Polish Family Faces Heartbreak, Immigration
Tell Me More continues its series "In Limbo," which focuses on the complicated experiences of immigrants caught between being in the United States legally and illegally, with the struggles of a Polish-American family.
In 1989, Tony Wasilewski legally arrived in the United States on a work visa. His future wife, Janina, legally came on a travel visa and sought political asylum from then communist Poland.
They met in 1991 in Chicago. The couple fell in love, got married, and then bought a house in 1993. They started their own business, and Janina later gave birth to their son Brian.
But in 1995, Janina was denied asylum. She signed a document voluntarily leaving the U.S. But she did not fully understand what she was signing, and a translator was not present. A final deportation notice arrived in 2007 — the same year Tony was sworn in as a naturalized U.S. citizen. Janina left the U.S., taking Brian, an American citizen, with her. She and Tony told Brian that he was just going on a vacation.
Janina was barred from returning to the United States for a decade.
The couple's odyssey was captured in Ruth Leitman's film Toni and Janina's American Wedding.
In an interview with Tell Me More host Michel Martin, Leitman said, "I met Tony and Janina on the worst day of their life. I met them within hours of when Janina found out that she was to leave the country. She needed to leave within 48 hours. I was struck by their situation as a wife, as a mother. And really, I wanted to show this film and de-mystify what America thinks of when they think of 'undocumented' in our country."
She noted that Tony and Janina's story removed race from the immigration issue, particularly as their experiences reflect those of other undocumented individuals.
Leitman said that while Tony was separated from his wife and son he began drinking and struggled to retain his business and house. He continued sleeping on the couch for years because he could not bear to step into the bedroom he shared with Janina, which became a "shrine to the missing," said Leitman.
For Brian, his anger manifested into outbursts at school.
"I think Brian wasn't happy because he was out from his own home, and also, he can't see his father every day," said Janina. "I think he has so many problems — he can't even talk about them because he just was six years old."
Janina said her toughest challenge was dealing with suspicious friends and neighbors who wondered what she possibly did to have been deported.
But things eventually turned around. Janina's 10-year ban from the United States was lifted. She and Brian returned to America on Aug. 8, 2011.
"That was a happy day. I just was thinking, 'Ok, I can come to my home again,'" she said.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.