Interview with a Filmmaker on the Deportation of a Polish Illegal Immigrant

By David Seminara on December 9, 2011
[Editor's note: The segment with NPR's Michel Martin referenced below was part of a series this week entitled "In Limbo" on the program "Tell Me More". The first four installments were about particular immigrant stories, including one featuring the filmmaker interviewed here by Mr. Seminara, and are available here, here, here, and here. The final installment, broadcast today, was an interview with CIS Executive Director Mark Krikorian, available here.]

Ruth Leitman is a filmmaker who made "Tony & Janina's Wedding ", a documentary which tells the story of two Polish immigrants in Chicago, Tony and Janina Wasilewski. Their deportation story and the film have received significant press. In August, the New York Times wrote a story on Janina's deportation and subsequent reunion with her husband, and other stories on the couple have appeared in the AP, The Huffington Post, NBC, MSNBC, the Baltimore Sun, and NPR, amongst many other news outlets.

This is an abbreviated timeline of Tony & Janina's immigration story.

  • Janina arrives in the U.S. from Poland in 1989 on a tourist visa; Tony arrives the same year, separately on some form of work visa, possibly an H-2B.

  • Janina files an asylum claim shortly after arriving.

  • In 1995, Janina's asylum claim is finally rejected but she stays in the country nonetheless.

  • Tony begins the process to obtain a green card and finally receives one several years later. In 2001, the couple gives birth to a son who acquires U.S. citizenship.

  • In June 2007, Janina is finally deported back to Poland; Tony elects to stay on in Chicago to run their small housecleaning business.

  • August 2011: Janina is granted a waiver of the 10 year ban she received for her earlier visa overstay and is reunited with her husband in Chicago.

I listened to Leitman's interview with NPR's Michel Martin on the program "Tell Me More" on Wednesday, in which Leitman asserted that the "country had deprived a father from being with his son, a wife from being with a husband, and a family unity," and decided that I wanted to ask her the difficult questions no one else was asking. What follows is an excerpt from that interview.

SEMINARA: When Janina arrived with a tourist visa in 1989, did she intend to stay permanently?

LEITMAN: I would say she planned to live here. She was seeking asylum, she was trying to forge a path to citizenship. When she came here Poland was still a communist country.

SEMINARA: And in order to obtain a tourist visa, she had to have convinced a consular officer in Poland that she was a legitimate tourist, right?

LEITMAN: Well, I know she came with a tourist visa, but she wanted to claim political asylum. I don't know if that means saying one thing to one government and another thing to another one.

SEMINARA: She claimed political asylum, which is for people who have a well grounded fear of persecution if they return to their home countries. After the fall of communism, what was her fear of returning to Poland?

LEITMAN: I think it had to do with her living in a communist country and not being able to achieve her dreams. It wasn't a fear for her life but a fear for never being able to achieve any success. Maybe if her case had been heard in 1989, she would have been granted asylum.

SEMINARA: What is your understanding of who should be able to claim for asylum?

LEITMAN: I understand the well founded fear aspect, but the United States for a long time was sympathetic to people fleeing communist countries.

SEMINARA: Right. But certainly not after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe?

LEITMAN: No, not after the fall of communism, but when she left, Poland was still communist.

SEMINARA: Right, but by the time an immigration judge heard her claim, (in 1995) communism in Poland was long gone.

LEITMAN: Absolutely, but by that time this family had already established a life here.

SEMINARA: Do you feel that it was unfair to reject her asylum claim?

LEITMAN: I understand why it was rejected.

SEMINARA: What I've heard from you in various interviews is that somehow this couple was treated unfairly, but this is a woman who arrived in the U.S. with a tourist visa and managed to stay on for 18 years with no real legal claim to residency. How was she treated unfairly?

LEITMAN: I've talked to Janina since she's come back and I've asked her, "would you have come here, if you knew that there was no legal path for you to take?" And she says "no". She was under the assumption, based on the legal advice she was given, that she'd be able to work this out through our immigration system to stay here legally.

SEMINARA: But residency has to be based upon having some valid legal claim to it, right? Based on a family relationship, an employer or an approved asylum claim. She got due process, in terms of having the ability to plead her case to a judge. An immigration judge isn't going to approve an asylum claim simply because someone is a nice person, right?

LEITMAN: Right, but by that point she was married to someone who had a green card.

SEMINARA: But based upon our laws, marrying a green card holder isn't an immediate path to legal residency. The wait is usually around five years, or more.

LEITMAN: I understand that. Even if Tony had been a U.S. citizen at that time, she still would have been deported. [Because of her illegal stay] But she was represented by an attorney who didn't understand her language and she didn't understand what he asked her to agree to. That is a denial of due process.


LEITMAN: She didn't understand the language.

SEMINARA: She was denied due process because she didn't understand English?

LEITMAN: She didn't understand the agreement her lawyer made with the judge. [to accept voluntary departure back to Poland, rather than deportation]

SEMINARA: So the government is at fault because she didn't understand? Typically courts allow parties to request an interpreter if they need one. Did she request one?

LEITMAN: Well, she thought her lawyer was going to speak her language but he didn't. So I don't know that she knew her rights. She was a little overwhelmed.

SEMINARA: After Tony got his green card, did he file an immigrant visa petition for his wife right away?

LEITMAN: I don't know.

SEMINARA: You said on NPR that Janina didn't know she was supposed to leave the country after her asylum claim was denied. How is that?

LEITMAN: She didn't understand the implication of what not leaving would mean for her. She kept filing papers after that, she wasn't trying to be under the radar. She understands that she was wrong in this, but you have a traffic violation, you can work it out. You can go to traffic school. She was trying to make it right. Pay a fine, get in line. But there are no provisions for that right now. There is no legal path. And immigration attorneys give people false hope.

SEMINARA: So is your assumption about our immigration system that everyone in the world who wants to live here should be able to find some legal avenue to do so?

LEITMAN: No, I don't think so.

SEMINARA: So how would you decide who gets to live here?

LEITMAN: We have a system that doesn't work. That's why we have millions of people who are undocumented. I'm not here to stand in judgment and decide who can come here. Janina and people like her should be entitled to stay in this country when they are part of a community, part of a family, part of a business, part of what grows our country. The laws in place don't work for anyone because they don't allow people live Janina to stay here and help the country thrive.

SEMINARA: In your opinion, should every foreign national who arrives in the country as a tourist, as Janina did, have the right to live here permanently?


SEMINARA: So how do you decide who gets to stay and who doesn't?

LEITMAN: Well, there's a difference between coming on a tourist visa and just staying and what Janina did. She left Poland looking for a better life. You and I weren't raised in a communist country. It has long-lasting effects.

SEMINARA: It took 18 years for the system to essentially catch up with Janina and deport her. If she had been deported immediately after her asylum claim was denied in 1995, rather than in 2007, I don't think that would have made her happy either, would it have?

LEITMAN: No, but the system gave her false hope for a long time.

SEMINARA: No question. But would it have been better if she had been led out of the courtroom in handcuffs and deported immediately back in '95?

LEITMAN: I don't know if I'd say better, maybe it would be more humane. And isn't it taxing on our system to put someone through this for 18 years? It isn't financially smart for us either. In a way, maybe it would have been better. This country has been built on the backs of immigrants, and undocumented immigrants.

SEMINARA: The country was built on the backs of undocumented immigrants?

LEITMAN: Showing my film around the country, I run into people whose grandparents came here from Ireland and Scotland and Germany and they tell me their ancestors never became American citizens.

SEMINARA: But they weren't undocumented immigrants.

LEITMAN: OK, so let's say the country was built on the backs of immigrants of various status. Documented, undocumented, etc. The point of making this film is to give Americans a more accurate picture of our immigration system. Maybe we should just re-brand our approach as a country. We should say, "this is the United States, 2011, we're in horrible financial shape, don't come here." Is that what we should say? That's what our system is doing right now.

SEMINARA: It seems as though your conclusion, in telling Janina's story, is that the system is too unforgiving, but she managed to stay 18 years, until she'd finally exhausted all of her motions and appeals. Do you think an American could arrive in an E.U. country, for example, with a tourist visa and stay that long before getting deported?

LEITMAN: No, that's true. There is a global fear of immigrants right now because of the economy. They think immigrants are taking our jobs, but I think it's the opposite. Immigrants aren't a drain on our economy.

SEMINARA: You said on NPR that the U.S. government tore this family apart. But Poland is an E.U. member and their economy has actually been booming, even during the global recession. The family faced a difficult choice when Janina was deported, but Tony could have returned to Poland, with Janina and their son, correct?

LEITMAN: He could have gone, but then he wouldn't have found work. They clean houses for a living, could they have done it in Poland, who knows? He felt he couldn't support his family there.

SEMINARA: But as a Polish citizen, he had the right to work in any E.U. country, so he had options, right?

LEITMAN: Could he have had made it work somewhere else? We'll never know. He felt like the only place he could make a living was here.

SEMINARA: But the point is that he had options. Is it dishonest to say that the government tore this family apart?

LEITMAN: They paid money into our system and that's just how I see it. Could Tony have gone? Absolutely, but he didn't think it was in their interest to do that. I guess technically they did have a choice.

SEMINARA: So if you could go back in time and wave a magic wand to make things right, how should the U.S. government have treated Janina differently?

LEITMAN: Maybe when she applied for asylum, she should have been told immediately that she couldn't apply, that it didn't apply to her.

SEMINARA: Told by whom, an immigration attorney?


SEMINARA: But what should the U.S. government have done differently? Your film is about how they were treated unfairly, right?

LEITMAN: Well, I think they should have approved her asylum claim.

SEMINARA: But communism was over, what well-grounded fear did she have to return to her home country?

LEITMAN: Her situation should have been considered in aggregate. She fled a communist country, she was a law-abiding citizen. She had a good record; she should have been able to stay.

SEMINARA: But an immigration judge is tasked with trying to determine if the person has a credible fear, not just, "is this person a good citizen?", right?

LEITMAN: I haven't worked for the State Department and I don't write law or policy. She left a communist country and then it was no longer communist, but she had established her life here, why is that not considered?

SEMINARA: But asylum isn't just for nice people who are paying their taxes, it's for people who have a credible fear of persecution.

LEITMAN: Right. I know what asylum is, but her case should have been looked at sooner, because Poland was still communist when she first arrived in '89.

SEMINARA: On your website, I see that there is a link to make donations; is that a legal fund for Tony and Janina?

LEITMAN: My film was self-financed and we went into great debt to make the film.

SEMINARA: So the donations are part for you and part for Tony and Janina?


SEMINARA: So what did you learn from making this film?

LEITMAN: We have this idea that the undocumented are just hopping back and forth and exploiting our system, but that's not what it is. We need to understand the contribution that documented and undocumented immigrants make to the country. The system needs to be reconstructed. People should be able to pay a fine and get in line. Not this fictitious line but a real line.

SEMINARA: But doesn't the line to live here form outside the U.S.? I mean, we have people who are waiting 10, 12, 15 years in their home countries for the chance to immigrate legally. Those who come illegally or overstay visas, they aren't really in line with those people who are waiting in their home countries, are they?

LEITMAN: You and I disagree about that, I guess. There can be a line where you have to complete certain things, like learning English, paying a fineā€¦.

SEMINARA: But excuse me, are you really in line though, if you are already living here and enjoying the benefits of our country?

LEITMAN: I disagree. You're in line to get a green card. I guess it's not the same line that they're in, but these people are paying into our system. They pay taxes.

SEMINARA: Right, but the people who are waiting in their home countries, I'm sure they're willing to pay taxes too. That's what they're waiting for the right to do, right?

LEITMAN: Janina did come here legally though.

SEMINARA: Right, with a tourist visa. So what's the bottom line regarding Janina, does she bear any personal responsibility for having been deported?

LEITMAN: She was hopeful that she could work it out but she was wrong. She should have left, I agree. She thought she was on a path but she really wasn't, and if she understood that, she would have left. She broke laws but she continued to try to make it right and she was never going to be able to make it right. We're a nation of laws, but where is the humanity in the laws? It is only because we made a lot of noise with this film that Janina is back. And that's it.