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June 11, 2008
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A Second Life artist who goes by the name "Eshi Otawara" faces real-life deportation due to the so-called "widow's penalty" in immigration law.
The artist, whose real-life name is Irena Morris, is a Croatian immigrant who lives in Florida. Her American husband died suddenly, when they'd been married less than two years, while her application for residency was in progress. According to U.S. immigration law, the application is automatically rejected once the American spouse dies. Morris received formal notification from U.S. immigration authorities last week that her application was terminated, and she's ready to be deported from the U.S. at any moment.
"The two years of my life since my husband passed way were one big pot of fear and financial insecurity," Morris said in a telephone interview with InformationWeek. "I lost my house, I lost everything except my cat, my husband's car and the free, open road."
Morris's attorney, Brent Renison of Lake Oswego, Ore., says she is one of an extremely small group of people hit by the widow's penalty. He knows of just 156 cases like Morris's, all clients of his. He's seeking to get a lawsuit certified as a class action suit to overturn the law, and he's also working with Congress to get a new immigration law passed that would let Morris and people like her become residents.
Born in Croatia nearly 28 years ago, she came to the U.S. on a student visa and attended McNeese State University at Lake Charles, La., starting eight years ago. There, she met and married one of her professors, Glenn Morris, 58, after she graduated in 2004.
Hurricanes Rita and Katrina hit, and the Morrises lost a third of their house. Glenn Morris got a new job, working with Volunteers of America on disaster relief. She worked as a housewife.
"On the morning of April 1st 2006, I found him dead in our bed. He stroked out so hard that he did not even manage to move, call me, or knock something over to wake me up," she wrote on her Second Life blog.
Her husband had no known medical problems except a little bit of high blood pressure, she said in a phone interview. The night before he died, they'd fallen asleep together on the couch watching a movie. She vaguely remembers him going to bed. The next morning, she was awakened on the couch by his cell phone ringing. She brought it in to the bedroom for him, where she found his body.
"His eyes were open and his hand was in the air as if he was reaching for the phone," she said. "I kept saying, 'Hey, babe, Glenn, phone.' The phone stopped and I realized what had happened." She added, "It's so surreal to see your husband dead. It's your husband but not your husband. He's not there anymore."
Morris continued to try to become a legal resident of America. Without a work permit, she couldn't get a job, and subsisted on the kindness of friends, and what little money she could make creating art in both Second Life and real life.
Morris joined Second Life in late 2006. It became a refuge from her unhappy real life. "I went from having a happy home, with a husband, to having a suitcase in my friend's room behind the kitchen. I happened to have this computer and an Internet connection. I didn't feel like going out," she said. Depressed, grieving, and without any income, she'd stopped taking care of her appearance and health. She put on weight, and developed a pre-diabetic condition from living on junk food. "But I still needed social contact," she said. And Second Life gave her that.
I met with "Eshi Otawara" in Second Life. She showed me some of the women's clothing she makes and sells in Second Life, and a gallery of images of her real-life paintings. She often paints scenes of war, disaster, and terrorism, including one painting of the 9/11 attacks. You can find her paintings on Flickr, they include a moving nude double-portrait of Glenn and Irena together.
One day, a while after her husband died, she became so sad that she burst out crying in the grocery store. "I said, 'I'll just go home and make him.' It made me feel better." She created an avatar for herself in Second Life that looks like her husband. She doesn't wear the avatar very often, just every once in a while, when she feels particularly lonely.
She says Second Life and the friendships she made there literally saved her life -- she contemplated suicide at one point. "I went into Second Life and rediscovered myself in there and met people who are not judging me based on a tag such as 'immigrant,'" she said. "I wish the real world worked that way."
In addition to providing emotional support, Morris's Second Life friends have written hundreds of letters to their representatives to get the widow penalty stricken from immigration law. And one Second Life friend pointed Morris to a segment about the widow's penalty on the radio news show This American Life, which was where she learned about Renison, the attorney who now represents her. The Second Life blog New World Notes wrote about her immigration problem.
Chris Rhatigan, a spokesperson for the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Service, declined to comment on Morris's case. She said the USCIS doesn't take a position on whether the widow's penalty is just, its job is merely to uphold the law.
But Morris's attorney, Renison, said USCIS isn't merely an impartial instrument of the law. He said USCIS fought hard to uphold the widow's penalty. The United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit, struck down the widow's penalty in a previous case. But that ruling only applies to the Ninth Circuit, which covers the American Northwest plus Alaska, Hawaii, and Guam. And the USCIS appealed the decision and has thrown up administrative barriers to preserve the penalty.
Renison's other clients include widows of American veterans of the Iraqi war, police killed in the line of duty, and widows with children with their American husbands -- the children are American citizens but the only surviving parent faces deportation.
Mike Cutler, a fellow at the Center of Immigration Studies and former immigration agent, said he has "mixed feelings" about the widow's penalty. On the one hand, there's the obvious emotional argument for striking it down. "This is a tragedy. I'm not saying it's not," he said.
On the other hand, he said, the U.S. needs to take a hard line on illegal immigration. Marriage fraud is rampant -- the Government Accounting Office finds that in some areas the rate of marriage fraud runs 90%, he said. And several cases of American terrorism were done by people who committed immigration fraud to get into the country, including several of the 9/11 terrorists.
"The point of giving a person a green card because they're married to an American is to benefit the American. Why would they give her a green card after the American dies?" he said.
Cutler added that neither he nor InformationWeek knows why Morris is being deported.
"I don't know if the reason that time elapsed is because the CIS was investigating fraud, or because the CIS was so incompetent that they were pushing around the paperwork," he said.
Meanwhile, Morris waits for resolution of her case. Some people in her situation have been escorted off in handcuffs by immigration officers.
She wrote on her Second Life blog:
I never took a penny from this country, I never had a bounced check, I was never arrested ... my husband was someone who tremendously contributed to the community devoting his last days of life to helping others.
This is not the America I always loved and admired and wanted to be a part of.
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