SACRAMENTO -- State legislators from both parties said Wednesday that they will try to build enough public compassion to make Congress override immigration law in a single case, allowing the widow of a Bay Area hero to stay in the United States.

Lawmakers and advocacy groups are launching an e-petition drive in support of a congressional measure aimed at thwarting the deportation of Jacqueline Coats, 27, of San Leandro.

Her husband, Marlin, a 29-year-old native of San Francisco and former lifeguard, died saving a boy from drowning last year and has been posthumously awarded the Carnegie Hero Award and the U.S. Coast Guard Lifesaving Medal of Honor.

Coats, a cell phone salesman, was on a family Mother's Day outing last year at Ocean Beach when two boys, ages 11 and 14, began calling for help. They had been pulled away from shore by a strong current.

Coats reached the older boy and helped him toward shore. But when he turned back for the other boy, he went under. Two other lifeguards brought the other boy to shore, but Coats drowned.

Jacqueline Coats, who has been in the country for six years, faces deportation because immigration proceedings were incomplete at the time of her husband's death.

Because of the unique circumstances, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., wrote a bill last year to make Jacqueline Coats a U.S. citizen. That measure died, but the senator has reintroduced it as S420.

Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi, D-Hayward, is leading the e-petition drive in support of the bill on her Web site.

"This is a unique opportunity for all of us to come together and do what is right," Hayashi said at a Sacramento news conference. "We're calling upon all Americans today to join us in urging Congress to pass this bill."

Assemblyman Bill Maze, R-Visalia, said Jacqueline Coats "has a right to be a citizen."

Jacqueline Coats' deportation proceedings have been put on hold temporarily. But without passage of the congressional bill, she will be forced to return to her home country of Kenya.

Coats said she is supporting relatives in Kenya with her salary from a job at Oakland-based AC Transit.

She said her life has been "a roller coaster ride" given Marlin's death, a subsequent fire that destroyed her apartment, and her battle to gain citizenship and stay with her friends and family in the United States.

Supporters say this case stands out among the many immigration disputes being fought because of Marlin Coats' heroism and his widow's efforts to properly work toward citizenship.

Jacqueline Coats acknowledged that she did not leave as required after her student visa to attend San Jose State expired and she was denied a renewal. She did, however, continue working with immigration officials to appeal and argue her case, she said.

"I was trying to work it out the right way," she said.

Members of the legislative Latino caucus, the National Organization for Women and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People who have stood behind the case sought Wednesday to steer their comments toward the broader issues regarding immigration.

NOW spokeswoman Chelsea Del Rio said the case "highlights the many, many ways that immigrants to our country are treated unjustly."

Reach Steve Geissinger at sgeissinger@angnewspapers.com or 916-447-9302.