Tony and Janina’s American Wedding
A new documentary film examines U.S. immigration policy through one family’s fractured life
Published: June 22, 2011
Tony and Janina’s American Wedding
June 23 at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson at 7 p.m.
Visit creativealliance.org for more details.
Several years ago, filmmaker Ruth Leitman was hired to make a short film for the “Dreams Across America” campaign, an advocacy effort on the behalf of undocumented immigrants. The resulting short, made in just five days, chronicled the deportation of Janina Wasilewski, a wife, mother, and small-business owner who had lived in Chicago for 18 years. Wasilewski had come to the United States from Communist Poland in the late 1980s. She applied for political asylum, and subsequently met Tony Wasilewski, who was also from Poland but had come to the United States on a work visa. They were married. Then, in 1993, Janina was denied asylum on the grounds that Poland was no longer Communist. She was ordered to “voluntarily depart” but, according to the Wasilewskis, no translation services were provided at the hearing and she didn’t understand the implications of the order. The couple started their own cleaning business, bought a house in the suburbs, and had a child, meanwhile working with lawyers on Janina’s immigration status. But in 2007, a judge ruled that she be deported. That spring, she and the couple’s 6-year-old son Brian left for Poland, carrying only the 44 pounds of luggage they’d been allowed to take with them. Current law bars Janina Wasilewski from returning to this country for 10 years.
“After [the short film] was over and Janina was gone,” Leitman says, “I really felt compelled to stay with this story and follow it to some sort of conclusion.” And stay she did. For four years, Leitman and her husband and co-producer Steve Dixon followed Janina’s husband Tony as he grappled with the loss of his wife and young son, as he testified before Congress, marched on Washington, D.C., wrote letters, hired lawyers, and gave speech after heartbreaking speech.
At first, Leitman thought Tony and Janina’s American Wedding might have a happy ending. “I thought, Well, this is going to get worked out in a short period of time, maybe a year into it,” she says. But after many rounds of waivers, affidavits, and hearings, Janina was no closer to coming home. Leitman decided to wrap up her documentary and deliver it to the public as a call to action. “We’re on this really strong push right now,” she says. “We’re trying to have [the Wasilewskis] reunited within the next month.”
The Creative Alliance hosts a screening of Tony and Janina’s American Wedding, followed by a Q&A via Skype with Ruth Leitman, on June 23. City Paper spoke separately with Leitman and with Tony Wasilewski by phone. Wasilewski was preparing for his 15th trip to Poland in four years.
City Paper: Why did you agree to be in the movie? It includes some very intimate family moments, like when you and Janina say goodbye to one another.
Tony Wasilewski: I was very furious, angry, and disappointed about what happened with my wife. She was here 18 years. We paid the taxes, we had the American dream, we had a house, we had a son. And we just worked very hard in our small business, working sometimes 12 hours, 13 hours a day. I am very proud to be American. Even now, the people they tell me, “You like America?” I say, “Yes, I love America. This is my country.” I was born in Poland but I am American. . . . We think this is our country, we’re going to stay here forever. Brian was born here. His birthday is tomorrow, [June] 18. My birthday is [June] 13, his [June] 18, and [June] 23 is my wife.
CP: So you’ll be in Poland for Janina’s birthday?
TW: Yes, I will be there on [June] 23. I should go with my wife and my son and say, “Goodbye, America.” But I choose this country. The three things I want for my wife are dignity, honor, and justice. She feels really bad about this. We’ve been in an immigration court every year. We’re not hiding in a basement. They know where we are. . . . She’s not a criminal! Not even parking tickets.
CP: Do you ever think about moving back to Poland?
TW: You know what? It’s four years now. I’ve got six more years. I love my wife. I promised her I would bring her here. That’s my goal. It’s very important to me. Number one, it’s my family. Number two, it’s other families. We have to change the immigration law. Just thinking about the children, like my son. If the children are born here and immigration deports the parents, father or mother, what do you think happens to the kids? Are they going to be good citizens? Are they going to love this country? I stayed here for three or four or five reasons. I have to take care of the business, the house, and I can send the money for my wife. Because we don’t have nothing in Poland. And in four years, I lost almost everything, what we built for 18 years. . . . I need, like, therapy now. I’m OK, but mentally and financially we are destroyed. We can work here, we can build our lives again. But four years. When I see my wife now sometimes I feel like, is this my wife or no? Right now in our country, the United States, we are talking about the immigration problem. And I don’t know why—I’m very curious why—people want to know more about the congressman from New York, Anthony.
CP: Anthony Weiner?
TW: Yes, Anthony Weiner. That’s what people like, these stupid things, really ugly. The congressman. Please! American people should start thinking about important things, families.
CP: Why did you choose to focus on this family rather than any of the others that have been separated by deportation?
Ruth Leitman: I wanted to focus on their story because I felt it exemplified what was broken about our system. I wanted to examine the adopted patriotism that they have for this country, which is a common thread among immigrants. I felt like their story could help so many other undocumented people who for the most part are not being heard. I think there’s a throughline in a lot of the work that I do. Often, and especially in this case, I think it’s important to use a less common example to really show the systemic problem.
CP: So that’s why you didn’t choose a Latino family, for instance.
RL: Right. . . . By telling the Wasilewskis’ story, you can look at the larger systemic problem that for the most part affects Latinos but also anyone who is living in this country undocumented who makes a mistake. I’m talking about [somebody who] makes a mistake on paperwork or overstays a visa. I think that many Americans don’t understand that if you make a mistake you cannot forge a legal path to citizenship. This is basically putting the human face [on the issue]. This is what really happened to one family. Imagine that multiplied by millions.
CP: One thing that makes the movie so compelling is the fact that the Wasilewskis have so many home movies from years past. [They shot them as visual postcards to send to family in Poland.] Did you know that would be the case going in?
RL: No, I didn’t. Tony had really archived all of these photographs and home movies. I wanted it to exemplify the fact that this was a family that had been living the American dream. Big-screen TV, nice house, vacations. I think it’s important for people who don’t agree that we need immigration reform—who think that the undocumented people in this country all came here because they were hiding, or jumping the fence, or drug smugglers, or whatever it is that the conservative media puts out there. I wanted them to look at them and say, “Wow, I know them. That’s the person who cleans my house, that carries the designer handbag because she’s done really well.” They had really embraced capitalism with gusto.
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