Below is the story I wrote for Philippines News this week.
Purita, 55, spoke to me over the phone while she was on a Northern California train heading to work. At first Purita was a bit hesistant to talk but as she spoke of Richard, her dearly departed husband, her voice perked up. Because she was in transit, her cellphone's reception was choppy, medyo mahina ang boses n'ya, but she was still able to clearly convey her hurt in being "stripped" of her right to be called Richard's wife because he had died.
It was through fate that they met, but it was Richard's dogged determination to win her over that sealed their relationship.
In the early days of her courtship, Richard was hospitalized and when he opened his eyes, the first face that he saw was Purita's.
"He told me then that he will never let me go, that I have to be his wife," Purita said.
Filipino widows file lawsuit over green cards
Yong B. Chavez, Sep 05, 2007
LOS ANGELES — Purita Manuel Poindexter had every reason to be happy. She had found the love of her life, Richard, in the country that she also loves. They exchanged wedding vows on November 6, 2006.
About a month after, Richard, a U. S. citizen, filed a “petition for alien relative” and permanent residency application for Purita. She was scheduled for an interview on February 15, 2007.
Two weeks before the interview, on January 29, 2007, Richard was hospitalized for intestinal bleeding and died unexpectedly.
On March 7, Purita received a letter from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) saying that her application had been denied.
“Doon ko na-realize na lahat wala na (That’s when I realized that everything was gone),” Purita tearfully recounted.
Still reeling from the loss of her husband, she sought legal counsel to find out if she had any other options.
Her stepchildren, Richard’s adult children from a previous marriage, couldn’t believe that she would be deported.
Purita’s lawyer, however, did not think that her case had a chance because under a current immigration law, if the citizen dies before authorities approve the petition, the application is no longer valid.
“But my husband’s daughter told me not to give up. She promised to help in finding a way to appeal my case,” Purita said.
Her stepdaughter found Brent Renison, pro bono counsel of a group called Surviving Spouses Against Deportation. Purita joined the group which seeks to put an end to what Renison calls “widow penalty.”
Renison, together with Los Angeles attorney Alan Diamante, recently filed a class action lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Central District of California in Los Angeles. The complaint aims to reopen Purita’s and nearly two dozen other cases like hers. They are seeking to challenge the “widow penalty, whereby the USCIS denies legal status to surviving spouses of American citizens due to the death of their spouse during lengthy administrative visa processing.”
“It’s a disgusting practice,” Renison said.
Another Filipina, Sarah Bayor, 40, is also named as a plaintiff-petitioner in the lawsuit. Sarah married Stephen Bayor, a U.S. citizen, in January 2006 and her petition papers were filed the following month.
While waiting for her permanent residency approval, Stephen died. In August, 2007, three months after his death, Sarah received her letter of denial on the basis that she was no longer the spouse of a U.S. citizen.Interestingly, Matter of Varela, a frequently cited legal case in matters involving the death of a U.S. citizen spouse, was about the denial of the residency application of a Filipina widow in 1970. Her husband was a petty officer in the U.S. Naval Reserve and died of a heart attack while still on active duty. After his death, it was decided that she “was not the spouse of a United States citizen. His death had stripped her of that status.”
Currently, there are exceptions made for spouses of military personnel who die in combat. Unfortunately, this did not apply to Venezuela-born Dahianna Heard whose husband died while working for a private security contractor in Iraq. She is also a petitioner of the class action lawsuit.
The immigrants should not be “stripped of the status of a spouse” just because their husband or wife died, Renison said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “It’s nobody’s fault, and no one should be faulted.”
An amendment to change the law was part of the failed comprehensive immigration bill.
Reached via e-mail, an immigration official declined to comment on the issue.“We don’t comment on matters pending litigation,” Sharon Rummery of USCIS wrote. “I don’t understand why they don’t consider me his wife,” Purita said, adding that in every other aspect of her life, she remains Mrs. Poindexter.
It’s a tough battle, Purita admits, but she says she gets her strength from remembering the happy though short life she had with Richard.They met in 2005 and became inseparable almost immediately.
“We liked to talk and argue about politics,” she said. “He had a very sharp mind.”Before his death, Richard was writing a memoir while Purita was also busy writing her own little masterpiece: their love story.
“It was eight pages long,” she said. “Naiiyak ako pag naiisip ko na wala na s’ya. (I cry when I think about the fact that he’s gone.)”
Like the other members of the Surviving Spouses Against Deportation, Purita is pinning her hopes for a bit of a happy ending on the outcome of their lawsuit.