Immigration Law

Spouse's Death Ends US Residency Quest

  • Print

Jacqueline Coats’ husband died a hero, and was posthumously awarded a Coast Guard medal for his attempts to save two boys from drowning in the Pacific Ocean. He also died without filing an application for her to become a legal resident of the United States, although the paperwork was completed and signed.

That means that she may soon have to return to her native Kenya, unless Congress can be persuaded to pass a special bill on her behalf. (They usually can’t be.) While Coats and more than 80 other widows nationally whose husbands also died before their residency applications were processed had the right to stay here so long as their husbands were alive, those whose spouses die before residency applications are approved are in a dicey situation, according to the Associated Press. In fact, permanent residency status can be denied if the citizen spouse dies within two years of the marriage, although an exception is made for residents married to American military personnel.

Immigration attorneys say federal law is being applied unreasonably, and needs to be changed to better protect spouses of deceased U.S. citizens. However, efforts to get Congress to pass immigration reform legislation have failed so at least one attorney is now trying another approach: a class action lawsuit, to be filed this week in federal court in Los Angeles.

“A lot of these people have exhausted their resources, have been denied work permits, driver’s licenses, a regular life,” says Brent Renison, an immigration attorney in Portland, Ore., who filed the class action. “The ironic thing is that if they just remarried, they could reapply. But outside of that, they don’t have any other options.”

Updated 08-31-07 at 1:36 p.m. CST

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.