Alabama senator blocking Ferschke bill

Just one week ago, Robin Ferschke dared to hope that her family might finally be reunited. Now, she’s struggling to keep that hope alive.

A bill that would let Ferschke’s widowed Japanese daughter-in-law move to East Tennessee with her infant son has stalled once again in the U.S. Senate, just days after it cleared the House on a unanimous bipartisan vote.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., is refusing to let the bill move forward, said Brent Renison, an attorney who is working with Ferschke on the legislation.

Neither Sessions nor his staff has spelled out precisely what their concerns are, Renison said, but Republicans have raised objections to passing any immigration legislation this year.

“The only thing I heard them say was they didn’t think an amendment to the immigration act was appropriate. … I just don’t know what it could be other than politics as usual in Washington and that maybe they are doing something to gain some sort of advantage,” Renison said. “But to do it in this case is simply outrageous.”

With time running out to get the bill passed this year, Ferschke left her home in Maryville on Monday and drove to Mobile, Ala., where she hopes to get a meeting with Sessions today and plead her case.

“I’m going to plead and beg that he passes this bill and sends it through quickly,” she said. “This pain has got to end.”

Sessions’ office said either the senator or his staff would meet with Ferschke.

“We look forward to welcoming Mrs. Ferschke to the office and are deeply saddened by her loss,” said the senator’s spokesman, Stephen Miller. “We are working to find the best solution to help Mrs. Ferschke in the aftermath of this horrible family tragedy.”

Ferschke’s son, Marine Sgt. Michael Ferschke, was killed two years ago in Iraq. Two months before his death, he married Hotaru “Hota” Ferschke, a young Japanese woman he had met the year before while stationed on Okinawa.

The two wed by proxy, which allows a marriage to occur between two people who are not in the same location. Sgt. Ferschke was in Iraq, his bride in Japan. They never saw each other again.

Their son, Mikey, was born after his father’s death. The couple had agreed to raise Mikey, now 22 months old, in Tennessee, yet Hota Ferschke cannot move to the United States because proxy marriages aren’t recognized under a half-century-old immigration law.

The 1952 law says marriage between an American and a foreign national must be consummated after the wedding before the non-American can gain permanent residency status. The statute was enacted to prevent Asians in the post-World War II and Korean War years from gaining residency status in the U.S. through sham marriages.

After more than a year’s delay, the U.S. House voted last Monday to close the immigration law loophole so that Hota Ferschke can move permanently to the U.S. with her son.

The bill would insert language into the immigration law that would keep the proxy provision from applying in cases when failure to consummate the marriage was caused by “physical separation” of the couple because one of them was on active duty in the armed forces.

The legislation is now before the Senate, and supporters had hoped to move it quickly through that chamber as well.

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, already has given his approval to fast-track the bill, Renison said. But those hopes dimmed after Sessions, the committee’s top Republican, raised concerns about amending the immigration law, Renison said.

“This isn’t a controversial bill,” Renison said. “For them to make it into a controversial bill, I just think there are other motives at play here.’’

A staff aide to the Senate Judiciary Committee said the problem is that some lawmakers on the committee have raised concerns the bill is too broad and would apply not only to those in the same situation as Hota Ferschke, but to any service member’s proxy marriage, even when residency and citizenship are available through existing law.

But U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan Jr., the Knoxville Republican who sponsored the bill in the House, argues the bill is already narrow in scope. While the changes that are being sought could, in theory, apply to anyone who might be in a similar situation, the reality is that no one else is in a predicament like that of Hota Ferschke, said Duncan’s spokesman, Patrick Newton.

“We really don’t know of another single person” who would be affected, Newton said.

The bill “is too specific for the politics of immigration reform” to brought into the discussion, Newton said. “This is not a political banner in any way. It is simply helping out a family that has been through way too much already.”

Ferschke, meanwhile, said she knows she’s taking a risk by showing up at Sessions’ office in Alabama. But, she said, it will be worth the risk if it brings her daughter-in-law and grandson home to Tennessee.

“I’ll do whatever it takes,” she said. “I promised my son, my daughter-in-law and my Mikey that I’m going to do it if it kills me. And it basically is.”

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