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Uncertain fate: A mother's struggle to keep her family {photo of Linda Nelson and children Josh and Elizabeth

by  GEOFF S. FEIN


SINCE MOVING TO EUREKA FROM TAIWAN IN 1998, it's been one battle after another for Linda Nelson. First, she was embroiled in a legal fight with her former in-laws to gain custody of her two children; having won that contest, she is now struggling to make ends meet for her family -- and searching for a way to stay in America.

The stakes are high. Linda, 41, has remained in the country two years past the expiration date on her tourist visa. Friends and North Coast Rep. Mike Thompson are working to make her a legal resident, but should they fail Linda will be deported. If that happens, she will lose custody of her children -- Elizabeth, 13, and Josh, 9.

It's a mother's worst nightmare.

Sitting at a small dining table in her Cutten apartment, Linda takes a tissue and dabs her eyes. She has a difficult time controlling her emotions as she recalls leaving Taiwan -- her home -- five years ago to be with her children here in America. The thought that after all that effort she might now be forcibly separated from them is hard to bear.

"I'm grinding my teeth every night," she said. "I hope my problem can be resolved while I still have my teeth."

Linda, a slight, bespectacled woman, has had to rely on friends and her daughter to learn English. She fights back tears whenever the subject of her immigration status comes up. A librarian in Taiwan, in this country she is essentially persona non grata, legally unable to work. That has meant the family must get by on the $903 a month she gets from Kevin, her ex-husband and the father of her children.

The family's home is modestly decorated. Children's artwork adorns the walls; there is a TV, an old couch and a small dining room table, courtesy of friends. Linda does not have a car. Friends chauffeur her to the grocery store. Other times Linda rides her bike when she needs to run errands.

During her interview with the Journal, Linda would periodically send Josh to his room. That way he would not have to hear the details of his mother's struggle.

Despite what their mother is going through, Elizabeth and Josh appear to be typical kids. Elizabeth asks if she can invite a friend to sleep over. Josh sits in front of the television playing Nintendo. Linda says she and the kids sing together and they laugh at her English.

In November, Linda finally told her children about her immigration status.

"I kept the burden to myself," Linda said.

Elizabeth said the whole thing is getting annoying.

"It's been very hard. I feel mad and sad," she said.

Linda has enlisted the aid of her children in her campaign to stay in the United States.

"The kids don't like the publicity, but it's the only way," Linda said. "I tell them, the sooner we become famous, the sooner we get this resolved."

Elizabeth has written letters to newspapers describing the situation. Linda, meantime, has taken her story to KHSU, the Times-Standard and KIEM Channel 3. She plans on contacting the San Francisco Chronicle, New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post.

She has also turned to Thompson. Two years ago the Democratic congressman introduced a bill that would have granted Nelson permanent resident status. It went nowhere. He's going to reintroduce the bill this month.

The thought that they may lose their mom is never far from Elizabeth's and Josh's minds.

"What would happen if we got separated?" Josh wondered.

With the help of friends, Linda and her kids have set up a website complete with Linda's story, family pictures and a petition that she plans to submit to members of California's congressional delegation (www.helplindaandkids.com).


Linda with daughter giving her a kiss Daughter Elizabeth posing in front of river
Left: Linda and Elizabeth. Right: Elizabeth in Taiwan. 1994


The McDonald's incident

Kevin was an English language teacher in Taiwan. He and Linda met in 1986 at church. They fell in love and got married. Kevin wanted to move back home so Linda applied for and received a temporary green card. After 10 months in Humboldt County, Linda and Kevin decided to return to Taiwan. According to Linda, Kevin felt his employment opportunities were better in Taiwan.

Elizabeth, the first of the couple's two children, was born in Taiwan. Because Kevin is an American citizen, Elizabeth was automatically a citizen. Four years later Josh was born.

It appeared an idyllic marriage: Two beautiful kids, both parents working, living close to Linda's family. But according to Linda, there was a problem. Unbeknownst to her, Kevin was suffering from depression.

What role, if any, that played in what happened one day in October 1994 is unclear. According to Linda, she, Kevin and his mother, Emma Nelson, along with the children, who were 5 and 1 then, all went to a McDonald's in Taiwan. Linda went to make a phone call; when she came back, no one was there. As she would learn later, they had left her in order to go to California. Besides the children, Kevin also took Linda's green card (a green card gives an immigrant the legal right to live, work and study, permanently, in the United States). Linda said he did that to prevent her from following him to the United States.

According to Linda Nelson's family court records, over the next 11 months she constantly wrote or called Kevin. She had wanted to join him and the kids in California; however, because Kevin was suffering from depression, she felt it was best to remain in Taiwan -- she didn't want to cause Kevin undue stress. Linda stayed home and continued working to save money for her trip.

One year after leaving Linda at the McDonald's and taking the couple's children to the United States, Kevin filed for divorce. He eventually returned all of Linda's travel documents to her.

As with any story there are always two versions. Linda claims her children were stolen from her. She said Kevin's mother convinced Kevin it would be better for the children if they were raised in the United States, without their mother.

In a recent interview, Emma Nelson stated flatly that, "The kids needed to come to school in the United States."

Emma and her husband Ralph Nelson acknowledged that Kevin never told Linda before that he was going to bring the kids to the United States. But they claimed that she was quickly informed afterwards.

"She knew within 24 hours where [the children] were," said Ralph Nelson.

The Nelsons said Kevin returned with the children to the United States in order to renew his Taiwan visa.

The Nelsons question why Linda took 18 months before coming to the United States. And they are angered that Linda went to court to get custody of Elizabeth and Josh without first talking to them.

As for Kevin, not long after returning to the United States he turned over his children to their grandparents in Cutten, apparently because he could not support them. Since then, he has lived a somewhat nomadic existence. According to court documents, he has worked in a number of locations in the state over the years, including Bakersfield, Alhambra, Tufts and San Jose. His wages, at times, were just above minimum wage.

Kevin's last known address is in San Jose. But there is no listing for him in the phone book. Linda's only contact with him is through letters. He was not reached for comment.

In 1996 Linda came to the United States, unannounced, for three days to see her children. She said Kevin's parents told her they were given guardianship of the children by the court. In April 1998 Linda came back to the United States. This time the Nelsons let her stay with them. After two weeks she returned to Taiwan. At the end of 1998 she again was in the United States -- this time with no plans to return home.


Linda with Elizabeth and baby JoshLinda hugging Josh and smiling
Left: Linda and children, 1994. Left: Linda and Josh in his second grade class.


A fight with the in-laws

That's when the custody problems began. The Nelsons didn't want to lose Elizabeth and Josh. They hired an attorney to help them keep the two kids. Linda couldn't afford an attorney. She had to prepare and file all the documents on her own. Making the situation worse, Linda didn't speak much English. A friend who works at a private women's shelter (where Linda was staying) had to help her with the forms.

"It was very tough," Linda said of trying to handle all the paperwork on her own.

It was also tough on Elizabeth and Josh. The kids were once again being taken away from the family they knew. Linda said it was very difficult to rebuild a relationship with her children, after being gone for four years.

"I was a stranger to them," she said. "`Mommy' was only a title for them, not a real person."

At the time Kevin was working in Southern California and, according to court records, wasn't making enough money to travel to Eureka.

Almost as troubling for Linda, Elizabeth and Josh, who had only spoken Chinese, now only spoke English. Linda said she had difficulty communicating with her own children.

But Linda pushed forward. Because she is Elizabeth's and Josh's mother, the court awarded her custody. They all moved into a shelter run by the Redwood Community Action Agency.

In December 1999, Linda, Elizabeth and Josh moved into the Cutten apartment where they live now.

Although Linda got her kids back there was a caveat -- she could not take them out of Humboldt County.

"It's a typical court order," said David Moore, Linda's attorney.

The order preventing Linda from moving the kids out of the county is to protect the grandparents' right to court-ordered visitation, Moore said.

"Visitation is the real limit on Linda's ability to relocate,"he said. "You can't make it difficult to implement [visitation]."

To make matters worse, Linda was in the United States on a temporary visa. Because of misinformation Linda said she received from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), she forfeited her green card.

Immigration law is complex. Some immigrants have an easier time becoming U.S. citizens than others, depending upon the country of origin. Cubans fleeing Cuba, for example, are immediately given resident status upon arriving in America. Immigrants from other countries often have to wait years before they can enter legally.

After enduring a familial nightmare, Linda now found herself mired in a bureaucratic one.

In Taiwan, Linda contacted officials of the American Institute a private non profit corporation established in 1979 shortly after the U.S. government moved its embassy from Taipei, Taiwan, to Beijing, China. The told her that her green card had expired and she would need to fill out forms to abandon it. She was then issued a tourist visa to go to America.

After she came to the United States in 1998 she hired a Sacramento-area immigration attorney to help her obtain a new green card. She learned that instead of abandoning her green card in Taiwan, she actually had signed away her permanent resident status. Officials with the INS told Linda there was nothing she could do.

Her tourist visa expired in January 2001. Since then Linda has been able to remain in the country thanks to the efforts of Thompson. But there are no guarantees other members of Congress will feel as strongly about Nelson's fate. Private bills -- legislation affecting one person -- rarely become law, Thompson said.

The likelihood the bill would get passed is "very slim," he said.

"Changing the U.S. law for one person is difficult," Thompson said. "She's in a tough spot. That's why it's a meritorious bill."

It's not a speedy process either. Like any piece of legislation, HR 1286, titled "For the relief of Kuan-Fan Hsieh" (Linda's Chinese name), has to be heard and voted on by the House Judiciary Committee and maybe a subcommittee (the House Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Claims). Then the full House membership will vote on the bill. If it passes, the legislation is sent to the Senate where the whole process begins again. If the Senate approves the bill it still won't become law until President Bush signs it. The whole process could take two years.

Emma and Ralph Nelson want to see Linda's immigration status resolved. Ralph said they support her efforts to stay in the United States, even though he and Emma fought Linda for custody of the kids.

"It's a unique situation. That's why Thompson is making an application to Congress. This could go on and on. It could leave her in limbo for a long time."


Linda and children smiling
Linda with Elizabeth and Josh at their first Thanksgiving party in America.


In limbo

Linda bides her time studying (she wants to be a math teacher), going to church and working the phones for her cause. She and the kids are eligible for food stamps and Medi-Cal (California's health insurance program for low-income people). The child support she receives from her ex-husband covers rent ($565 a month), food and the phone bill with little room to spare. Linda can't afford to turn on the heat in the family's small two-bedroom one-bath apartment. Elizabeth is the only one with a bed. Josh sleeps on a cot and Linda has a used mattress. There are no nights out, no movies, no vacations for Linda, Elizabeth and Joshua. Linda buys second-hand clothes for herself and tries to do the best she can for her kids. But the fact of the matter is that they lived in more comfortable surroundings with their grandparents.

Linda doesn't want to go back to Taiwan. "I want to raise my children here," she said.

Her attorney told her the only way she could change her immigration status would be to find a good job (a company could sponsor her under the terms of a special visa) or she could marry another American. But Linda has no plans to marry and she is too busy trying to stay here to begin looking for work.

"I've been here for years struggling with this," Linda said. "I have to laugh, I cannot cry all the time."

 


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