The wife of Dr Cesar Sofocado, the Filipino doctor in Western Australia who 10 months ago was told by authorities to divorce his wife to remain permanently in Australia, passed away last Friday, December 9 after almost two years of courageous fight against breast cancer.
The story of Dr Sofocado, known in Perth circle as Dr Cesar, is a story of immigration administrative errors, of love for the family and a man’s fight to uphold Filipino family values and to help others in situations similar to his.
Dr Sofocado’s story started early this year when he was told by Department of Immigration and Citizenship officers that for him to be granted residency, he had to divorce, or legally separate from, his wife, Mary who was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer.
They have two daughters, Sofia Lorraine and Kyla Maris.
Without any legal ties to her husband, Mrs Sofocado would be forced to leave Australia and return to the Philippines to die without her family.
The Filipino doctor who moved with his family to rural Western Australia six years ago to help fill medical skills shortage appealed for compassion and fought for his case.
Last April, his story was exposed by The West Australian newspaper and Channel 7’s Today Tonight. His cause had also rallied the Filipino Australian community in WA behind him.
‘I married my wife for richer and poorer and in sickness and health – that is the vow I took,’ Dr Sofocado was quoted as saying, adding that he wanted to show his daughters that they ‘are a family and we don’t leave each other for any reason’.
That was on April 25.
A couple of days later, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen granted permanent residency visas to Dr Sofocado and his family.
In granting PR visas to the Sofocado family, a spokesperson of Mr Bowen was quoted as saying ‘The minister thinks there are compelling circumstances in the case of Dr Cesar Sofocado and believes he and his family should be helped.’
The “compelling circumstances”, according to Dr Sofocado, related to his wife, Stella, being terminally ill and, significantly, to an error of DIAC’s first case officer ‘advising them (Sofocados) to change their application from visa subclass 175 to 176 on learning of his wife’s cancer.’
A 176 visa category did not allow the right to appeal against a rejection related to health matters.
Last May this year, in a business trip to Western Australia, I met Dr Sofocado one evening in a Damayang Filipino social event in Perth. There, the good doctor narrated to me his family’s residency case. He was very grateful, he said, that with the residency visas granted them, his daughters who came with him when they were still small girls, can stay in Australia.
Back in Sydney, a few days later I received an email from Dr Sofocado with advice from DIAC that conferral of Australian citizenship on his family will take into account any period prior to lodgement of application if applicant was an “unlawful non-citizen” during the four-year general residence requirement.
“In order for the Minister to use his intervention powers under section 195A of the Migration Act 1958 to grant you a permanent visa, you consented to your visa being cancelled. This meant that prior to you being granted a permanent resident visa you had a period of unlawfulness”, the DIAC advice stated.
Although Dr Sofocado and his family members will be eligible to apply for citizenship after April 28 next year, he thinks that he and his family being considered “unlawful non-citizens” is unfair.
“That may be the law,” Dr Sofocado said, “but we have become ‘unlawful’ due to an administrative error by DIAC and we have not been fully informed of the consequences of our visas being cancelled to be granted permanent residencies.”
“Never have we stayed in Australia illegally,” he added.
Fearing that being considered “unlawful” might work against his family in the future, he sought on May 27 the help of WA Liberal Senator Michaelia Cash, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration, to obtain an official letter from DIAC clearing their names.
Last June 1, Dr Sofocado received a letter from Senator Cash stating that the Policy section of DIAC had confirmed that “… it would be open to a decision maker to apply the discretion if they wished to on the basis that there was an administrative error because the Department may have failed to fully inform Dr Sofocado of the consequences of requesting to have his visa cancelled”.
Dr Sofocado is unsure how that “administrative error discretion” will apply next year when he lodges his application for conferral of Australian citizenship.
He said that he could only hope that DIAC officers will decide in his favour. At worst, of course, is that Dr Sofocado and family will have to wait for a longer period to make up for the period of “unlawfulness” – a scenario which would add bitterness to the trauma that Dr Sofocado and his family have already suffered through no fault of theirs.
Yesterday morning, I received an email from Dr Sofocado about the sad news of the demise of Mrs Sofocado.
Part of his email reads:
“After a courageous 2 year battle with cancer, Mary Maris Stella passed away peacefully, surrounded by all those who loved her deeply, on the 9th of December 2011, at Kalgoorie Regional Hospital, Western Australia.
“Friends and family are invited to attend a simple memorial service on Tuesday, 1:30pm December 13th, 2011, at Goldfields Crematorium Chapel, Memorial Drive Kalgoorie, WA.”
Together with his email is a link to a news report that “Dr Sofocado claimed the system had failed again because of poor palliative care on two occasions at Kalgoorie hospital” and Dr Sofocado had “lodged a report with the WA Country Health Service”.
As we extend our deepest condolences to the Sofocado family, The Filipino Australian also wishes Dr Cesar Sofocado success as he seeks equitable resolution of his petitions ~ for the sake of his daughters, and for others including international medical graduates who may find themselves in similar situations.