NYLAG recently filed a lawsuit challenging the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Service’s (USCIS) policy of automatically denying green card applications submitted by husbands and wives of U.S. citizens solely because their citizen spouse died before the government processed the applications.

NYLAG filed the lawsuit, Gorovets v. Chertoff, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, on behalf of Irina Gorovets. Mrs. Gorovets is the widow of Emil Gorovets, a world-renowned singer and composer, who spent most of his life in the former Soviet Union. Mrs. Gorovets is facing deportation because her husband tragically died from kidney failure while the Gorovetses’ immigration applications were awaiting approval.

Federal law allows the spouse of a U.S. citizen to become a lawful permanent resident and obtain a green card. However, if the citizen spouse dies before the couple has been married for two years and before USCIS processes the couple’s immigration papers, USCIS refuses to treat the widow or widower as the spouse of a U.S. citizen and denies the green card application.

USCIS’s policy, often called the “widow’s penalty,” has resulted in more than 170 widows and widowers throughout the country fearing deportation. NYLAG’s challenge to the policy is part of a larger, national movement. NYLAG hopes Mrs. Gorovets’s case will prevent USCIS from continuing this policy in New York, where it currently remains in effect.

Under USCIS’s policy, whether a surviving spouse can obtain a green card can be purely a matter of chance. For widows and widowers whose citizen spouse dies before their second wedding anniversary, their eligibility for a green card solely depends on when USCIS makes decisions on their applications. If the citizen spouse dies after the application is processed, the surviving spouse gets a green card; but if the citizen spouse dies before the application is processed, the surviving spouse is denied a green card and placed in deportation proceedings.

In Mrs. Gorovets’s case, although her husband passed away prior to their second wedding anniversary, the couple had lived together for years before his death. Ms. Gorovets was devastated when USCIS ruled that her marriage “ceased to exist” upon her husband’s death. “I will always be the widow of Emil Gorovets,” she said.

Mrs. Gorovets has dedicated her life to preserving her husband’s cultural legacy, a fact that USCIS refused to consider and which highlights the harshness of its policy. The late Emil Gorovets a singer, composer, and world-renowned icon, has been credited with the extraordinary achievement of preserving Jewish and Yiddish culture in the former Soviet Union. In the 1970s, pressure from Soviet authorities forced Gorovets to emigrate to the United States. He became a U.S. citizen in 1978 and performed both in the United States and internationally until his death in 2001.

Mrs. Gorovets served as a coproducer of many of Mr. Gorov- ets’s artistic projects and is intimately familiar with his work. Deportation will cause Mrs. Gorovets more than just personal hardship. If she is forced to leave the United States, she will be torn from the important job of archiving and preserving her husband’s artistic works, abandoning the development of a critical historical archive for Jewish, Yiddish and Russian culture.

Caryn Lederer, a staff attorney at NYLAG, said, “Mrs. Gorovets is the victim of an arbitrary and unjust policy. Whether widows and widowers like Mrs. Gorovets can stay in the United States should not depend on whether the government processes their properly-filed applications before or after the tragic death of their spouses.” For more information on this or other Special Litigation Unit information please contact Caryn Lederer at [email protected] or 212.613.5108.

For more information on NYLAG’s other immigration-related legal services please contact Irina Matiychenko at [email protected] or 212.613.5013.