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Sent on Mormon-News: 31May01

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 Orlando Sentinel.

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 Temple.

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


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