By MITCH STACY
The Associated Press
Saturday, May 26, 2007; 5:46 PM
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Keith Campbell and his Japanese-born wife spent his 47th birthday half a world apart because of an immigration dispute. Critics say the case illustrates how making mistakes in getting visas and permanent U.S. residency can lead to life-changing consequences for families.
"It's kind of a surreal thing," Campbell said recently as he waited to have his daily Web-cam chat with his wife, Akiko, and their two sons, ages 4 and 1, who are in Nagano, Japan. "We haven't done anything wrong."
Immigration officials say Akiko Campbell, 41, committed fraud in 1998 when she entered the U.S. with a fiancee visa after she had already gotten married to Keith. Now she's now prohibited from re-entering the country for 10 years.
Since she left in January, Keith Campbell has spent time furiously writing lawmakers, printing bumper stickers, talking to anyone who would listen and putting up a Web site _ http://www.bringakikohome.com_ to tell their story.
The family's last immediate hope of being reunited on American soil is a hardship waiver, which is still being considered by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
American Families United, a group formed last year to advocate for families separated by immigration policies, says what is happening to the Campbells is more common than people think, but the issue has been overshadowed lately by the larger debate over illegal immigrants.
The group says a minor mistake on an immigration form or not filing for the proper visa can lead to arrest, jailing and deportation. Years-long processing times for visas often leave families in limbo.
"People's lives are being completely ruined," said Glenys Old of Wardensville, W.Va., whose British-born son is being deported because he turned 21 while his application for an alien child visa was still being processed. "Families are being torn apart."
American Families United co-founder Randall Emery sued the federal government last year to force the delayed processing of a visa for his Colombian-born wife.
"People have the impression before marrying someone from another country that it's a pretty straightforward process," Emery said. "But it's very complicated, and it's easy to make a mistake. And if you make a mistake like Keith and Akiko, the punishments are very draconian."
The Campbells say that when Akiko's fiancee visa didn't arrive before their planned wedding in Hawaii in June 1998, they were told by an official at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo to go ahead and get married and apply to change her status after she was settled in the United States.
They were staggered when they went to the immigration office in Tampa in March 2000 for an interview to secure her permanent residency and were told Akiko wouldn't be allowed to stay in the country because she committed fraud.
Campbells have been working with lawyers and filing unsuccessful appeals since then. In 2005, they got a letter from the U.S. Department of Justice saying their visa petition was approved. But Akiko would have to return to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo to get it.
Akiko packed up her two sons for a visit with family in Japan. But when she went to the embassy, the visa was flatly denied, and she was told she couldn't go back home. The couple believes they were deliberately misled by the government to get her out of the country.
Citing privacy laws, Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesman Chris Bentley said the agency can't comment on specific immigration cases. In general, "We're bound by making determinations based on what the law says," he said.
Robert Deasy, who practiced immigration law for more than 25 years before becoming an official of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said that it's difficult to budge Citizenship and Immigration Services once there is a finding of fraud. The details rarely matter.
"This is heart-wrenching and unfortunately not unusual," Deasy said. "The tragedies from strict application of the law to what in the commonsense world are minor infractions are just extraordinary."
If their hardship waiver is denied, Keith Campbell said he'll likely sell their house and most of their possessions, close his successful landscaping business, say goodbye to their friends and join his family in Japan.
"I'm a man of faith. I think it will work out," he said. "Wherever God wants me to be _ that's how I cope with it."
On the Net:
American Families United: http://www.americanfamiliesunited.com/