Thursday, September 06, 2007
Senators Try to Help Immigrant War Widow. After husband die in the Iraq War she fighting another War. Deportation.
ATHENS, Ill. — On their wedding day in 2003, Diana and Todd Engstrom, who met in the bride's native Kosovo (search), exchanged vows until death did them part.
Several months later, she gave him another solemn promise — to raise his 12-year-old son Dalton if he didn't return from Iraq, where he was being dispatched as a contractor working with the Army to train Iraqi security forces.
It turned out Diana Engstrom had to keep that promise.
Last September, Todd Engstrom, 35, died when Iraqi insurgents launched a rocket-propelled grenade at his convoy traveling to the city of Balad.
"Todd was a patriotic person that thought it was his duty to serve the country, and he gave the ultimate price, his life, for his country," said his father, Ron Engstrom, who calls Diana, 25, "part of the family."
"Todd didn't talk much about the danger, and I think part of that was so that we didn't worry," Ron Engstrom continued. "But the one thing that he did say was that if anything was to happen, he wanted Diana to help raise Dalton."
Diana and Todd Engstrom met in Kosovo when he was training U.N. peacekeeping forces (search) and she was working as an interpreter.
Fulfilling her husband's wish to raise his son has been complicated for Diana Engstrom.
Todd Engstrom was sponsoring his wife's bid for U.S. residency, and his death leaves her subject to deportation.
Because the couple had not been married for at least two years, and because Todd Engstrom was working as a civilian contractor in Iraq, Diana Engstrom does not have the rights given to widows of active-duty soldiers.
"It just shows you that when you have these laws drawn so strictly, you forget the human element," said Sen. Dick Durbin (search), D-Ill. "Who would have thought when they wrote this law, that you'd have a situation where someone's married less than two years, dies protecting people from our country, but not in the armed services? The laws didn't consider those options, and that happens so many times when you're dealing with immigration questions."
Durbin and his Illinois colleague, Sen. Barack Obama (search), have co-sponsored a bill to grant Diana Engstrom permanent residency. Their legislation suspends the deportation process while the two senators round up votes.
In recent years, Congress has been reluctant to pass bills designed to benefit a single individual, and mostly they deal with immigration issues. Of the 132 so-called "private relief" bills introduced in the last Congress, only six became law.
"Generally, it's a bad idea to identify a single individual and do a piece of legislation for them," said Obama, "but this is such a heartbreaking story and it speaks to a lot of civilians who are essentially working on behalf of the war effort in Iraq."
Obama added that Engstrom case falls into "a gray area," since Todd Engstrom was a civilian acting as a U.S. military operative.
"We are going to be taking a look to see if we should be passing some more general laws to close this very narrow loophole," Obama added.
"In this new modern world where they're depending more on contractors, it seems that the intent of the law should include those that are in the war on the front lines doing the job," Ron Engstrom said.
"In my mind it is not a special consideration," he added. "To me it is a consideration that should be broadened to include everybody that serves in the war."
The Engstrom family plans to contact churches and legislators in every state, and urges private citizens to write letters to or call their representatives in Congress to support the Diana Engstrom bill.
"We're hoping through that mechanism, and also through national media, we can reach out and make people understand that this is not a done deal just because the bill was introduced," Ron Engstrom said. "They need to contact their legislators and have them vote 'yes.'"
Diana Engstrom said she doesn't think the legislation will necessarily open up a floodgate of immigrants wanting the privilege of residency, because her case is unique. She's optimistic she will get a chance to stay in the United States.
If granted residency, Diana Engstrom promises to honor her late husband's wish.
"All I think is, 'It's going to happen and I'll be able to stay here and be with my stepson,'" she said. "The main gift to me, to be able to stay here. There is nothing more important than that."
When asked what life would be life without his stepmother, Dalton replied: "It would be hard because I have already lost my dad and my stepdad [to cancer]. I can't lose her."