ROYAL OAK, Mich. - The immigration narrative is often missing the human face. Americans are told that 11 million undocumented people are living in the United States, but the lives, loves and emotions behind those 11 million are often absent.
To counteract that and to give the immigration debate a "human face" is the goal of director Ruth Leitman in her new film Tony and Janina's American Wedding.
During a press conference announcing the Michigan tour of the film, Leitman said Tony and Janina Wasilewski could be of any ethnicity but happen to be Polish. She wanted to take one "very compelling story" and use it to show the nation and our elected officials how our broken immigration system needs fixing.
She met Tony and Janina in 2007 on "the worst day of their life," she said. Janina had just been notified that in 48 hours she would be forced to leave both her adopted country and her husband who is an American citizen.
After 18 years in the U.S., her overstayed visa resulted in a punishment that bars Janina from returning to this country for 10 years.
They have an American citizen son, Brian, who returned to Poland with his mother.
We are a nation that proclaims its commitment to family values but "we are tearing families apart, taking parents away from their children," said Leitman.
"Being a mother, wife and filmmaker," Leitman said she felt compelled to tell of Tony and Janina's struggle to be reunited. "If this country was tearing this family and hundreds of other thousands apart," she said, she felt she "had to stay" and film the story.
Her feature-length film took four years to film and edit. It also features Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., a national advocate for immigration reform.
Leitman said some have asked why Tony doesn't return to Poland. She points out that deportation forces people to give up everything, including a lifetime of accomplishments, and added that there is an incredible amount of shame attached to deportation. Janina paid taxes in the U.S., built a business, and Tony is committed to fighting to restore her honor.
Their struggle to be reunited continues today.
The Michigan Alliance for Immigrant Rights is partnering with Leitman on the tour.
The film will be shown around Michigan, in Grand Rapids on May 17, Ann Arbor on May 19, Hamtramck on May 20 and Troy and Dearborn on May 21. For times and places visit the official website.