Tony and Janina Wasilewski were like many other newlywed couples. After a big wedding surrounded by their friends and extended family, they shifted their focus to building a life together, and eventually they had a son, Brian. They lived in suburban Chicago, where they were active members of their Catholic parish. And, like many immigrants to the United States, they were hardworking and entrepreneurial: they ran a business, bought a house, and felt they were on their way to the “American dream.”
And then, one day, they weren’t. Janina had been living as an undocumented immigrant, and the Department of Homeland Security determined that she should be deported. To avoid a formal deportation, Janina agreed to buy her own ticket back to Poland, a country she had not seen in eighteen years. The couple decided that six-year old son Brian, though born in the US and thus a US citizen, would accompany his mom.
Tony and Janina’s story is documented in a new documentary called Tony & Janina’s American Wedding, directed by Ruth Leitman. Like any number of films about the immigration issue—whether documentaries like this or Crossing Arizona or fictional but all-too-realistic films like The Visitor—I found myself recommending the film enthusiastically as an educational tool, though it could hardly be classified as a popcorn movie and would make for a rather depressing date night. Films about contemporary immigration to the US, at least if they’re realistic, seldom have happy endings. With my background as a legal counselor, watching a film like Tony & Janina’s American Wedding feels a lot like a very bad day at work. Don’t watch it expecting My Big Fat Greek Wedding with a Polish twist.
I’ve met Tony Wasilewski in the years since his wife returned to Poland, and the film does an impressive job of capturing his story. Rather than embellishing the truth or turning Tony into some sort of a saint, the film tackles head on the darkness that is too often associated with families split up by deportation: Tony starts drinking too much, he is depressed and even suicidal, and the cheery patriotism he expresses at the beginning of film turns to resentment and frustration with his adopted country. Across the Atlantic, Janina struggles as Brian grows up without his father and begins to act out. They love one another, still, but the film doesn’t candy-coat the strain on their marriage.
Janina’s undocumented status, like many others in that situation, came about even after she tried to do everything right and lawfully. She came from Poland during the Cold War, fleeing persecution on account of her involvement with the Solidarity movement that eventually helped to topple Soviet rule. She pled asylum, and went about re-building a life in the U.S. while the case was pending. She met Tony, who was also originally from Poland but who was present lawfully in the U.S., and they married. Communism fell in Poland, as in much of Eastern Europe, and the couple celebrated, but their life—their home, their business, their son—was American now. The long-pending asylum claim, though, stuck in bureaucratic backlogs for years, was eventually denied, on the grounds that Janina would no longer be unsafe in Poland. Janina did not understand what happened in court—her English was still limited, and there was not a translator—and she did not return to Poland as she should have done after the asylum denial.
A decade later, the government caught up with her and informed Janina that she would have to return to Poland. By doing so, though, she triggered a ten-year bar to being allowed to re-enter the U.S. That bar might theoretically be waived based on her marriage to Tony, who was eligible to naturalize shortly after Janina’s deportation, but only if they could convince an immigration officer that her absence from the U.S. would cause “extreme hardship” to her U.S. citizen spouse (hardship on her or their U.S. citizen son are not relevant under the law). Unfortunately, the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services office with jurisdiction over Poland, located in Vienna, Austria, notoriously holds “extreme hardship” to an extreme high standard. Despite presenting a great deal of evidence with the help of a capable (and not inexpensive) attorney, the waiver request was denied. Janina remains in Poland.
Janina’s situation is not particularly unique, but it is unique to have a camera following her husband for several years and documenting the impact of deportation on a family. The film is a good reminder to the many who associate “undocumented immigrants” with “Mexicans” that this issue is much larger than one country or even one ethnicity. There are more Poles in Chicago than in any city in the world other than Warsaw, and a great many of them are undocumented, as are millions of others from Europe, Asia, and Africa. People are often surprised to learn that about one is six Polish immigrants in the U.S. is undocumented, as are one in five Korean immigrants, one in six Filipino immigrants, and one in eight Indian immigrants. Like Janina, many of them entered lawfully and tried to do everything right under the law. The immigration system is not forgiving.
Tony & Janina’s American Wedding is available on DVD and could serve an excellent conversation starter for those trying to engage their friends and family in a conversation about immigration. While it includes some profanity that might make some churches wary to show the film in a formal setting, it serves as an excellent conversation starter for Christ-followers wrestling with how to engage this complex issue.