The Washington Post: With congressional bill just for them, widow and son can apply to live with fallen Marine's family in U.S.

Posted on December 15, 2010

On an August day two years ago, Hotaru Nakama Ferschke was in her native Okinawa, Japan, when she got the news that her new husband - Marine Sgt. Michael H. Ferschke Jr. - had been killed 5,000 miles away while searching a house north of Baghdad.

The couple had been married by phone a month earlier and had recently learned they would be having a child.

Since Ferschke's death in 2008, his widow has been trying to immigrate to the United States to join her husband's family in Tennessee, but she was stymied by a quirk in immigration laws.

Now her saga is nearing a happy conclusion, as the House passed a bill Wednesday sponsored by Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) that would permit Ferschke to apply for permanent resident status and allow her and her son, Michael "Mikey" Ferschke III, to move to the United States. The Senate passed the same measure last week, meaning that it is cleared for President Obama's signature.

For the Ferschke family, the measure's passage prompted celebration and relief.

"How do I say this? It's like a breath of fresh air," Robin Ferschke, the fallen Marine's mother, said Wednesday in an interview from Maryville, Tenn. "It's amazing. . . . We're] very emotional, very excited and very very very grateful."

The legislation that cleared the House on Wednesday was a "private bill," meaning that it was explicitly written to benefit just one person. Such bills are exceedingly rare - the last time a private bill became law was in 2006 - but the Ferschkes' case seemed to call for extraordinary measures.

The couple met in Okinawa, where Michael Ferschke, a radio operator, was stationed, and they had been together roughly a year before he was deployed to Iraq in April 2008. They were married in July, and he was killed in August at the age of 22.

The Pentagon recognized the Ferschkes' marriage, as such "proxy weddings" are common in the military. But under a decades-old law designed to prevent fraud, U.S. immigration authorities did not recognize the marriage because the Ferschkes were in different places when the wedding occurred and never "consummated" the union by seeing each other in person after they were married.

Hotaru Nakama Ferschke was able to get temporary visas to visit her husband's family but could not move to the United States, as she had hoped to.

The Ferschkes found supporters on Capitol Hill, including their local congressman, John J. "Jimmy" Duncan Jr. (R-Tenn.), and Tennessee Sens. Lamar Alexander (R) and Bob Corker (R). Because immigration policy has become such a thorny political issue, lawmakers couldn't agree on a way to change the law in question.

So Duncan introduced a private bill in July 2009, which never got to a vote. The House finally passed a different version of the measure last month. The Senate then approved yet another iteration of the legislation, sponsored by Webb, which explains why the House had to act again Wednesday, passing the bill by voice vote.

"It was a back-and-forth constantly with the Senate and the House," Robin Ferschke said. She said she would keep fighting to change the outdated law "so no other family ever has to go through what we have."

Webb said in a statement last week that he had the same goal and that the bill headed to Obama's desk "will right a wrong for a Marine who paid the ultimate sacrifice for his country and for his family."

Robin Ferschke said she wasn't sure how quickly her daughter-in-law and grandson would move to Tennessee, since her son's widow has a job and obligations in Okinawa. But they will be coming to Maryville for Christmas.

Mikey turns 2 next month.