Immigrant widow fights to stay in Chicago

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Maria Diaz and Christopher Rodriguez

The photos of Maria Diaz are from happier times - her wedding day and a trip to the Grand Canyon.

But she had been married only a year when the worst thing imaginable happened. Her husband, Christopher Rodriguez, died of a congenital heart condition.

Diaz was distraught but her pain was compounded when she realized she could be deported back to her native Spain.

She is a victim of what's called "the widow's penalty." Under current law, if a U.S. citizen spouse of an immigrant dies before two years of marriage, or before the immigrant papers are approved, the immigrant spouse loses their right to permanent legal status.

"In this whole situation people have to realize that we are widows. We are traumatized and we need support," Diaz told me in an interview.

This week the Obama Administration gave the widow's a temporary reprieve. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano granted a two-year stay of deportation for immigrant widows and widowers, according to a story in The New York Times.

But Diaz said the ruling doesn't go far enough.

"We won't be deported, but we are still trapped," said Diaz, 36, who lives in Chicago.

She can't leave the United States to go visit her elderly parents in Barcelona. Under current law, she would be barred from coming back. She also doesn't want to leave behind the life she has here in Chicago and the memories of her husband.

"My husband is buried here. My mother-in-law lives in California. If I leave the (United States) now, I could never come back," Diaz said.

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Maria Diaz and Christopher Rodriguez

There are more than 200 men and women in the United States in such
circumstances, according to Surviving Spouses Against Deportation. Many
were part of a class action suit filed in California by Oregon attorney
Brent Renison.

Last month, the court ruled in their favor but only in the Ninth
Circuit. It didn't apply to women like Diaz who live in the Midwest.
Six of the plaintiffs have to refile in their home states, including
Diaz and another Illinois woman, Diana Engstrom, originally from Kosovo.

She met her husband, Todd, when he commanded a special forces team for
the United Nations in Kosovo. He later went to work in Iraq as a
military contractor and was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade.

Both Diaz and Engstrom have a federal hearing at the end of July in Chicago.

This order issued by Napolitano gives the widows and widowers more time but it is not a permanent solution.

"The interim relief is a bandage to staunch (their) wounds, but it does
nothing to resolve the issue," said Renison, who has been an advocate
for the widows. "These people are entitled to have their cases reviewed
on the individual facts, and not automatically denied."

If the courts don't resolve this, Congress needs to act on two stalled
bills, including one introduced by Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, that
would change the law.

These women have already lost their husbands. They shouldn't lose the right to stay in the United States.

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