Susanne Lawler went back to her native Sweden last summer to undergo medical treatment and get medicines she could not afford in this country. She left her American husband and then-9-year-old son here in Hinesville for what she thought would be a three-week trip. That was six months ago.
When she went to return to the United States, Lawler said she was prevented from boarding her plane in Munich, Germany, by U.S. Border Patrol agents. She claims she was given no explanation, but was told to contact the American consulate there in Munich. When she finally was able to get an appointment at the consulate, she was told her visa had expired while she was in Sweden, and she was now banned from re-entering the United States for three years.
“What about my 9-year-old?” she asked. “What about my family and home? All they said was they didn’t have time to answer my questions. Other people were waiting in line. They told me to contact the U.S. embassy in Frankfurt — five hours away.”
Lawler said her whole life changed in a matter of minutes. She didn’t realize her visa had expired, though her husband admitted they knew before she left the United States that it was close to expiring. But her priority at the time was getting medical treatment for a serious problem, she said. She now feels like she and her family are being punished with a “three-year sentence” for one mistake.
She had to return to Sweden and now lives in a homeless shelter while she appeals her case to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. In addition to dealing directly with USCIS, her husband, Nathan Lawler, said they have been getting a lot of help from U.S. Congressman Jack Kingston’s office. Kingston’s office declined to talk about her case with the Courier, suggesting it might jeopardize her appeal process.
“She’s working with the congressional level of USCIS, but the problem is, we don’t get any feedback,” Nathan Lawler said. “I’ve documented every letter sent off or received. She overstayed her visa. OK. But they didn’t send us any notice or warning. We were slightly aware of it and were planning to go to the immigration office when she got back, but it was an emergency situation. Her last choice was to go back to Sweden.”
The Lawlers have been married for 26 years. They wed in Jacksonville, Fla., then moved to Sweden, where Nathan Lawler got a work visa. The application process was much simpler in Sweden, he said. The Lawlers have two sons, both of whom have dual citizenship. Their older son, Donathan, already was living here when Nathan, Susanne and now 10-year-old Todd moved to Hinesville in November 2012. They bought and renovated a house and plan to settle down here, according to Nathan Lawler.
Susanne Lawler said her family was able to move to the United States with money she had inherited. They got by without any U.S. government assistance, thanks to a disability pension she gets from Sweden. Nathan Lawler said the last of the family’s resources were invested in his wife’s round-trip ticket to Sweden. They’re now required to pay $600 for his wife to get an immigration physical and $250 for a visa application. He said it’s costing them a fortune, and yet they have no idea when they’ll be re-united.
“I’ve been punished enough, I think, and they haven’t even processed my (application for waiver of grounds of inadmissibility),” Susanne Lawler said. “It has cost us a lot of money and a lot of hardship. How can they treat an American and his family this way? I don’t understand it ... I’m not a criminal. I’m only a wife and mother.”