Talk about long distance parenting…
Tony Wasilewski’s four-year commute to Poland to see his wife, Janina, and eight-year old son, Brian, makes my financial outlay on Southwest Airlines to see my kids look like the peanuts that SW serves. Tony’s experiences, featured in the heart-wrenching documentary Tony & Janina’s American Wedding, is a story shared by many U.S. immigrants. As a result of translation problems in the courtroom and bureaucratic red tape, Tony watches his wife get deported back to Poland for at least a decade. Brian goes with her.
Tony, a Polish immigrant and small business owner in Chicago, is a U.S. citizen. His son Brian is also a citizen. He was born here. But Janina was not. After 18 years in this country, her overstayed visa resulted in a ten-year punishment that bars Janina from returning to the U.S. — a penalty harsher than some murder sentences, the filmmakers point out.
Tony made a political, economic and emotional decision to remain in the United States. Of course he could have returned to Poland with Janina and Brian, but the unemployment rate in the small Polish town where Janina lives now hovers around 25%. Jobs are few and far between, as are educational and economic opportunities. Tony has to send money to Poland for Janina’s survival—a fact that has driven Tony into foreclosure proceedings.
Tony made the painful decision that many of us long distance parents also understand — to remain where the opportunities for his family’s future seem strongest. But will Brian understand and appreciate the emotional pain behind his father’s decision to stay in America one day? Or will he resent him for the rest of his life for feeling ‘abandoned’ so his father could make more money? (These are the unanswered questions that I ask myself every 24 hours or so…)
Last night in a discussion at my university, director Ruth Leitman and the film’s co-producer, her husband Steve Dixon, recalled the year that they had commuted between states because of jobs, and how emotionally taxing it was on their relationship. With all of the stress and worry connected to his family’s separation, Tony has physically paid a higher price. He’s already been hospitalized for a heart attack and liver problems in his early forties.
Students were so moved by the film that they gave Tony and the filmmakers a standing ovation when they appeared at the end of the screening. One Nigerian student tearfully told the audience about being separated from her mother, without hope of seeing her very often. She walked up to Tony and hugged him in front of the large audience. Students also expressed concern about Tony’s health issues and many signed petitions to support immigration reform, particularly for families.
The filmmakers have found themselves at the center of a political struggle that is, in my opinion, the top U.S. human rights issue for the 21st century. Immigration reform that respects the economic contributions of immigrant labor as well as the citizenship rights of children and families has become an urgent issue.
Leitman and Dixon commented on how they were “NPR liberals” until they started to document Tony and Janina’s story. Now they testify on immigration issues whenever asked. Leitman just spoke at George Washington University law school to a student event sponsored by the American Immigration Lawyers Association -- lawyers who provide pro bono work and assistance for the grueling and expensive green card process.
Deportations of immigrants have actually increased under Obama--1100 immigrants a day, 400,000 per year are now forced back to their countries of origin. Many immigrants and activists are disappointed with Obama’s unfulfilled promises regarding reform. The White House seems rendered speechless next to the conservative talkathon about “anchor babies” and border wars. Leitman's Facebook page for Tony and Janina's film now has a link to email Obama about immigration reform.
The U.S. has a long history of abusive labor practices that guaranteed economic prosperity for a privileged citizenry, but not for workers without the same legal status. Slaves are the first major example; undocumented workers are the second. But U.S. citizenship and our democratic processes have a worldwide reputation for accepting the poor, the underprivileged, and the politically oppressed as well as for rewarding hard work. Splitting up families like Tony, Janina and Brian should not become part of our national story.