Polish Family Faces Heartbreak, Immigration

Dec 7, 2011
Originally published on December 7, 2011 1:02 pm

Tell Me More continues its series "In Limbo," which focuses on the complicated experiences of immigrants caught between being in the United States legally and illegally, with the struggles of a Polish-American family.

In 1989, Tony Wasilewski legally arrived in the United States on a work visa. His future wife, Janina, legally came on a travel visa and sought political asylum from then communist Poland.

They met in 1991 in Chicago. The couple fell in love, got married, and then bought a house in 1993. They started their own business, and Janina later gave birth to their son Brian.

But in 1995, Janina was denied asylum. She signed a document voluntarily leaving the U.S. But she did not fully understand what she was signing, and a translator was not present. A final deportation notice arrived in 2007 — the same year Tony was sworn in as a naturalized U.S. citizen. Janina left the U.S., taking Brian, an American citizen, with her. She and Tony told Brian that he was just going on a vacation.

Janina was barred from returning to the United States for a decade.

The couple's odyssey was captured in Ruth Leitman's film Toni and Janina's American Wedding.

In an interview with Tell Me More host Michel Martin, Leitman said, "I met Tony and Janina on the worst day of their life. I met them within hours of when Janina found out that she was to leave the country. She needed to leave within 48 hours. I was struck by their situation as a wife, as a mother. And really, I wanted to show this film and de-mystify what America thinks of when they think of 'undocumented' in our country."

She noted that Tony and Janina's story removed race from the immigration issue, particularly as their experiences reflect those of other undocumented individuals.

Leitman said that while Tony was separated from his wife and son he began drinking and struggled to retain his business and house. He continued sleeping on the couch for years because he could not bear to step into the bedroom he shared with Janina, which became a "shrine to the missing," said Leitman.

For Brian, his anger manifested into outbursts at school.

"I think Brian wasn't happy because he was out from his own home, and also, he can't see his father every day," said Janina. "I think he has so many problems — he can't even talk about them because he just was six years old."

Janina said her toughest challenge was dealing with suspicious friends and neighbors who wondered what she possibly did to have been deported.

But things eventually turned around. Janina's 10-year ban from the United States was lifted. She and Brian returned to America on Aug. 8, 2011.

"That was a happy day. I just was thinking, 'Ok, I can come to my home again,'" she said.

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I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. On this program, we often talk about one of the most intense and emotional political debates before us right now, immigration, and one reason we talk about it is that it's right in front of us. We see it playing out in the newspapers, on the faces of angry demonstrators or in hearings in Congress, where advocates debate whether those without proper authorization should stay or go.

But what we don't often see or hear is what it's like to be in that middle space between legal and illegal status or to be related to somebody who is. What we don't often hear about is what it's like to be in limbo.

So, today, we have the latest installment in our series called In Limbo. It's the story of Tony and Janina Wasilewski. In 1989, Tony arrived in the U.S. on a work visa and Janina entered the U.S. seeking political asylum from then communist Poland.

Tony and Janina met, they fell in love, they got married, they started a business and they bought a house in Schiller Park, a Chicago suburb. In 2001, Janina gave birth to a baby boy they called Brian.

But six years later, in 2007, Janina was ordered out of the U.S. because the political situation in Poland had changed and, thus, it was felt that she had no further need of asylum. She was ordered not to return to the U.S. for 10 years.

Throughout that period, they took many home movies and their odyssey was also documented by filmmaker Ruth Leitman. Together, it has become the film, "Tony and Janina's American Wedding," and Janina and Ruth join us today from member station WBEZ in Chicago.

Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

RUTH LEITMAN: Thanks for having us.

JANINA WASILEWSKI: Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: Now, Janina, we're talking to you in Chicago, so obviously, something changed and we're going to get to that. But take us back. Now, you had lived in the U.S. for what - 18 years - before you were ordered to leave? What was it like when you got that letter?

WASILEWSKI: When I got that letter, I was totally shocked and depressed because, if you have to leave this country and leave your home and the life which you got, and also I was thinking about my husband and about my son. That was terrible.

MARTIN: Before you got that letter, were you worried that you were going to be sent back to Poland or did you just kind of live your life?

WASILEWSKI: No. I never was worried because I was thinking I have, you know, the lawyer and I'm working with them and I was thinking everything be fine, you know, so that's why my life was like the other people life.

MARTIN: Ruth, how did you hear about Tony and Janina's story, and why did you decide to make a film about it?

LEITMAN: I was actually on a freelance assignment for an organization out of Los Angeles and I met Tony and Janina on the worst day of their life. I met them within hours of when Janina found out that she was to leave the country. She needed to leave within 48 hours and so, you know, I was really struck by their story and I was struck by their situation as a wife, as a mother and, really, I wanted to show this film and demystify what America thinks of when they think of undocumented in our country.

And one of the things that this story did was it took the race issue out of immigration. Tony and Janina could be Polish or they could be Latino or they could be anyone and what they were going through, what they have gone through, is what millions of other undocumented Americans go through every day.

MARTIN: Well, what do you think it is that really struck you? Is it in part because you could imagine yourself in their situation? I mean, here you are, you know, you're married. You've bought a house. You're running a business. They employed other people. They feel like they're contributing and then, all of a sudden, it's - is that the piece of it? Or is it - I mean, just to be blunt about it, you felt, in fact, that perhaps people would be more sympathetic because they're white Europeans and people think that doesn't happen with people like that?

LEITMAN: I think there's a couple things here. As a wife and a mother, I saw a family being ripped apart and I bore witness to that at O'Hare Airport. I had a camera pressed against my eye. Had I not had that camera there that day, I would have been crying and when Janina and Brian went through security, after we sort of had the last glimpse of them, I brought the camera down from my eye and I was crying because I could not believe that our country, a country that professes to hold family values in the highest regard, was tearing apart this family.

And I was not an advocate. I was not an activist for immigration reform. I was not looking for this. This story hit me between the eyes.

MARTIN: Well, I think this might be a good point to play a clip and I'm just going to explain what it is. This is the point that you were just talking about where Janina and Brian - and the decision was made, apparently, by the family that Brian should go back to Poland with Janina, even though he's an American citizen. And this is the point that you were just talking about, where Janina and Brian. And the decision was made apparently by the family that Brian should go back to Poland with Janina even though he's an American citizen. And this is a point at which that they are at the airport. I'm just going to warn people that this is hard to listen to, so here it is.





WASILEWSKI: Don't do it, Tony.

WASILEWSKI: Okay, we have to go leave tonight.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible).

WASILEWSKI: Yeah. Yeah. Shut up. You have to move. You be quiet.

WASILEWSKI: OK. Dobray(sp). Go, Tony. Go.

WASILEWSKI: I'll do that. Get – they're getting more (bleep).


MARTIN: Janina, I hate to take you back there, but what was that like for you?

WASILEWSKI: I think that was the hardest. And now when I'm talking to you I am crying because, you know, I heard that, so I don't even want to remember.

MARTIN: I can understand that. Ruth, what about you?

LEITMAN: Every night that I was able to kiss my daughter goodnight was what drove me everyday because I felt like our country had deprived a father from being with his son, a wife from being with a husband, and a family unity.

MARTIN: One of the points that the film makes is that this went on for a long time. And it also makes the point that the family doesn't stop being a family even thought they are separated - that they were trying, you know, for years to reunite the family, and that they were still trying to figure out how to, you know, maintain their relationship. And I'm going to play another clip. And this is scene that is two years after Janina has left the country and Tony still hasn't figured a way to bring her back. And here it is.


WASILEWSKI: What are we going to do? What are we going to do? What are we going to do? I'm doing the best I can. I'm doing the best I can. I'm just all - I went everywhere for the last two and talked to everybody. I ask, people just won't help me. Help, help, help me. Nobody help me. Help.


MARTIN: Ruth, what were some of the things? You can hear the frustration in his voice in just not knowing what to do or where to turn, even though he did have legal counsel here. What were some of the things that Tony was going through while they were separated?

LEITMAN: I was watching him on a very personal level deteriorate during the process of this film. And I was watching him begin to drink. There were days that he had a lot of focus between talking to different people, his lawyer, different advocates and trying to keep his business together, trying to keep the house, and all of those things were really closing in around him. And as a person it's hard to watch that.

There were moments like you see in the film where, you know, we find out that a month later, a year later, two years later, Tony is still sleeping on the couch. Janina and Tony's bedroom became a shrine to the missing.

MARTIN: Hmm. If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Janina Wasilewski. She was separated from her husband for four years after being deported. Also with us is Ruth Leitman. She's the filmmaker who documented the family's story in her film "Tony's and Janina's American Wedding."

Janina, in the film we see that this was very hard on your son as well, as it had to have been hard on you. Can you talk about some of the things that he experienced while being separated from his dad?

WASILEWSKI: I think Brian was unhappy because, you know, he was out from his own home. And also he can't see his father everyday. And I think he has so many problems and he can't even talk about that because he just was six years old. and right now it's not that maybe seems for the other people it's better but it's not, because our lives is so complicated.

MARTIN: Ruth, you know, obviously, I have to encapsulate some of the story here, because as we said, that the story is very drawn out. And just to give people some sense of it, that Janina came in 1989. She, on a travel visa, she applied for political asylum, but it was six years later that the asylum application was denied and that she signed a document agreeing to voluntarily leave the U.S., although the film makes the point that she didn't really understand what she was signing. There was no translator there at the time. And in 2007, which is 12 years after that, she finally is given a final deportation notice and then, of course, as we said, is barred from the country.

In your reporting, was this typical, this kind of long, drawn out process?

LEITMAN: Yes, it was a really long time before Janina's case was heard, but that's indicative of the fact that there is a backlog and there continues to be a backlog. So the thing that's most important to note about Janina's case is that she went through immigration courts for about 15 years. She did not cross a border illegally. She basically entered the country legally and they were not trying to fly under the radar in any way. And I think that that's really important. And what's also very important here is that because they were trying to forge a legal path and there was none to have, that is why this happened.

MARTIN: The film ends on a very tough and emotional note. Brian is having difficulties. You could see he's in a lot of pain, being separated from his father. Tony is having a very hard time being separated from his wife and his son. And then things turned around. She was able to come back to the country in August of this year.



MARTIN: So Janina, what was that like when you came back home?

WASILEWSKI: Yeah, you notice me right now, but I am smiling because, you know...


WASILEWSKI: ...that was a happy day. I just was thinking OK, I can come to my home again, because...

MARTIN: Do you feel like you're home?

WASILEWSKI: Yeah. Chicago is, you know, for me like a home so that's why I was really, really happy, and Brian too.

MARTIN: What would you most like people to know about this experience of being in limbo?

WASILEWSKI: In USA they should something do with the immigration law because it's hurting the people, the family, like our family. And our past four years was very terrible for us and probably we will always remember that. So that'd be never gone from our brains, especially, you know, for our child like Brian, so probably he will remember all the time.

MARTIN: Janina Wasilewski is a Polish immigrant. She lived in the U.S. for 18 years before she was deported in 2007. She spent the next four years trying to return to the U.S. and reunite with her husband Tony and their son Brian. Ruth Leitman is filmmaker who documented their story in her film "Tony and Janina's American Wedding." And they were both kind enough to join us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Thank you both so much for joining us.

WASILEWSKI: Thank you for having us.

LEITMAN: Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: And we hope you'll tune in tomorrow, as we continue our In Limbo series with the story of Maria Luna. Maria was just three days old when her grandmother drove over the Mexican border with her in the back seat. But it was many years before she understood that she was in the U.S. without proper authorization. Now thousands of young adults share her dilemma and she has become an activist for change. Maria Luna tells her story, that's from our In Limbo series and that's tomorrow on TELL ME MORE. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.