The federal government will grant temporary protection to widows and widowers of U.S. citizens who died before their spouse's green card applications were approved, the Department of Homeland Security announced Tuesday.
The applications for permanent residency filed for surviving spouses who were married for less than two years were initially denied by the federal government, and some survivors were placed in deportation proceedings or deported. Now, the department will suspend deportation proceedings for two years, giving the applicants a chance to stay in the United States while their legal status is resolved.
The government will also consider "favorably" requests to reinstate petitions that had been revoked based on the death of a spouse before the couple's two-year anniversary.
The announcement comes more than a month after a Los Angeles judge ordered the department to reopen the immigration cases of nearly two dozen people, including Ana Maria Moncayo-Gigax, who lives in Southern California and whose husband died while on duty with the U.S. Border Patrol, and Raquel Williams, who lives in Florida and whose husband died of sleep apnea and heart problems.
Williams, 31, said the announcement was good news but that she will continue living in limbo until she becomes a permanent resident.
"They should change the law completely," she said.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano ordered a review of the "widow penalty" shortly after taking office in January. Department spokesman Matt Chandler said the United States is home for most of these men and women.
"It is a common sense, practical solution to a complicated issue," he said.
The department plans to issue guidelines soon so the widows and widowers, along with their unmarried minor children, can apply for the temporary relief. The department said, however, that this was only a short-term arrangement and that legislation was needed so applicants could seek permanent residency.
Brent Renison, an Oregon attorney who has filed numerous lawsuits on the issue, said the announcement gives some hope to his clients but that it wasn't enough. The temporary benefits -- called "deferred action" -- do not mean any of the applicants will become permanent residents. And the widow penalty is still on the books.
"I am disappointed they didn't go further," he said. "We will just keep fighting."