LA judge orders widows' green card cases reopened
By Amy Taxin
The Associated Press, May 2, 2009
Los Angeles (AP) — A federal judge on Friday ordered the government to reopen the immigration cases of dozens of foreign widows whose American citizen spouses died before they could get their green cards.
U.S. District Judge Christina A. Snyder ruled that the Department of Homeland Security could not deny the widows' applications to remain in the country legally because the agency didn't process the paperwork before their spouses died.
The ruling paves the way for several dozen widows in western states to have their applications for green cards reopened by the U.S. government.
Monika Monroe, a 32-year-old German makeup artist, said Friday she never imagined she would meet her future husband, Tim, on a vacation to Prague nor watch him die of a heart attack less than three months after they married.
For nearly two years, Monroe said, she has found herself drowning in a struggle with immigration authorities to stay in the hillside house in Los Angeles she shared with her husband and their two dogs.
'I am hopeful,' said Monroe, whose living room is covered with photographs of the couple embracing on a road trip up California's coast and at their private Las Vegas wedding. 'I feel like I have a little bit more ground under my feet, maybe I can start walking.'
The class-action case is one of many lawsuits filed across the country by foreign spouses affected by the so-called 'widow penalty.' Lawsuits have also been filed in Missouri, Maryland, Georgia and Texas.
Snyder's ruling follows a 2006 decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of a woman who had been ordered deported to South Africa after her husband was killed in a car accident. The 9th Circuit said she had the right to have her residency application reviewed.
Brent Renison, an attorney for the widows, said the ruling applies to about 70 widows in western states out of roughly 200 widows who face similar problems nationwide.
Renison welcomed the ruling but said there's no guarantee widows will be given green cards just because their cases will be reviewed.
'How I feel about it is, I am on this mountain, I can't let go or else I'll fall off, and yes, I've made it a few more feet but if you ask me have I won everything? No, we got a little farther up the mountain,' Renison said.
Snyder's ruling also applies to plaintiffs covered by the 6th Circuit, but Renison said he has no plaintiffs in that jurisdiction.
Snyder declined to rule on the cases of widows elsewhere in the country.
Still, lawyers in other jurisdictions hoped Snyder's ruling will bode well for their clients in dealings with the federal Citizenship and Immigration Services agency.
'The court's decision demonstrates that it is time for CIS to end the widow's penalty nationwide,' said Caryn C. Lederer, a lawyer for the New York Legal Assistance Group. The nonprofit group is suing on behalf of Irina Gorovets, a Russian woman who lost her American husband 1 1/2 years after they married.
In recent years, U.S. authorities have denied widows' applications to remain in the country because their American spouses died before they had been married for two years and before officials finished processing their paperwork.
One woman's husband was killed in Iraq. Another's husband was killed in the line of duty for the U.S. Border Patrol.
Amy Kudwa, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, said Secretary Janet Napolitano has recognized the widows' predicament and asked staff to come up with a solution.
After the 9th Circuit ruling, immigration officials started letting widows in western states apply to have their applications considered on humanitarian grounds so long as they could find another American citizen relative willing to provide an affidavit of financial support on their behalf.
Renison argued the government was erecting additional barriers for widows.
Snyder agreed, and ruled the government could not require the affidavit as part of the deceased American citizen's application to have a spouse live in the U.S.
Monroe, who has no other relatives in the U.S. and isn't close with her late husband's family, hopes that could make the difference.
After Tim died, Monroe said, she spent sleepless nights hanging glass shards and fairy dolls to decorate the garden outside the workshop where her husband once painted colorful, abstract pieces like those that hang in her living room.
She didn't know if she could work legally. She was afraid to visit her mother in Germany, worried she wouldn't be allowed back into the U.S.
Monroe said that once she joined the class-action suit in Snyder's court she couldn't be deported, but won't really be safe until she has a green card in her hands.
'In a way, it is going to be over somehow but Tim will never come back,' she said in an earlier interview, fighting back tears. 'If he would see what was going on after he was gone I don't know, I can't even imagine.'
Friday's ruling follows a tentative decision issued by Snyder last month.