Immigration lawyer Brent Renison’s livelihood mostly involves helping corporations hire specialized foreign professionals. But the plight of one immigrant inspired him to fight a flaw in immigration law. Over the past three years, Renison, 39, established a nonprofit organization called Surviving Spouses Against Deportation, with the mission of getting rid of the “widow penalty,” a little-known 1970 ruling. It affects spouses of U.S. citizens who die within two years of the marriage, before the surviving spouse’s application for permanent residency was processed.
“Immigration officials then simply deny the application, and surviving spouses are placed in deportation proceedings or are forced to hide in the shadows,” he says.
Renison, of Parrilli Renison, estimates he has donated 1,000 hours over the past three years to the American Immigration Law Foundation, tracking cases around the country, pushing legislation in Congress and representing widows.
In 2004, Renison began representing Carla Arabella Freeman, a citizen of South Africa and Italy who lost her husband after less than a year of marriage, then faced deportation. He died before her application for permanent residency was processed.
In 2006, Renison persuaded the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn the deportation ruling, but that affects only the Western United States. That’s why he and 50 to 60 other lawyers—who each represent one or two widows—keep trying to change the law.
In June, Renison received an American Immigration Lawyers Association Presidential Award for his efforts.