Husband dies during immigration interview

The man's undocumented widow is afraid she'll be deported back to the Dominican Republic.

Published August 20, 2006

MIAMI - Maritza Hernandez was joyous as she headed to the immigration office with her husband Juan. After years as an undocumented immigrant, a green card seemed finally in reach.

But Juan Hernandez had a heart attack while being interviewed by an immigration officer and died. And now his widow fears deportation, though officials aren't saying that's a path they're pursuing.

The case may be the first of its kind and it touches on the unique U.S. policy on Cuban refugees.

Juan received a green card in 1993, because federal law allows Cubans to apply for residency after a year in the country. Maritza Hernandez came from the Dominican Republic in 2001, but the law allows immediate relatives of Cubans to apply for green cards under the same terms, even if they're not from the island nation.

Now, what appeared definite is in flux.

"It's possible she may be put in deportation proceedings," said Jorge Rivera, lead immigration attorney for 53-year-old Maritza Hernandez.

The story began Aug. 10. Maritza Hernandez was interviewed by an immigration officer for about 20 minutes, and then her husband was summoned.

The questioning came to a halt when the officer asked the man when he proposed to his wife. Juan couldn't remember.

"The officer asked again and even said, 'How can you not remember that?' " said Johanny Uzcategui-Kahn, an attorney for the couple who attended the interview.

Juan then suddenly pressed a wallet to his chest. His attorney ran to get Maritza Hernandez and asked a guard to call 911.

"I thought he had fainted," she said. "But then he turned pale and bluish in the face, around the eyes. I knew then he was in real trouble."

Juan was pronounced dead at a hospital.

Rivera plans to ask for approval of Maritza Hernandez's green card request despite her husband's death, but officials wouldn't say how they'll proceed.

"With every case, we take all factors into consideration, and it will be decided as dictated by the Immigration and Nationality Act," said Ana Santiago, a Miami spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

For now, she plans to ship her husband's body to Cuba for burial.