LOS ANGELES (AP) – A federal judge on Friday ordered the government to reopen the immigration cases of dozens of foreign widows whose American citizen spouses died before they could get their green cards.

U.S. District Judge Christina A. Snyder ruled that the Department of Homeland Security could not deny the widows’ applications to remain in the country legally because the agency didn’t process the paperwork before their spouses died.

The class-action case is one of many lawsuits filed across the country by foreign spouses affected by the so-called “widow penalty.”

In recent years, U.S. authorities have denied widows’ applications to remain in the country because their American spouses died before they had been married for two years – and before officials finished processing their paperwork.

One woman’s husband was killed in Iraq. Another’s husband was killed in the line of duty for the U.S. Border Patrol.

The ruling applies to several dozen widows in Western states, and lawyers elsewhere hope it bodes well for their clients in dealings with the federal Citizenship and Immigration Services agency.

“The court’s decision demonstrates that it is time for CIS to end the widow’s penalty nationwide,” said Caryn C. Lederer, a lawyer for the New York Legal Assistance Group. The nonprofit group is suing on behalf of a Russian woman whose American husband died 1½ years after they married.

Amy Kudwa, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, said Secretary Janet Napolitano has recognized the widows’ predicament and asked staff to come up with a solution.

Friday’s ruling follows a tentative decision issued by Snyder last month. Brent Renison, an attorney for the widows, said it applies to about 70 widows in Western states out of roughly 200 widows who face similar problems nationwide.

Renison welcomed the ruling but said there’s no guarantee widows will be given green cards just because their cases will be reviewed. “We got a little farther up the mountain,” he said.

Snyder’s ruling follows a 2006 decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of a woman who had been ordered deported to South Africa after her husband was killed in a car accident. The court said she had the right to have her residency application reviewed.

After the 9th Circuit ruling, immigration officials started letting widows in Western states apply to have their applications considered on humanitarian grounds as long as they could find another American citizen relative willing to provide an affidavit of financial support on their behalf.

Renison argued that the government was erecting additional barriers for widows. Snyder agreed, and ruled that the government could not require the affidavit.

Monika Monroe, a 32-year-old German makeup artist, hopes that makes the difference in her case. Her husband, Tim, whom she met on a vacation to Prague, died of a heart attack less than three months after they married.

For nearly two years, Monroe said, she has found herself struggling with immigration authorities to stay in the hillside house in Los Angeles she shared with her husband and their two dogs.

“I am hopeful,” said Monroe, whose living room is covered with photographs of the couple embracing on a road trip up California’s coast and at their Las Vegas wedding. “I feel like I have a little bit more ground under my feet, maybe I can start walking.”

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