CHICAGO – On August 8, a rare victory was celebrated here by immigrant rights supporters when a Polish woman was finally reunited with her family after the U.S. deported her four years ago.
Janina Wasilewski, 45, returned to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport Monday afternoon as a permanent U.S. resident, with her 10-year-old U.S. citizen son, Brian, by her side.
It was a joyous occasion largely due to the tireless efforts of Wasilewski’s husband, Tony, 42, also a Polish immigrant, who fought a four-year campaign to bring his wife and son back.
“I feel like the luckiest man alive,” said Tony to WGN News, adding he’s determined to continue urging lawmakers to fix the country’s broken immigration system.
“My American dream was broken four years ago when my family was separated by deportation,” said Tony.
A hundred supporters greeted and cheered as the Wasilewski family embraced each other and reunited at the airport. Tony handed is son an American flag welcoming him back home.
“I just have to say thank you for all the people who worked for us so I can spend time with my husband here in the U.S.A.,” said Janina Wasilewski. “I always had hope.”
The couple met and married in the U.S. and eventually settled in Schiller Park, outside Chicago, where they began a cleaning business. Tony eventually became a citizen but Janina’s temporary visa expired in the mid-2000s. After she violated an order to voluntarily leave, she was deported to Poland in 2007. She took their son with her.
Tony stayed in the U.S. working to support his family and care for his father, who was seriously ill with cancer. Tony grimly told how the long separation from his wife and son sent him into a bitter depression, a chain-smoking, beer-drinking cycle of despair that even led to suicidal thoughts.
The family business was lost and their Schiller Park home went into foreclosure.
Their heartfelt story was featured in the 2010 documentary, “Tony and Janina’s American Wedding.”
But Tony overcame his despair, determined to fight for his wife and son’s return. His severe trauma convinced U.S. officials that he was suffering from “extreme hardship,” according to the family’s attorney, Royal Berg.
Berg told the Chicago Tribune that Tony’s stubborn refusal to give up on reuniting his family was heroic. The reunification campaign included his testifying before Congress about immigration reform, becoming a U.S. citizen and telling his story over and over again.
“This is a man who has shown his courage, his perseverance, his love of his family and his belief in America, even when America treated him as horrifically as our country did,” said Berg.
Janina’s case was unique because the U.S. granted her a waiver that allowed her to return after the lengthy legal battle with the help of lawmakers, and immigrant and human rights groups.
The Wasilewski’s are one of thousands of families separated by U.S. immigration enforcement. Since September a ramped-up effort has led to nearly 122,000 undocumented immigrants being deported. Critics note the recent upsurge in deportations takes a heavy emotional toll on spouses, parents and especially children.
Tony and Janina’s case won support from Congressman Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., who was there when the family reunited. Gutierrez said it’s wrong for the government to deny an American-citizen father his American citizen son and the accompaniment of his wife. The congressman was arrested last month outside the White House while protesting U.S. immigration policies. He’s calling on President Obama to focus on immigration reform in action, and not just in words.
“We’re not going to give up,” said Gutierrez at the airport to the Chicago Tribune. “You’re a beautiful, wonderful American story,” he said about the Wasilewski’s.
Tony Wasilewski said the experience has made him a staunch supporter and advocate for immigrant rights and comprehensive immigration reform.
“It’s really the best day of my life for the last four years,” he told WGN News. “I’m really, really happy. Thank God they’re home,” he said.
Photo: Tony Wasilewski, left, welcomes back his wife Janina, at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, Aug. 8. (Kamil Krzaczynski/AP)