ST. LOUIS — A Thai immigrant slated to be deported with her children after the death of her American husband was granted a green card under a new law meant to protect people in such situations.
Attorneys for Khampee Kells, 40, of Wildwood in suburban St. Louis, said Tuesday that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services granted permanent resident status to Kells and her daughters, ages 14 and 20.
"I can't describe how happy I am," Kells said. "What a big relief."
Navy Sgt. Robert Kells and Khampee met when he was stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. They married and moved to Missouri, where he worked as a Navy recruiter. Nine months after the marriage, on March 11, 2006, Bob Kells was riding his motorcycle when he collided with a car and was killed instantly.
In October, President Barack Obama signed legislation abolishing the so-called "widow's penalty," which triggered deportation for surviving immigrant spouses of American citizens who died before they had been married two years. The law had been criticized by many for making personal tragedies even worse. Kells was among the women whose stories prompted Congress to abolish the widow's penalty.
The new law allows widows like Kells to submit petitions seeking residency, which must still be approved by the USCIS.
"The Kells received their green cards yesterday and are now officially welcome to live and work in the United States on a permanent basis," said Martha Hereford, an attorney for St. Louis firm Armstrong Teasdale LLP, which handled the case.
Kells originally filed a lawsuit against the government in U.S. District Court in St. Louis claiming she and her children were wrongfully stripped of their "immediate relative" status. A federal judge agreed. The government appealed but that became moot when Obama signed the measure doing away with the widow's penalty on Oct. 28.
"This means the end of an era of automatic termination that began as far as we can tell back in the '30s," said Brent Renison, whose Oregon-based group Surviving Spouses Against Deportation led the effort to overturn the law. "It's a completely new world for (immigrants) who are surviving the death of a spouse."
Renison said that without the new law, he was aware of at least 215 people who would still be facing deportation, including three others in Missouri. Most are women, but about 10 percent are men, he said.
Kells, who works as a part-time waitress, said the past four years have been difficult enough as she grieved the loss of her husband. Not knowing if she would be able to remain in the U.S. only added to the anxiety, she said.
"It was awful," she said. "I kept asking myself, is it really true that this kind of law exists in a country known for its human rights? Why were we being treated this way? We weren't criminals."