The following correction to this story was posted July 2: The June 25 story “While soldier fights for his country, his wife struggles to stay in the U.S.” contained inaccurate information because of a reporting error. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officials are conducting an investigation which could eventually deport Spc. Moonsammy Narinesammy’s wife.
WASHINGTON - Spc. Moonsammy Narinesammy isn’t worried about dying in Iraq.
He’s worried about spending the rest of his life in Guyana.
Narinesammy, 31, who has months left on his deployment, spends all of his free time between missions trying to solve his wife’s citizenship problems. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officials are finalizing deportation paperwork for Ratashwarie, while she waits nervously in New York.
"I don’t know if somebody is going to knock on the door one day and haul me away while my daughter is out at school," she said.
She faces a possible lifetime banishment from the United States for entering the country on a forged passport in 2000. Moonsammy said the only relatives she has in Guyana live in poor, dangerous slums, in an area where neither wants to raise their two young daughters.
"All I want to do is come back home to my family, but I don’t know what’s going to happen," said Moonsammy, himself a naturalized U.S. citizen. "I have a wonderful family, but it’s getting ripped apart."
Immigration experts say it’s not an unusual story.
"I probably get one of these calls a week," said Lt. Col. Margaret Stock, an Army reservist who works with the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "It’s a military readiness problem. The spouses are over there, stressing out about what’s happening back home. They can’t focus because they’re worried about where their wives will end up."
Defense Department statistics show that nearly 70,000 servicemembers are foreign-born, but the Pentagon doesn’t keep track of the number of troops with immigrant spouses or family members.
Military support groups say it’s a sizable number, since many U.S. troops serve overseas, marry foreign spouses and adopt children from those countries.
In recent years, Congress has offered an easier path to citizenship for immigrants who serve in the military, allowing them to apply for citizenship within days of enlisting — even if they entered the country illegally.
Yet laws for family members of troops haven’t kept pace. Last year, the House debated a measure which would have offered broader protection for military spouses against deportation, including allowing some illegal resident family members of troops to seek citizenship.
But the legislation did not pass the House last session, largely due to opposition from groups worried about a loosening of immigration laws. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said she hopes to reintroduce the measure this summer.
Stock said most of the issues she hears about from servicemembers stem from violations under the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. That update of immigration laws included language that prohibited waivers for immigrants seeking permanent residence on any prior offense, including illegal border crossing.
‘I had documentation ...’
That’s why Ratashwarie is facing deportation: USCIS officials say they have no record of her legally entering the country in 2000, and have ordered her to produce documents proving that if she wants to stay in America.
She freely admits that she can’t.
"I had documentation to get into the country, but it wasn’t mine," she said. "A broker gave me someone else’s passport to fly from Trinidad to Puerto Rico, and collected all of the paperwork once I got to New York."
Ratashwarie, now 27, said her family arranged for her to come to America to help pull them out of poverty, hoping she could get a better job and send money back to them.
Before she left, her mother paid a hefty fee to a broker for what they thought was a legal, temporary work visa to enter the U.S. When she received the fake passport in Trinidad, she realized it wasn’t legal. By then, too much money had been invested in her trip to turn back.
"The only bad thing I’ve ever done is enter this country illegally," she said.
Moonsammy came to New York legally from Guyana with his parents in 1992, when he was a teenager.
He met Ratashwarie in 2002. She told him she wasn’t interested in short men, but his charm and persistence eventually won him a phone number and a first date.
They married three years later.
He decided to join the Army as a way to support their family, became an infantryman, and eventually deployed to Iraq. Just days before his unit left in November 2006, Moonsammy finished his naturalization paperwork and was sworn in as a U.S. citizen.
"I love this country, and I love the pride of knowing that I am serving my country," he said. "I had other jobs, but this is different. I want to go to warrant officer school, make a career out of this."
Marriage no sanctuary
The pair had hoped that his status as a citizen would provide the protection Ratashwarie needed to eventually become a citizen herself. Stock said it’s a common mistake.
"If you make a mistake filing the paperwork, or if there’s a prior problem, it doesn’t matter," she said. "Being married to an American doesn’t guarantee anything."
By the time Moonsammy left for Iraq with the 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment last fall, the couple had already been contacted by the USCIS to prove she wasn’t living in the country illegally.
They’ve hired several lawyers in the hopes that someone can find a solution for them. Moonsammy even was sent home in April for two weeks by his unit to try to sort it out, because his superiors worried it was becoming a distraction.
"But I’ve exhausted what we can do," he said. "Now we’re just waiting to see what happens next."
Stock has not reviewed the Narinesammys’ case, but said similar ones she’s handled usually have predictable outcomes. If the immigrant is found to have used a fake or stolen U.S. passport to get into the country, they’re banned from America for life.
Ratashwarie said the passport she used was from Trinidad, although she cannot produce any documents to back that up. Stock said in some cases with foreign passports, lawyers have more leeway to argue for leniency, especially if the foreign national was duped into thinking they had proper paperwork to enter the country.
But often those individuals still face deportation and a 10-year ban from the country before they are allowed to apply for a temporary visa again.
Meanwhile, Moonsammy waits in Iraq for more information on what will happen to his wife. He said he has struggled to push the deportation threat out of his mind, but lately the thought of losing his wife has become a constant fear.
"It’s real difficult to keep in a sane mood," he said. "I’m on my second deployment. I’ve been gone for most of my kids’ lives. And this is how I’m repaid? Who will be there when I come home?