On a sunny September afternoon, Rose-Marie Barbeau Quinn sits in her downtown restaurant, the Vat & Tonsure, dabbing tears from her eyes.
For three decades (minus a five-year hiatus), the Vat was an institution that earned it a loyal clientele. Opera blared; the Old World menu never changed. Now, the place is silent. Quinn closed the doors last month. Her tears, however, are for herself, not her restaurant.
Quinn, a 67-year-old Canadian, moved to Portland in 1976. She started the Vat with her late husband, Mike Quinn, two years later. They didn't legally marry, however, until hours before he died of cancer in 1991. The year before, a new law had passed declaring that immigrants whose American spouses die before they've been married for two years can be deported.
Now, after fending off deportation for nearly 15 years, Quinn faces a forced return to Canada at the end of October. Her case is helping to make Portland the accidental center of an effort to change a law used to kick out dozens of widowed immigrants.
Portland lawyer Brent Renison has adopted the nastily named "widow's penalty" statute as a personal crusade, saying cases like Quinn's are distressingly common.
"I dealt with one of these cases in the spring of '04," he says. "And I thought, hmm, what a weird case. Then I came across another one. Now I have a spreadsheet of 30 different cases."
Two weeks ago, Renison went before the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing for a South African woman set to be deported from Portland. The lawyer also wrote the text for a new law governing widowed immigrants. After seeing a Washington Post article on Renison's South African client, Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., steered the Portland lawyer's language into an immigration reform package now before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
With Republican John McCain and über-Democrat Ted Kennedy among the co-sponsors, Renison expects the bill to pass. But with Supreme Court confirmations and other matters occupying the committee, the near-term prospects are uncertain.
That may be too late for Quinn. At one point, it seemed the Immigration and Naturalization Service would let slide-after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, a new entity called Immigration and Customs Enforcement got jurisdiction. Quinn asked ICE to "defer" her deportation, but the agency refused.
Quinn is also scrambling for help from Oregon's congressional delegation. In the past, the state's senators introduced so-called "private bills" that would have given her citizenship. Such bills rarely pass, but immigration authorities back off while they're alive in Congress.
This time, neither Democrat Ron Wyden nor Republican Gordon Smith seems inclined to intervene in the Senate. Members of the House could also act. But one congressional staffer says the delegation is waiting on Democrat Darlene Hooley, Quinn's congresswoman. Hooley did not return calls from WW seeking comment.
If nothing happens, Quinn must take a one-way flight to Canada, where she hasn't lived in decades.
"I've always seen to myself," she says. "I've given lots of jobs to Americans, lots of business to wineries and all the rest. I have family there, and they'll welcome me with open arms. But I don't know how I'll support myself. I'm not a spring chicken-I feel like one, but I'm not."