Instead, the answer was a surprise visit from four officers in the early morning hours of Feb. 3. Without warning, Beth Bertenshaw says, they took her husband away in handcuffs and shackles, detained him in jail and a month later sent him back to England.
Since her husband was deported, Beth Bertenshaw has been relentlessly pressing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for answers. She says it's clear that something or many things went seriously wrong with the process. These are the conundrums she's identified:
"I want to know where the breakdown is," Beth Bertenshaw says, cradling her toy poodle Remi. "He could have left on his own without a deportation record."
Immigation authorities were not able to provide answers by press time.
Bertenshaw probably didn't have much of a shot at gaining residency, says Richmond immigration attorney Bill Smith, who is not involved with the Bertenshaws' case: "If he has a criminal record, there's an excellent chance they're going to reject it." Even John Lennon was initially denied residency in the United States, Smith observes, because of a prior conviction for hashish possession.
Yet immigration matters are inevitably "extremely complicated," he says. No one knows that better than Beth Bertenshaw.
Bertenshaw teaches at-risk middle-school students in Chesterfield County and speaks, even at home, with a loud, no-nonsense teacher's voice. "Just like I tell the kids at school," she says, ignorance of the law is no excuse. But she thought she and her husband had done everything right. And everything went wrong.
The two met in 2003 when Steve was visiting his brother, who lives in Richmond. "You're just like him," said Beth's co-worker who introduced them, describing Steve as energetic, funny and extroverted. He was a lip-ring, loud-music kind of guy. And he was open about his wilder days, Beth says.
The pair hit it off immediately. When Steve had to return to England after 90 days a condition of his entry in the visa waiver program they pined for each other, and in the summer Beth flew to England to see him.
They were married on the shore of Lake Chesdin May 15, 2004, exactly one year after they met. Photographs of the wedding hang all over the walls of the couple's Cape Cod near Forest Hill Park. (Marriage to a U.S. citizen is no guarantee that a visitor will be granted residency.)
"It was the happiest day of our lives, because we were never going to be separated," Beth Bertenshaw says. Right after the wedding, the couple filed all the required forms to adjust Steve's status from visitor to permanent resident, on the basis that he was now her spouse.
The Bertenshaws knew Steve's record might block him from permanent residency, but they disclosed his convictions and prison time in the application and crossed their fingers. As the months went by, they felt encouraged. The ICE granted a work permit (or employment authorization document) to Steve, who's a carpenter and roofer, and an extension of his allowable time in the United States, Beth says. He was able to get a Virginia driver's license and a Social Security number.
In September 2005, Steve reapplied for his work permit. "Nothing was right after that," Beth says. ICE told her on the phone that the work permit had been renewed, but no paper confirmation ever appeared. The Bertenshaws enlisted the help of state Delegate Watkins M. Abbitt Jr. (Beth's cousin), who appealed to U.S. Rep. Virgil H. Goode Jr., who wrote that he'd "be glad to make an inquiry on his behalf."
But the inquiry came too late. At 6:30 a.m. Feb. 3, two ICE agents and two Richmond police officers knocked on the door of the Bertenshaws' home and took Steve to Pamunkey Regional Jail.
There, Steve says, he bunked with members of the MS-13 gang, who stole his toothbrush and other personal items. Later, he was moved to Piedmont Regional Jail in Farmville. An ICE agent returned his wedding ring to Beth and furnished them with the letter that was dated Nov. 7, the one that said Steve would be denied permanent residency because his past crimes involved "moral turpitude."
The appearance of the agents with handcuffs is standard procedure for deportation proceedings involving people with criminal records, she was told. And the best explanation ICE agents offered for the certified letter failing to be delivered, Beth Bertenshaw says, is that the postman must have gotten tired of coming to the house.
With the help of the British Embassy, she's still looking for answers. In the meantime, she plans to fly to England to see her husband. Then, she says, "We're starting all over."
Obtaining his permanent residency may take three years, or five, or may never happen at all. Beth Bertenshaw hopes that maybe, because of the mess surrounding Steve's initial attempt, an immigration judge may give him a second chance.
"This is my husband," she says. "And I'm going to do anything it takes to get him back." S