PORTLAND, Ore., Dec. 1 -- Carla Arabella Freeman's descent into the looking-glass world of U.S. immigration law began two years ago when a Pepsi truck crushed her husband to death.
The truck jumped a median strip, pulverized her husband's car and, as she found out early this year, made her a widow who must leave the United States.
Robert Freeman's widow, Carla, and her nieces Alex, left, and Sammy Jo visit his grave.
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Freeman, 27, a South African who came to the United States as an au pair, was married for nearly a year to Robert Freeman, an American who worked for Costco. As his wife, she had applied for permanent resident status and was waiting for what usually would have been routine approval.
But the truck that killed Robert Freeman also set in motion an inexorable legal procedure that in May put his widow in shackles in a holding cell in Portland. An immigration officer here ordered that she be deported. Under the law, a foreigner married to an American for less than two years loses his or her right to permanent residence if the spouse dies.
On Thursday afternoon at Kennedy Airport in New York, Freeman will fly back to South Africa to see her father, who has been sick, giving up what scant hope she had of any successful appeal. Once her plane leaves the ground, she cannot return to the United States for at least 10 years.
"Everything has just crumbled," she said in Portland this week, after a long day of packing and scrambling to get travel documents for her dog, cat and parakeet. "I guess it is hard for Americans to trust anyone coming to this country anymore -- even people like me, who want to live here legally."
Legal experts say that what has happened to Freeman is happening across the country. At least 25 other foreign-born surviving spouses and perhaps many more -- most of them widows -- are on the brink of deportation, according to the American Immigration Lawyers Association in Washington.
Many of these widows have infants -- U.S. citizens -- who will be de facto deportees when their mothers exhaust their appeals and are ordered out of the country.
"Deporting widows and children says bad things about our country," said Judith E. Golub, senior director of advocacy for the immigration lawyers group. "This is just another example of the inflexibility and injustice in our immigration laws that call out for thorough and systematic reform.
"Carla Freeman had to deal with the death of her husband, and now she has to deal with this. Inflexible laws breed intolerable situations."
The two-year rule was added to immigration law in 1990, when there was widespread concern about foreigners using sham marriages to get "green cards" for permanent residence. Since then, Congress has passed exemptions for widows of the 2001 terrorist attacks and for surviving spouses of active-duty service personnel killed in combat.
There are no exemptions, however, for spouses of Pepsi-truck victims, and immigration lawyers said successful appeals of the two-year rule are extremely rare.
"This is a crack in the law, and Carla fell into it," said Brent W. Renison, Freeman's attorney and an immigration specialist.
Renison said that in many other areas of immigration law where time limits are imposed on foreigners seeking permanent residence that there are waivers when spouses, parents or children die.