Two months after Brett Knobloch married in 2008, his wife returned to her native Brazil to visit her mother, who was being treated for cancer.
But she did not get permission for the trip from the federal government, creating an immigration mess barring Anne Knobloch from returning and keeping the couple apart for all but four months of their two-year marriage.
Immigration experts say the Knoblochs are not alone, because even though travel restrictions are posted on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website, not everyone sees the reference to "advance parole" - permission to travel - or understands what it is.
"Immigration is a minefield," said Hempstead immigration attorney Howard Brill. "And it's definitely more complicated, with more steps to be followed since 9/11."
Brill said more than 60 clients have sought help after leaving the country during the green card process without getting approval. "It certainly is a difficult road" to undo the damage, he said.
Brett Knobloch has learned that. After voluminous paperwork and spending $30,000 on airfare to Brazil, documents, fees and phone bills, the Seaford resident, 28, is only halfway to obtaining permanent resident status for his wife.
Even with the state's two senators and Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) interceding, the Coast Guard petty officer second class has been told it could take at least 18 months.
"We talk every day, but it gets very hard keeping a relationship going just talking on the phone," Knobloch said. "It is extremely frustrating."
The couple's anguish intensified last week, when Anne Knobloch lost their first child a week before their due date.
Anne Knobloch, 25, applied for a green card after she arrived in Florida on a tourist visa in 2002, following her marriage to another American in Brazil. The couple split in 2004, and she began dating Knobloch.
She and Knobloch married in 2008 and she submitted a revised application. Immigration officials had approved her first application, but the State Department was still reviewing the case.
"She hadn't been home in seven years, and her mother was going through chemotherapy for liver cancer," Knobloch said.
The Massapequa native said immigration and State Department officials told him his wife could remain in the country while her application was pending. But he never asked whether she could leave, and no one warned him that she couldn't without prior approval.
After her visit, "she got on a plane and got to JFK airport and they stopped her. I felt helpless," he said.
The Knoblochs were told Anne could re-enter the United States only when she had a green card.
They began filing more forms. "You have to hand-deliver everything to the consulate in Rio," more than 1,000 miles from where his wife is living, Knobloch said. Despite making appointments before several trips to the consulate, they were told when they arrived that no one could accept their documents.
"Certain requirements must be met for an immigrant visa to be issued. The National Visa Center and our consulate in Rio de Janeiro have expedited the handling of this particular case" as much as possible, the State Department said.
Know before you go
Immigration experts say it's vital to know the rule Brett and Anne Knobloch learned the hard way:
- If an application for permanent resident status is pending, don't leave the country without permission from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
- If you do, you won't be able to re-enter the United States and your green card application is considered "abandoned," said Hempstead immigration attorney Howard Brill.
- People waiting for a green card who need to leave the country for emergency personal or business reasons must apply for what is called "advance parole" from Immigration Services. Last year 291,296 applied for the travel permission, but the agency has no statistics on how many people left the country without the parole like Anne Knobloch.
- Because of the complexity of the regulations, experts say hiring a good immigration attorney is a good investment.
- BILL BLEYER