Red tape splits Navy family - East Valley Tribune: News

Red tape splits Navy family

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Posted: Sunday, June 1, 2003 12:44 am | Updated: 1:51 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

Susan Keenan stood before Sen. John McCain, tears streaming down her face as she pleaded last week with him to help her Navy petty officer son bring his Filipina wife and two children home.

The Scottsdale nurse's son has served 12 years in the Navy, much of it hunting for terrorists and illegal Iraqi oil shipments across the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea.

James Keenan has earned three Navy achievement medals. His fourth good conduct medal is forthcoming. Yet, despite making sacrifices for his country, he has not been able to carry his wife over the threshold in the United States. Red tape has put an ocean between him and his wife, Elizabeth.

"I missed my son's first steps," said Keenan, 33, in a telephone interview from his stateside station at Port Hueneme, Calif. "I missed his first birthday. I missed my first anniversary. I'm about to miss my second anniversary. My son is going to be 2 in August. My daughter is 6 months old now, and I've seen her a total of about a month."

Susan Keenan is as frustrated as any grandmother who can't hug her grandchildren would be.

"All these guys are putting their lives on the line," she said. "When it is time for them to come home and spend time with their families, they can't, because their families can't come to the states. They have to go through all these shenanigans."

SEA OF LOVE

In 1994, the 7th Fleet command ship USS Blue Ridge sailed into Manila Bay to let its sailors on liberty. James Keenan and a few shipmates went to a party for American servicemen thrown by an Australian expatriate. The Australian's Filipina girlfriend introduced Keenan to her sister, Elizabeth — his future wife.

"She was a beautiful woman, and we always had a good time together," Keenan said. "Just spending time with her was a pleasure. It was a great friendship that developed into — hopefully — a long-lasting marriage."

He visited her whenever his ship called at Manila. She also flew to Japan to visit him at Yokosuka Naval Base. Because his ship was at sea more than 200 days a year, they didn't have much time together.

When Elizabeth became pregnant, "we decided to do the honorable thing and get married and raise a family," he said.

Keenan did what military men have done since Alexander's troops married Persian women and brought them home to Macedonia. No one knows how many military men and women marry foreign nationals.

"We don't keep those kinds of records," said Maj. Sandy Burr, a spokeswoman for the Department of Defense.

However, the situation is "not an isolated incident," James Keenan said. "Look how many military we have stationed overseas. We have about 50,000 in Japan. How many are going to marry foreign nationals? You spend three years in a foreign country, you're going to find somebody. A lot of people do."

ROUGH SAILING

After James and Elizabeth Keenan were married on June 30, 2001, they took all the paperwork to file a petition for an immigration visa to the U.S. Embassy in Manila.

Two weeks later officials from that embassy said the petition had to go to the Immigration and Naturalization Service office (now called the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services under the Department of Homeland Security) in Korea, where it would take four to six weeks to process.

The Korea branch office next notified Keenan his paperwork would have to be processed in Tokyo.

He and Elizabeth, 27, lived at Yokosuka Naval Base, a 2 1/2-hour train ride from Tokyo.

"The embassy in Tokyo is open on Mondays at 8:30 a.m. — period — for visa applications," Susan Keenan said. "If you're not in line at 8:30, you're out of luck."

Nobody at the Tokyo embassy could help Keenan.

"The consular officer who looked our paperwork over said, 'Well, based on the papers you've given me, I can't approve this. I have to send it somewhere else.' I said, 'What else do you need?' " James Keenan said.

NO LAND IN SIGHT

What Keenan needed was more time ashore. Immigration paperwork has to be completed within certain time frames, according to Russell Ahr, Phoenix spokesman for the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Sailors sent to the far corners of the Earth — forward-deployed Navy — can expect to be aboard ship six to eight months out of the year. During Keenan's last year he was at sea more than 250 days.

"Taking time off in the Navy is kind of difficult, (especially) being a supervisor on a ship that gets under way a lot," he said. "With those time constraints there was no way I could get (the paperwork) done before I left there."

When he accepted his orders to return to the United States in July, he was aboard the destroyer USS Cushing in the northern Arabian Sea, seizing Saddam's oil and hunting terrorists on the high seas. Keenan's ship was what sailors call "river city" — no communication with the outside world. No mail, e-mail or telephone calls.

"I couldn't do a thing," he said. "They tell us to start the immigration process early. That's a good piece of advice, but you've got to be available to do that. I can't mail documents from a ship in the middle of the Indian Ocean. It's not possible."

Of Keenan's six months before he was transferred stateside, he spent four at sea.

Keenan couldn't escort his wife and children back to the Philippines before he returned home in February. Because of the war against Abu Sayyaf Muslim terrorists, military personnel can't travel there without paperwork and approval. On Feb. 28, he put his wife and two children on a plane from Tokyo to Manila. That was the last time he saw them.

SEEKING A LIFESAVER

When James Keenan visited his mother in Scottsdale, he was depressed and frustrated.

"I said we're Arizonans," Susan Keenan said. "McCain has done a lot for the servicemen and is into improving their family lives. Let's give him a jingle and see if there's anything he can do or point us in the right direction to get this expedited."

So she sent a letter to office of McCain, R-Ariz., then made a personal plea last Tuesday at a town hall forum in Scottsdale. McCain told her to get in touch with his office.

"There was no specific information from Mr. Keenan," said Debbie Jacobus, who handles constituent immigration affairs for McCain. "There was no receipt number, case number; this letter just did not have any information on where the petition was filed, when it was filed."

On May 16, Jacobus got the information from James Keenan she needed to start inquiries. "Under the circumstances, we sent a letter from Senator McCain along with Mr. Keenan's letter to the Missouri service center to see if there was some way to speed this up," Jacobus said.

In 20 working days Jacobus will know whether the request can be expedited from the usual 60- to 180-day processing time, or not.

If it cannot, Jacobus may recommend the Keenans file for humanitarian parole with the federal attorney general's office. That agency can grant urgent requests for immigration, such as in cases where the relative of an American citizen needs medical care available only in the U.S.

"We told Susan Keenan that's possibly another route," Jacobus said. "It's a longshot. Who knows? It may go. I just don't want people to get their hopes up."

If immigration officials in Missouri decide to expedite Keenan's application, it gets transferred to Manila, Jacobus said. If the marriage on which the petition is based occurred abroad, the visa must be issued by a consular official in the country where the marriage was concluded, according to the National Immigration Law Center.

"I'm going absolutely nuts," James Keenan said. "I'm trying to keep myself busy here in the States, but it's impossible thinking about what my family is going through."

Last Thursday, his son James Clyde, who will be 2 on Aug. 4, was vomiting with a heavy fever. Telecommunications outside of Manila are sketchy, and he hasn't heard from his wife in four or five days.

Keenan said he feels "helpless. Absolutely helpless."

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