A Family Reunited After a Rare Return From Deportation
The woman, Janina Wasilewski, was deported in 2007 after living for 18 years in the
The Wasilewski family became one of the nation’s most visible examples of the impact of deportation, just as the pace of removals has accelerated under the Obama administration, to nearly 800,000 over the last two years. Images of the scene when Mrs. Wasilewski left from O’Hare Airport in June 2007 were circulated widely, with her husband gripping her and their son and weeping as he begged them not to cry.
“I can come back again to my sweet home in Chicago,” Mrs. Wasilewski said by telephone last week from Nowe Miasto Lubawskie, a country town in north central Poland where she has lived with Brian in a small apartment for the last four years. Still disbelieving, she said she would not allow herself any joy until she and her son were on the airplane approaching
Her homecoming will culminate a 22-year legal fight in which Mrs. Wasilewski, now 45, lost every battle but the last. Her case has cast light on some of the immigration system’s cul-de-sacs and severe penalties that lawyers say have stopped hundreds of thousands of immigrants who lack legal status as Mrs. Wasilewski did — otherwise law-abiding parents or spouses of American citizens — from finding a way to get right with the law.
Under a 1996 statute, Mrs. Wasilewski had been barred, after her deportation, from re-entering the
Mrs. Wasilewski had the help of a tenacious lawyer, Royal F. Berg, and several lawmakers, especially Representative Luis V. Gutierrez, Democrat of Illinois. The documentary filmmaker Ruth Leitman was appalled by the family’s separation and made a film about it. Immigrant advocate groups in
There has been a shift in Washington, with President Obama saying he wants to avoid separating immigrant families and focus on deporting foreigners who have been convicted of crimes.
But it was Mr. Wasilewski, with his unyielding determination to provide his wife and child with a life in the
“It was very hard to choose between my family and the
He also wanted to erase the stain of deportation on his family. “I did it for three reasons for my wife,” he said, using a grand phrase that has been his mantra: “Honor, dignity and justice.”
Tony and Janina Wasilewski came here separately from
She and Mr. Wasilewski fell in love in
So in 1998, when she applied for a green card under a different law, the immigration authorities responded by initiating her deportation.
Once Mr. Berg took the case, he did not give up, appealing all the way to the
The Wasilewskis’ son, Brian, was born in
Mrs. Wasilewski’s waiver requests were turned down twice. But the harrowing decline that Mr. Wasilewski experienced after his wife and son left finally convinced officials that the hardship standard had been met.
He had an ulcer, a heart attack and bouts of depression and started drinking heavily. To raise cash to support his wife and son in
His anguish is recorded in “Tony and Janina’s American Wedding,” the documentary that Ms. Leitman released in 2010, with her husband, Steve Dixon, as a co-producer. She had been at the airport on a freelance assignment on the day of Mrs. Wasilewski’s wrenching deportation.
She followed Mr. Wasilewski for more than two years. In one scene, he says blearily, “I call whiskey my wife.” In another, he wraps a power cord around his neck, considering suicide.
Ms. Leitman took the film to church basements and public libraries, “places where people did not necessarily agree with us,” she said. She is planning an epilogue, adding the surprise happy ending, and she is hoping the film will inspire broad changes.
So is Mr. Gutierrez, who is pressing Mr. Obama to expand the definition of hardship to make it easier for illegal immigrants whose families include American citizens to avoid deportation.
“What the heck is hardship if not Tony’s situation?” he asked.
Mrs. Wasilewski says her only plan after she arrives is to spend time with her husband and son, now 10. “The last four years were terrible for Brian,” she said. “Other kids can play with daddy every day, so Brian misses his father.”While excited, she confessed to feeling worn out. “Twenty-two years is a very long time, too long; something is wrong with that,” she said.
Mr. Wasilewski said he plans to treat his son to a McDonald’s burger and his wife to a meal at a Chinese restaurant. “She’s had enough Polish food,” he said.
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs