Lawsuit gives hope to émigré widows

Bay Area widows Jacqueline Coats and Rita Poindexter haven’t met, but a heartbreaking circumstance ties the two together: Both were newlyweds who lost their husbands suddenly and are now facing deportation.

On Thursday, new hope came for Coats and Poindexter when a Portland, Ore., attorney filed a federal class-action lawsuit Thursday on behalf of dozens of immigrants who lost their spouses and now face uncertain futures. The lawsuit would end the so-called “widow penalty” to women facing possible deportation because their husbands died before their immigration paperwork was approved.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services generally denies applications for permanent residence for the surviving spouse of a U.S. citizen if he or she dies during the first two years of marriage.

A day earlier, Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi, D-Hayward, launched a national petition drive for Coats.

Coats’ case made headlines in May 2006 shortly after her husband drowned at Ocean Beach in San Francisco. Marlin Coats, a former lifeguard, jumped into the water to save two young brothers caught in the riptide. The boys survived.

The couple, who married a month before Marlin’s death, were in the midst of filing for permanent residency for Jacqueline, a Kenyan immigrant. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein has sponsored a bill to allow for Coats’ permanent residency.

Poindexter’s case, on the other hand, never made the news and no politician has taken up her cause. But the 53-year-old Filipino immigrant and Hercules resident hopes her inclusion in the class action lawsuit will grant her the right to remain in the U.S.

Poindexter met her husband, Dan Poindexter, in February 2005. She was a caregiver at a Napa retirement home while he was a resident there — a retired colonel in the U.S. Air Force, writing his autobiography. The pair relocated to Fairfield nearly a year later and began making plans to bring Rita’s two sons to the U.S.

The couple was married Nov. 10, 2006, and filed to establish Rita’s citizenship three weeks later. Less than three months after the wedding, Dan passed away due to complications from a surgical procedure.

Oregon attorney Brent Renison, of Surviving Spouses Against Deportation, said he hopes his lawsuit will fix the problem permanently, so that there will be no need for additional private bills and campaigns focused on individual cases.

Spouses hoping to benefit from the lawsuit include a Russian woman in San Francisco and a woman from Uzbekistan who now lives in Palo Alto, he said.

Hayashi asks the public to urge passage of Sen. Feinstein’s bill at www.assembly.ca.gov/hayashi.

tbarak@examiner.com

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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