By Kent Larsen
LDS Family is in INS Limbo
LEESBURG, FLORIDA -- Rita and Ashley Couch married for eternity four years
ago, but the US Immigration and Naturalization Service is keeping them in a
kind of purgatory, challenging the validity of their marriage and the
validity of Rita's eight-year-old divorce, all because Rita sought to
normalize her status and get a green card. Their story was told in today's
Rita is well traveled. A native of Panama, she is a citizen of both Panama
and Belgium. She has lived in Europe, Africa and South America. In 1993,
while living in the US on a student visa, Rita filed for divorce from her
first husband. Believing she was a resident of Panama, she filed there, and
after graduation, she went to work in the hotel industry. By 1997 she was
living in Munich, Germany, managing a hotel.
But on a trip to Orlando, Florida in June of that year, Rita met Ashley
Couch, a widowed father of two girls, now aged 6 and 9, at an LDS Church
function. They fell in love and started a four-month-long overseas courtship
that included almost 200 love letters sent by fax and more than $3,000 in
international telephone calls. They married in November 1997 in the Orlando
Rita and Ashley quickly moved to straighten out Rita's immigration status,
meeting with the INS in December 1997 to start the process for a green card.
Nearly a year later the INS asked for proof of Rita's divorce, which the
Couches provided. But that response was met by another query, and then
another. "The whole thing has been a nightmare," said Rita. "Every time we
have gone down there they ask us for more documents. More proof. So we give
them more. But they never give us a definitive answer as to what we really
need to do," Ashley said.
Even the Orlando Sentinel couldn't get a straight answer from the INS.
Reporter Kelly Berwington was told by a Miami INS spokesman that the Couches
have little to fear, but an INS official in Washington DC said they ""should
not take this lightly."
The INS' logic has centered on Rita's divorce, which they call a "divorce by
proxy," which isn't recognized in Florida. They also claim that Rita was a
resident of South Carolina at the time of the divorce. But Washington DC
immigration attorney Crystal Williams says that the INS' logic doesn't agree
with immigration law, "By definition, if you have a student visa, you are in
the U.S. temporarily and by law you are supposed to be maintaining a
residence outside the United States," said Williams.
Meanwhile, the Couches are concerned that the issue could break up their
family. In February the INS threatened to deport Rita if she couldn't prove
her divorce was legal within 12 weeks, but again the INS didn't say what
proof it would accept. "Sometimes it feels like they are playing with our
lives," Ashley Couch said. "This is my wife."
To head off further problems and delays, Rita took the extraordinary step of
again filing for divorce from her first husband, this time in Florida on
April 25th. The couple then again married, this time in the county
courthouse. And, to make sure that the INS got the message, Ashley hand
delivered a new response to the INS, giving them a complete review of their
case, on April 30th, the deadline for illegal residents to apply for
permanent residency under an amnesty program.
Now the couple and their children are praying that they will be able to stay
together. "I'll be sad if she has to go back to Panama," said 9-year-old
Natalie. "I don't want to have a third Mommy if this one has to leave," said
Alexis, 6. Rita has tried to reassure them, "I tell them, pray to the
heavenly Father that no matter what happens, we are going to be together."
INS keeps family living in limbo
Orlando FL Sentinel 31May01 P2
By Kelly Brewington
Years of waiting
Orlando FL Sentinel 31May01 P2