according to her spokesman Matt Chandler.

He says broader immigration and border policy has proven quite complicated. But this was something Napolitano decided to take an early stab at.

Matt Chandler: “There were some sad cases there. We had a responsibility to not only enforce the laws of this country as they are written, especially as it pertains to immigration. But we also have a responsibility to do so in a practical and commonsense way.”

Napolitano has ordered deportations of surviving spouses and their children deferred for two years. That gives Congress time to fix the law if it chooses to.

In Portland, immigration attorney Brent Renison has championed the widows' cause for more than five years. The work, all pro bono.

He says Congressional action offers the quickest resolution. But Renison also recognizes the poisonous politics around immigration. So he has a case that's ripe to take to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Brent Renison: “We are receiving this attention because there is a fundamental miscarriage of justice going on and people can see it right away. I guess I was hoping maybe a little bit too much from the new administration. We got half of what we asked for which was to stop the madness of deportations.”

Back in Dallas, Oregon, the members of the Scrabeck household say they now have hope. The immigrant widow still can't work, go to school, or even get a drivers license —- she and her mother-in-law garden a lot.

What they no longer fear is a knock at the door with a one-way ticket out of the country.


Statement from DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano

Surviving Spouses Against Deportation

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