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thedrifter
02-12-06, 09:34 AM
Dead Marine's mom can't stay here
Vietnamese woman who gave up her son to relatives to get him to U.S. as a child is denied residency permit of 20

Sunday, February 12, 2006
By Karin Brulliard, The Washington Post

WASHINGTON -- A weeping Kim-Hoan Thi Nguyen kissed her 7-year-old son goodbye at the Ho Chi Minh airport and told him it would be a long time before they would be together again. Little Binh Le boarded the plane and flew off to the United States, where his mother hoped he would flourish. It was 1991.

She next saw her son when he visited Vietnam at 12. He cooked her french fries.

He visited again when he was 18 and a recent high school graduate in suburban Fairfax County, Va. They had a party.

Their next reunion came in December 2004. At his funeral, at Arlington National Cemetery.

Cpl. Le, a Marine and a Vietnamese citizen, was killed at 20 while defending his desert base in Iraq. The month after his death, he was awarded U.S. citizenship in a ceremony at which speakers lauded his valor.

Ms. Nguyen, who has lived with a friend in suburban Springfield, Va., since the funeral, wants to stay. Wracked with guilt that she sent her only child off to a life that was cut short, she wants only to lay flowers on his grave each Sunday. Yet, although parents of immigrants killed in combat are eligible for permanent residency, Ms. Nguyen's applications have been denied.

The reason: She and Cpl. Le's father gave up their son for adoption to an aunt and uncle so he could emigrate with them.

"I lost my son for many years, and I do not want to lose him again," Ms. Nguyen, 48, said this past week through an interpreter. She said her visitor's visa will expire in December.

Ms. Nguyen said the adoption consisted of a handwritten piece of paper signed by the two couples and a neighbor acting as a witness. Lawyers who have helped her and Lien Van Tran, Le's father, apply for permanent residency say the adoption was never official, a conclusion supported after an investigation by a lawyer in Vietnam.

But to U.S. immigration authorities, Cpl. Le benefited from the adoption -- legal or not -- by coming to the United States as the son of his aunt and uncle. Cpl. Le's birth parents, therefore, cannot benefit from their relationship to him, according to a denial Ms. Nguyen received from the Board of Immigration Appeals.

Relatives said Cpl. Le dreamed of becoming a U.S. citizen and helping his parents, who later divorced, gain citizenship. Cpl. Le was raised by his adoptive parents, Hau Luu and Thanh Le of suburban Alexandria, Va., and another aunt and uncle nearby. "That was probably one of the things that he wanted most, was for them to come over and live with him," cousin David La, 15, said. "That was his dream."

U.S. Rep. James Moran, D-Va., found their case so compelling that he filed a private bill in Congress last February that would grant permanent residency to Ms. Nguyen, Mr. Tran, their new spouses and Mr. Tran's daughter. But it has been stuck in committee since March.

"Corporal Le served our country with distinction, paying the ultimate sacrifice for his bravery. It seemed like a fitting tribute to try and help his biological parents become part of the nation he so dearly loved," Mr. Moran said in a statement Wednesday. He said he is still pushing the bill, but added, "Any bill that has even a whiff of an immigration-related provision faces a very tough road here in the House."

Cpl. Le grew up a typical American teenager, active in his church and the Junior ROTC.

On Dec. 3, 2004, Cpl. Le was killed when a water truck carrying 500 pounds of explosives bore down on Camp Terbil. Cpl. Le and Marine Cpl. Matthew Wyatt, 21, of Millstadt, Ill., fired at the driver, killing him, before the truck crashed and exploded, killing Cpl. Le and Cpl. Wyatt and wounding six other Marines.

That Cpl. Le died defending his fellow Marines is no surprise, friend Paul Stadig said: He was very loyal.

"He was just always the military type," Mr. Stadig said. "He always loved the idea of the few and the proud and being the best that he could be."

Ms. Nguyen cherishes the memories she has of her son as a youngster. Once, she recalled with a wistful smile, a tiny Cpl. Le tried to quiet children playing in the street because his mother was napping. But despite their love for Cpl. Le, Ms. Nguyen said, she and Mr. Tran felt certain that his future was more promising in the United States.

"I wished I am going to see my son again, but for how long, I don't know," Ms. Nguyen said, recalling how she felt when she said goodbye to Cpl. Le. "I felt very, very bad for leaving my son, but because of his future, his life, still I had to. ... I was sick for a couple months."

Ms. Nguyen said she tried hard to stay connected to Cpl. Le's life by asking lots of questions in regular phone conversations. On his first visit to Vietnam, she brimmed with joy. "He looked like a good boy," she said.

Cpl. Le did not tell Ms. Nguyen he was joining the Marines. It was only after he was on his first tour in Iraq -- during the invasion in 2003 -- that she learned from the aunt and uncle of his enlistment. Finally, he called her from his post.

"I told my son, 'You have to take care of yourself. I want to see you again,' " Ms. Nguyen said. When she learned of his death, she tried to kill herself, she said. Her sisters and mother stopped her.

After pushing for Cpl. Le's posthumous citizenship, the Marine Corps took on his parents' cases, helping them file applications for permanent residency. When the applications were denied, the Marine Corps found immigration lawyers who agreed to represent them for free.

"It was important to the very senior people in the Marine Corps leadership to make sure that we were keeping faith with this Marine's family," said Christopher Rydelek, head of legal assistance for the judge advocate of the Marine Corps.

After his options were exhausted, Mr. Tran returned to Vietnam on Jan. 30, said Lynda Zengerle, an immigration lawyer here who helped with his petitions.

"He was clearly crushed," Ms. Zengerle said. "I think he was hopeful that he could come back to visit his son's grave at least once a year."

Ms. Nguyen said a lawyer with a Washington law firm helped her petition the appeals board in suburban Falls Church, Va., which is part of the Justice Department. When the request was denied, she said, he told her there was no hope.

"For the law, I agree with that, because I gave up my son for his adoptive parents," Ms. Nguyen said. "But I feel bad, because my son died."

Ms. Nguyen said she also fears that her son's death in the name of the United States -- and the attention it received here and in Vietnam -- could bring persecution by the communist government in Vietnam.

In the United States, Ms. Nguyen has no family and few friends. It would be hard to start a new life but worth it to be near her son, she said. If she is allowed to stay, Ms. Nguyen said she might like to be a babysitter, because she adores children. Whether her husband in Vietnam will join her is another matter, she said.

"American people live by plans," she said. "Vietnamese people live by hope."

Ellie