Tonight’s film Tony and Janina’s American Wedding, A Deportation Love Story, directed by our guest Ruth Leitman, explores the deportation issues facing immigrant families in the United States by focusing on Tony and Janina Wasilewski, a Polish American couple whose family is torn apart by post-9/11 immigration red tape. The story is set in Chicago, against Obama’s rise from Senator to President.

Tony came to the United States under a work visa, while Janina applied for political asylum. They met in Chicago, which has the second largest urban population of Poles in the world (the first is Warsaw), fell in love and got married, then started a small cleaning business. Their business flourished, they bought a house and in 2001 had a son, Brian.

Then in 2007 Janina received a deportation order, based on her asylum being revoked once Poland was free from Communist rule. She had been ordered to voluntarily leave in 1995, but there was no translator for her and the judge did not ever address her directly; confused and unclear about her status, she stayed in the US and built a life with Tony. More red tape followed and her later appeals were adjudicated using a 1996 ruling, rather than 1997 NACARA law which applied to Janina.

From Wikipedia:

The Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act states that Nicaraguans, Cubans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, nationals of former Soviet bloc countries, and their dependents are able to become legal permanent residents of the United States provided that they were registered asylums seekers who had stayed in the United States for at least 5 years since December 1, 1995

Janina had 48 hours to leave the country and was banned from returning for ten years. It was decided that Brian, then 6, should go with her. In heartbreaking scenes–including a tearful airport departure– Tony tells his son that it will only be a vacation for a months, but as the “vacation” extends for a year, the family becomes more and more despondent. Once in Poland, Brian starts both withdrawing and acting up, while Tony is unable to sleep in the bedroom he shared with his wife, seeking solace on the couch with Polish-language television and the pillow Brian slept on.

Tony and the family’s immigration attorney turn to their representatives (including Barack Obama), but to no avail. In hopes of bringing Janina and Brian back, Tony becomes a U.S. citizen; and buoyed by Obama’s promises for immigration returns votes for the first time in the 2008 presidential primary, noting that despite the huge Polish population in Chicago, ballots are only offered in English, Spanish, and Chinese.

He also organizes a Polish immigration rights group which participates in marches and political organizing in order to highlight not only Tony’s situation, but also that of several million other immigrant families. The group marches on Washington after Obama is elected, and Tony speaks before a Congressional committee; yet there is no change, no hope.

Growing more and more depressed, with his business in a downturn and supporting Janina in Poland, Tony drinks more, explaining

Whiskey is my wife

and demonstrates how he might kill himself. His visits to Janina and Brian only deepen his depression. Unfortunately, on a second trip for Brian’s birthday, he suffers a heart attack, liver problems, and an ulcer which cut short his stay. The family’s lawyer suggests filing for a hardship visa, though Brian’s hardship cannot be part of the appeal (which is a seriously flawed aspect of the immigration laws!)

The appeal is denied, at the last minute, with Janina and Brian’s luggage packed and ready to go. In order to finance the legal processes and support Janina, Tony puts their house up for short sale. By the end of the film, Tony has spent over $90,000 on legal fees, travel to Poland, and supporting both households.

For Tony, Janina, and Brian there is a bittersweet, happy ending. Because of Tony’s ill health and that of his father, a hardship visa is finally approved–though undoubtedly the media attention, including this film which was finished before the Janina was granted permission to return helped, (Leitman has  updated Tony and Janina’s American Wedding, A Deportation Love Story with an epilogue) .

Tony and Janina’s American Wedding, A Deportation Love Story shows  immigrants creating the American Dream–starting businesses which employ people, buying homes, raising families, flying the flag and loving this country; yet despite this, these hardworking patriots who are undocumented face the destruction of their lives because of current immigration policies.