Wednesday, January 21, 2004

By the Rules

Given the way our immigration system works, it is impossible to be 100% certain that you are indeed following the rules. I've had friends who were literally told two completely opposite things by different immigration officials about what they were supposed to do. I've known people whose US employers also gave them false information about their obligations which could have been catastrophic had the advice been followed. And, these days, any screwup can get you whisked out of the country. Note that this isn't just about the rights of foreigners to not have to deal with Calvinball justice - it's also about citizens' rights to marry whoever the hell they want to.

A German woman married to a Brooklyn schoolteacher had been told that she had all her papers in order when she took a quick trip to show off her infant daughter to her parents in Germany.

But her return home in late December turned surreal and terrifying when Homeland Security officials at Kennedy Airport rejected her travel documents, confiscated her passport, then detained her and the 3-month-old overnight in a room with shackled drug suspects. They let her go only after ordering her to leave the country no later than tomorrow.

After a month of desperate efforts by her American husband, their lawyers and legislators, late yesterday a spokeswoman for the Homeland Security Department said that the woman, Antje Croton, 36, would be granted a last-minute reprieve. But Mrs. Croton said she had received no written notification. "I'm in a nightmare," she said as she packed yesterday afternoon, having abandoned hope of straightening out the problem. "I feel like I'm in the wrong movie."


Mrs. Croton has lived in Park Slope for five years, and her application for a green card has been pending for nearly two. When her sister urged her to visit Germany, she wanted to take no chances. So in October, she said, she asked immigration officials at 26 Federal Plaza about getting a new travel permit.

According to her account, an immigration official, C. E. Herndandez, insisted that her old permit was still valid, though it had a July expiration date, because it bore a stamp saying "April 2004." Reassured, Mrs. Croton departed on Dec. 9. "I did everything by the rules," Mrs. Croton said.

But on Dec. 22, when she returned to Kennedy Airport at 9 p.m., exhausted after a 10-hour trip alone with her baby daughter, Clara, front-line border security officers barred her way. They said the immigration official had been wrong: the July 2003 expiration, not the April 2004 stamp, applied, and she could not enter the United States.

They interrogated her until 2 a.m., she said, as she wept, tried to nurse her baby and pleaded with officials to call her husband, who was waiting without word in the terminal.