CHICAGO – A Polish woman whose family was separated after the U.S. denied her a green card and deported her returned to the U.S. Monday with her American-born son, reuniting with the husband and father they'd been away from for four years.
Janina Wasilewski's case was unusual not because she was deported but because the U.S. granted her a waiver that allowed her to return. She and her 10-year-old son were reunited with a teary-eyed Tony Wasilewski thanks largely to a documentary that put a spotlight on her case and the attention of congressmen who were willing to take up her cause.
"I just have to say thank you for all the people who worked for us (so) I can spend time with my husband in here, in the U.S.A.," Wasilewski said after embracing her husband. "I always had hope."
Mother and son were greeted by about 100 people a Chicago's O'Hare International Airport who erupted in cheers as soon as the pair came into sight. Tony Wasilewski hugged his wife and embraced his son, then handed the boy an American flag that was folded in a triangle.
"I feel like the luckiest man alive," Tony Wasilewski said, who also called on lawmakers to fix what he called a broken immigration system. "My American dream was broken four years ago when my family was separated by deportation."
The boy, Brian, said nothing, though his mother said he can speak English.
Janina Wasilewski's odyssey began when she came to the United States — legally — in 1989 and sought political asylum from communist Poland. According to published reports, a U.S. immigration judge denied her petition for political asylum in 1995, after the fall of communism in Poland. She was later denied a green card, prompting authorities to initiate deportation proceedings against her.
Wasilewski returned to Poland in June 2007, leaving suburban Chicago and taking her then-6-year-old son with her. Her husband, Tony Wasilewski, is another Polish immigrant who is in the United States legally.
Attorney Royal Berg took up her case, arguing that Wasilewski's deportation had caused extreme hardship to a U.S. citizen — her husband.
Her case also became the subject of a documentary, "Tony & Janina's American Wedding," which was shown around the U.S., including in Washington. U.S. Reps. Mike Quigley and Luis Gutierrez along with various activists took up her cause — bringing even more attention to the case.
Tomas Jimenez, a Stanford University sociologist, said that attention was key to federal authorities' decision last month to give her a permanent resident's green card and grant her a waiver to return to the U.S.
"It takes lots of connections, people in high places making phone calls and writing letters," said Jimenez, who noted such outcomes are exceedingly rare.
Jimenez said people who are deported as Wasilewski was generally must wait much longer before being allowed to return — if they are allowed back at all. A 1996 statute prohibits people who are deported from re-entering the United States for 10 years, but that decade-long wait is often only the beginning, he said.
"To get the folks who have the ability to grant these waivers to pay attention you have to have people who command their attention," he said.
A spokesman for the U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services did not have statistics Monday on how many green cards are awarded to people who have already been deported.
While Quigley and Gutierrez said they were pleased with the outcome, it also underscored a heartbreaking reality for others like Wasilewski.
"We have filing cabinets full of cases we are trying to help," Quigley said in an interview before Wasilewski's arrival.
Added Gutierrez, "You know what's unique about this? What's unique is that we won."
Gutierrez, who was arrested last month outside the White House while protesting U.S. immigration policies, said taking so long to reunite this husband with his wife and son makes no sense.
"He was broke, he lost his business, he's disconnected from his wife and son and he's caring for his father dying of cancer," said Gutierrez. "And you're telling me that is not extreme hardship?"