Family separated by immigration policy

Updated: 2007-05-27 10:01

BRADENTON, Florida -- Keith Campbell woke alone on his 47th birthday earlier this month to find little plastic cows scattered all over his front lawn, a whimsical surprise arranged by his wife and two young sons all the way from Japan.

The family spent the day half a world apart because of an immigration dispute that has disrupted their lives for years and culminated in the Japanese-born Akiko Campbell being barred from the United States after making her home here for almost nine years.

As the US lawmakers wrestle with a long awaited immigration bill largely aimed at dealing with the millions of illegal immigrants in the US, critics point to the Campbells' case as an example of how making mistakes in the exceedingly complicated process to get visas and permanent residency can lead to life-changing consequences for foreign spouses of American citizens and their family members.

"It's kind of a surreal thing," Keith Campbell said recently as he waited to have his daily Web-cam computer chat with Akiko, 41, and his two sons, ages 4 and 1, who are in Nagano, Japan. "We haven't done anything wrong."

Immigration officials say Akiko Campbell committed fraud in 1998 when she entered the United States with a fiancee visa after she had already gotten married to Keith. She is now prohibited from re-entering the country for 10 years.

Since she left in January, Keith Campbell has spent time furiously writing lawmakers, printing bumper stickers, talking to anyone who would listen and putting up a Web site to tell their story. The family's last immediate hope of being reunited on American soil is a hardship waiver, which is still being considered by US Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Advocates for families separated by unforgiving immigration policies say what is happening to the Campbells is more common than people think. A group called American Families United was formed last year to raise awareness of the problems and lobby Congress, but many of its issues have been overshadowed lately by the larger debate over border crossings and the treatment of illegal immigrants.

The immigration measure being debated in Congress would eventually grant legal residency status to the roughly 12 million unlawful immigrants in the US, and would set up a point system for future immigration applicants that stresses skills needed by US businesses over family connections.

While some critics have argued the bill amounts to granting amnesty to the illegal immigrants, others, such as Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama, have blasted the proposal as devaluing family.

American Families United says that a minor mistake on an immigration form or not filing for the proper visa can lead to arrest, jailing and deportation. Yearslong processing times for visas often leave families in limbo.

"People's lives are being completely ruined," said Glenys Old of Wardensville, West Virginia, whose British-born son is being deported because he turned 21 while his application for a permanent residency was still being processed. "Families are being torn apart."

American Families United co-founder Randall Emery sued the federal government last year to force the delayed processing of a visa for his Colombian-born wife.

"People have the impression before marrying someone from another country that it's a pretty straightforward process," Emery said. "But it's very complicated, and it's easy to make a mistake. And if you make a mistake like Keith and Akiko, the punishments are very draconian."

The Campbells say that when Akiko's fiancee visa did not arrive before their planned wedding in Hawaii in June 1998, they were told by an official at the US Embassy in Tokyo to go ahead and get married and apply to change her status after she was settled in the United States.

But in March 2000, when they went to the immigration office in Tampa for an interview to secure her permanent residency, they learned she would not be allowed to stay in the country because she committed fraud.

In the years since, the Campbells have been working with lawyers and filing unsuccessful appeals. Meanwhile, Akiko gave birth to their two sons who, in the eyes of the government, are American citizens.

Good news seemed to come in 2005. They got a letter from the US Department of Justice saying their visa petition was approved. But Akiko would have to return to the US Embassy in Tokyo to get it.

Akiko packed up her two sons for a monthlong visit with family in Japan.

When she went to the embassy, the visa was flatly denied, and she was told she could not return to the US The couple believes they were deliberately misled by the government to get her out of the country.

Citing privacy laws, spokesman Chris Bentley said the USCIS cannot comment on specific immigration cases. But, he said, "we're bound by making determinations based on what the law says."

Robert Deasy, who practiced immigration law for more than 25 years before becoming an official of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said that it is difficult to budge the USCIS once there is a finding of fraud. The details rarely matter.

"This is heart-wrenching and unfortunately not unusual," Deasy said.

If their hardship waiver is denied, Keith Campbell said he will likely sell their house and most of their possessions, close his successful landscaping business, say goodbye to their friends and join his family in Japan.

"I'm a man of faith. I think it will work out," he said. "Wherever God wants me to be - that's how I cope with it."

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