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It Took Act of Congress, but Widow’s Fate Settled

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At last, Jasmin Salehi can rest easy about staying in the United States.

A native of South Korea, Salehi faced deportation after her husband was slain in early 1996. But last week she won a hard-fought battle when President Clinton signed a rare private relief bill exempting the 34-year-old from immigration law requiring foreigners to be married to Americans for at least two years before they can become permanent residents.

“I just feel like I’m relieved from one thing,” she said in her Sherman Oaks apartment.

The other thing that perhaps will always weigh on her mind is what put her in danger of deportation to begin with: the killing of Cyrus Salehi.

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Born in Iran, Cyrus Salehi became a U.S. citizen in 1995 after 20 years as a legal resident. He was fatally shot in 1996 during a robbery at the Denny’s restaurant he co-owned.

At the time of his death, Cyrus and Jasmin Salehi had been married only 11 months, far short of the two-year federal requirement for her to remain in the U.S.

Now, despite continuing to grieve for her husband, Jasmin Salehi finally feels hopeful.

“You never get over it,” she said, but “I need to rebuild and make a living.”

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When her husband died, she had to move out of the house they owned. Since then she has paid for an apartment, food and basic bills from monthly allowances given to her by her husband’s former partner.

In time, she said she would like to find employment using computer skills she learned in South Korea or the bachelor’s degree in geography she received there. She may pursue a teaching career, though that would certainly require more schooling.

She would like to visit her husband’s grave in Iran.

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In the meantime, for support she counts on her sister in Los Angeles and the friendship she has found in Ralph and Francine Myers, the couple who helped her lobby for permanent residency and who understand her loss of a loved one because their son was also slain, in an unrelated shooting.

“Jasmin is a very special person, but I wish I would never have met her,” Ralph Myers said. “Because that would mean her husband would still be alive.”

Indeed, for Salehi, getting over the death of her husband will not be easy.

Her chance meeting of Cyrus was perhaps as random as the violence that took his life.

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Jasmin, or Mai Hoa Joo, her given name, had come to Los Angeles to visit her sister in 1993.

One morning in August the sisters went for brunch at a downtown Denny’s where Cyrus worked. Cyrus had noticed Jasmin, so it was a pleasant surprise when Jasmin’s sister asked her to go up to pay the bill. Cyrus shoved the cashier aside just as Jasmin reached the counter.

Trying to impress her, he stammered out a few words Jasmin initially could not understand. He said it was Korean, so she asked him to repeat them several times slowly. She finally made them out.

“He said I was pretty,” she recalled with a smile.

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After the Northridge earthquake in January 1994, while she was visiting Los Angeles again, he checked on her to make sure she was OK.

“At that time, I felt, ‘This is the man,’ ” she said.

The beginning of their lives together was simple, a Las Vegas wedding in March 1995. A few months later they had another ceremony attended by friends and family.

In February 1996, a gang member named Ruben Lopez walked into the Denny’s in Reseda where Cyrus was working a night shift. Lopez demanded money and Cyrus handed over $400. Lopez shot him anyway.

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Lopez and another gang member, Samuel Martinez, who drove the getaway car, were eventually sentenced to life in prison without parole.

In the aftermath of the slaying, Jasmin began hearing that her immigration to the United States could be in danger. She consulted with immigration lawyers, all of whom told her she had not been married long enough.

Meanwhile she had met Ralph Myers, 57, at a support group for victims of violence.

Myers’ 25-year-old son, Tom, was fatally shot in 1993 when he walked out of a house in West Hills during a party for a friend and stepped into the path of gunfire from gang members who had tried to crash the celebration.

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Ralph Myers and others who grew to care for Jasmin began writing letters to politicians, the INS--anyone who would listen. She had not come to the country illegally. She had not committed any crimes. It was not her fault that her husband had been killed.

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After stories in The Times--and later in other news outlets--Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) introduced motions in the House and Senate that sought permanent residency for Salehi.

It seemed as though the effort would die in the Senate as the 105th Congress went home for the Nov. 3 elections. But the Senate, as its very last action, unanimously approved legislation Oct. 21 granting her permanent residency.

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“This is the most heartwarming thing I’ve been able to do for an individual,” said Sherman, who will begin his second term in January. “The basic laws should apply most of the time . . . [but] sometimes, it literally takes an act of Congress to achieve justice.”

Sherman said only 10 private bills were passed and signed by Clinton this year, including the one for Salehi.

She said that in retrospect it might have been easier to simply go back to South Korea after her husband died, but she felt she was already home.

“I could not forget about being married in America,” she said. “My life was here.”

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