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Clock is ticking for asylum seeker
She and others hope immigration reforms can come soon enough to save their families

Wednesday, June 06, 2007
Chicago Tribune
by Antonio Olivo

Janina Wasilewski came to America as a foot soldier for Poland's anti-communist Solidarity movement, a student activist fleeing for her life and seeking political asylum in Chicago.

Eighteen years later, Wasilewski, 41, is being deported. The clock is running out on the life she's created here amid a flurry of last-minute court motions, tearful hugs from neighbors and painful questions from her son Brian, 5 -- an American citizen who wonders why they must leave Friday for someplace called Warsaw.

"In Poland, we don't have any house," Wasilewski said, her pale blue eyes betraying sleepless nights. "I don't have any job to do there. My son asks, 'Mommy, why we go to Poland?'"

The Schiller Park woman's battle to stay has been marked by years-long bureaucratic delays, confusion, a string of lawyers and a kaleidoscope of legal arguments. It illustrates the quirks of an immigration system that has thousands of aging political asylum cases still unresolved, attorneys said.

The case of her husband, Tony Wasilewski, who also fled Polish communism but is now on the path to U.S. citizenship, reflects the system's sometimes arbitrary treatment of people in similar circumstances. He plans to stay in order to keep afloat the home- and office-cleaning service he built with his wife of 14 years.

Together, they've joined millions of other immigrants desperately stalling for time, hoping proposed reforms come soon enough to save their families from being separated.

Sitting in their low-slung brick house, Janina Wasilewski has begun to believe that such a window may not open in time for her. She clutched printouts of the electronic plane tickets she bought for herself and Brian, wondering if her marriage will survive the separation.

"If my husband stays here and I have to go back with Brian ... I don't know about our family," Wasilewski said, trying to hide her tears as her son burst through the front door to retrieve a toy.

Wasilewski and her husband grew up in separate villages about a two-hour drive from Warsaw. They came of age in the 1980s as the Solidarity movement ignited a new passion for freedom.

Wasilewski began to surreptitiously pass out fliers with information about secret meetings, laying out protest strategies. She was arrested several times before reaching college, she said, labeled "a problem child" by communist officials and wound up on a government blacklist.

After each arrest, however, she was back helping organize more protests and outdoor theater that, sometimes, openly mocked the federal government -- acts of courage she attributes to the stand against communism made by Pope John Paul II, a son of Poland.

"He was the inspiration for many of us," she said. "He was like our hero."

As the political climate intensified in 1989, however, fellow activists at the technical university where Wasilewski studied horticulture began to disappear. That was her cue to leave, she said. She had family in Chicago, and she knew that America offered the freedom she had been fighting for.

Once here, her uncle helped her apply for political asylum. But the process bogged down, and, afraid to jeopardize her chances, she waited quietly. As months turned to years, Poland's communist government fell. Wasilewski met and married her husband, helped him form a business and began trying to have children.

Then, in 1994, her application for asylum was finally processed: a government official determined that since now-democratic Poland no longer posed a threat to her, she had to leave.

She decided to appeal the order and found a lawyer. But a 1995 hearing proved her downfall. Wasilewski said she could scarcely understand what was going on as her lawyer and the judge talked to each other in English. Her attorney agreed -- without her knowledge, she said -- that she would voluntarily leave the country.

"I never know if I have to leave. Nobody explained to me," she said. "My [then] lawyer was speaking English and Spanish."

Wasilewski's current attorney, Royal F. Berg, said a Polish translator should have been made available to his client, noting a transcript of that 1995 hearing doesn't reflect any questions directed toward Wasilewski.

"The judge was supposed to advise her of her rights under the law, and he was supposed to advise her in words she'd understand," Berg argued.

If she had understood, Berg contended, she could have further appealed the asylum ruling or made other arguments. Instead, she just slipped away, back to her home and off the legal radar.

The fact that Wasilewski disappeared from the system for three years, never returning to Poland or reporting to immigration authorities, led the federal government to conclude she was simply among many who ignore the order to leave voluntarily, an illegal immigrant.

In 1998, Wasilewski reappeared in federal court, seeking to take advantage of a new law meant to help refugees from civil wars in Central America and Eastern Europe. Because she had failed to leave voluntarily in 1995, however, legal residency in the U.S. was off the table, despite the new law. In the end, the new move only put her case back in play, leading to deportation proceedings.

She changed lawyers, had new hearings, made new appeals. At home, between two miscarriages, she had a baby, sinking ever deeper roots in her neighborhood and her country.

And when immigration reform moved to the front burner last year, Wasilewski joined legions across the country trying to use whatever legal arguments were available to forestall deportations long enough for Congress to act.

"Every attorney worth their salt is doing that," said Carlina Tapia-Ruano, the Chicago-based president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "Every single case I have now where a person is facing the possibility of leaving the United States before the end of summer, I am using every creative legal argument in order to allow them to remain here."

The Wasilewskis point to their only son, a full-cheeked blur of energy, as the main reason for continuing to fight.

In a marriage that has endured two miscarriages and years of poverty, Brian is the center of a suburban Chicago lifestyle now marked by back-yard parties, movies and afternoons trips to Brookfield Zoo. Like many of their Schiller Park neighbors, the Wasilewskis fly an American flag in front of their home.

"We want him to have everything possible," Tony Wasilewski said about his son. "Sometimes we give him too much."

In the couple's yard, signs of Wasilewski's horticultural training sprout in a row of szczaw, a Polish vegetable used in soups. In the converted garage next to it, Tony Wasilewski ruefully ponders the questions about liberty and the home of the brave for his coming citizenship exam.

June is typically a month to celebrate all three family members' birthdays. To top it off, this year Brian graduated from kindergarten at Kennedy Elementary School.

Barring an extraordinary legal breakthrough in the next two days, however, they are quietly preparing for the worst. Once deported, she cannot reapply for legal entry to the U.S. for 10 years.

"We're not planning on doing anything to celebrate," Janina Wasilewski said, dreading the thought of neighbors coming by to ask when she'll be leaving. "We're not ready for any of that."

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