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Widows Face U.S. Deportation

"But in this particular circumstance, Congress just forgot to do it," Renison said.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), ranking minority member of the House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, introduced a bill this summer to amend the law. It would have nullified the two-year rule in cases in which a surviving spouse could prove a good-faith marriage.


Robert Freeman's widow, Carla, and her nieces Alex, left, and Sammy Jo visit his grave. (Bruce Twitchell)

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The bill remains in committee, but Republicans in the House say there is a possibility they might act on it.

"Nobody has made a policy decision on its merits," said Jeff Lungren, a spokesman for the Judiciary Committee. "It very well may be meritorious, and if so, it would likely be considered next year."

Carla Freeman said she is luckier than other women caught in the web of the two-year rule. She has no children. She won a $3 million wrongful-death settlement after her husband's accident. She can afford a first-rate immigration lawyer, who has appealed her case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

"There are women in my situation who have it worse," Freeman said. "They have babies and in-laws who are devoted to the grandkids."

In Orlando, Maria Raquel Pascoal, 26, is one of those women. The Brazilian had been married one year and eight months when her husband died in bed of sleep apnea. He was 30. The couple had a 3-month-old son.

"Now I am waiting for this law to force me to leave," Pascoal said in a phone interview. "We are shocked by this. It is very difficult to go back to Brazil and start a new life with my son. He is very attached to my parents-in-law. We live with them."

Pascoal, who is studying nursing at Valencia Community College in Orlando, said she prays that the law will change or "someone with a good heart will decide that I can stay."

That seems unlikely.

In Carla Freeman's case, three U.S. senators from Oregon and Washington and a congressman from Portland wrote a letter to the head of customs enforcement in Portland, asking for mercy.

"We encourage you to explore whatever means possible to exercise prosecutorial discretion in this case and take no action to remove Ms. Freeman from the U.S. at this time," the letter said.

Three days later, the answer came. At a hearing, Freeman was handed an order from an immigration officer that said: "You are not entitled to status as an immediate relative."

Her jewelry was taken from her, her ankles were shackled, and she was kept in a holding cell for seven hours until her attorney obtained her release on the condition that she not travel outside the state without permission. She got permission last weekend to visit her husband's grave site for what may be the last time.

Freeman, a rail-thin woman who is just over 5 feet tall, met her late husband in a karaoke bar in Chicago. That was in March 2000, and her job as an au pair was coming to an end.

She returned to South Africa, but Robert came after her eight months later. After receiving her father's blessing, they were married in February 2001 and moved to Merrillville, Ind., where Robert was a manager at a Costco store.

They had been married 11 months when Robert, on his morning drive to work, was killed by the truck. In mourning, Freeman moved to her late husband's home town of Clarkston in eastern Washington state, where she lived with her sister-in-law's family for a year. She later moved to the Seattle area and then Portland, where she looked for work in the hotel trade.

"My dad has been in the catering business for years, and I grew up in the business," she said. "If they hadn't taken away my right to work, I probably would have had a really good job by now in a really good hotel."

Freeman did not have to leave Thursday. She could have stayed until her appeal was exhausted, probably for a year or so.

But she said she is worried that, if something were to happen to her father, it could take weeks to sort out the paperwork that would allow her to travel outside the United States.

"After the death of my husband," she said, "I wasn't prepared to take that risk. So now I leave."


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