- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 11, 2004

Isn’t it amazing a nation built on the minds and muscle of immigrants has no coherent policy to deal with what may now be close to the top of its most pressing problems — immigration? For decades, interpreting laws dealing with aliens was left up to a thoroughly discredited agency, the Justice Department’s old Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The nonapocryphal story has it that one INS chief, a former general of more than usual imperiousness, once decided arbitrarily to arrest a man on the street, put him in an airplane and ship him to a climate as intemperate as the general’s nature without an overcoat. This occurred though the immigrant’s case was being heard in court, where the judge had given him immunity from such action pending a decision.

There was an epidemic of that sort of lack of common sense on the part of the nation’s immigration officers through much of the agency’s history. Some of it seems to carry over in the new Department of Homeland Security, which has merged both the highly regarded Bureau of Customs and INS into a new division. Yet it would be difficult to blame only the misguided immigration louts of the past or those now trying to make some rational decisions based on laws that at times make that nearly impossible. Congress is at the heart of the matter.

Take the issue of foreign-born widows or widowers whose American spouses died before they had been married two years. Under those circumstances, the wife or husband automatically loses the right to permanent residence in the United States. This 1990 law’s rationale was that too many marriages were arranged to get a green card for foreigners. Although it has been subsequently modified to exclude spouses of someone killed in the September 11, 2001, attacks or in the U.S. military service, it has had an outrageous effect on those whose mates were killed accidentally or died of natural causes.

There are reportedly 25 such cases pending, and the press recently detailed one in which a truckdriver’s 27-year-old widow was summarily shackled and held in a cell for seven hours before her attorney got her released on the promise she not leave Oregon before she could be deported. This despite the intervention of three U.S. senators and a congressman.

According to newspaper reports, she was then ordered to her former home, South Africa, simply for failing to meet the two-year requirement. Ten years must pass before any application to re-enter the country can be considered.

Fortunately, the woman has no children. That is not always true, and small offspring of the union who qualify as citizens because they were born on American soil face either losing a surviving parent if it is decided they would be better off staying here with relatives or being effectively disenfranchised if they leave with the surviving parent.

Immigration problems have intensified dramatically since September 11, as the country tries to deal with the terrorist threat. The recent bill to reform the nation’s intelligence apparatus was stalled for some time because of provisions designed to make it more difficult for foreigners to get driver’s licenses that might be used to further terrorist activities.

How many illegal aliens now live and work here is anyone’s guess, probably millions. Still, Congress and immigration authorities waste time worrying about a former au pair whose husband was killed in a highway accident after an extended courtship and 11 months of marriage while the September 11 maniacs escaped detection. Presumably, an arranged marriage for residence reasons would be quickly end and be easy to spot. Couples living together full-time and having children in the process usually don’t fall into that category. The truckdriver had met the au pair here and even pursued her to South Africa when her job ended. It was, from all evidence, a marriage of love — not convenience.

This dumb law doesn’t help sort out the chaos caused by an incoherent and often-unfair policy. It makes us all look bad in a world determined to paint us as hypocritical and unjust.

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

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