June 3, 2007
By HELEN UBINAS, Courant Staff Writer
He was a good man, that's all Darla Zumbuli considered when she married her husband Eduart in 2001.
A hard worker with solid dreams about starting a family, owning a home and eventually, his own restaurant.
Sure, she worried when the handsome cook told her he was still getting his immigration papers in order when he came to the U.S. from Albania in 1996. But a decade later, she thought surely they'd be OK. She was an American citizen. They had two American-born children: 4-year-old Edi, his father's namesake, and 18-month-old Engli.
And, she recalled thinking as we waited outside a lawyer's office recently, "America wouldn't split a family apart."
Actually, it would. And with estimates that 3 million American-born children have at least one parent who is an illegal immigrant, stories like Zumbuli's are becoming heartbreakingly common.
For an hour, the immigration lawyer tried to tell Zumbuli just that. He tried even harder to convince her that she'd already done all she could about her husband's deportation.
All you can do now is wait, he said.
No, Zumbuli said, there has to be something more. Edi tried to do the right thing, she explained. When he left Albania, the country was mired in political turmoil and violence. The first thing he did was apply for asylum. And yes - legally - he should have returned when his request was denied. But there was nothing for him to go back to, she said.
He was a young man who only wanted to work, who scrimped and saved nearly every cent from the two and three jobs he juggled since coming to the U.S. Just three weeks before federal agents picked him up, Edi had realized his dream of opening a pizza shop in Glastonbury.
So how, Zumbuli wanted to know, could anyone deny a man like him an opportunity, a life that included an American wife, two young boys who still don't understand why Daddy disappeared overnight and a stepdaughter whose college education he'd been paying for.
The heated immigration debate with all its rhetoric about crime and terror doesn't consider realities like this, does it?
The lawyer didn't have an answer; at least not one Zumbuli would accept. And the truth was, she told me later, that he didn't say anything she hadn't already heard from countless other advocates, public officials and lawyers.
Was she hoping for a better answer, I asked.
No, she said, a smarter lawyer.
But then, there's very little that's smart about immigration laws that - in the name of national stability - tear parents from their children. The 250,000 immigrants agents are on pace to deport this year will dwarf last year's numbers - thanks in large part to an operation contemptuously named "Return to Sender."
And that commonly held belief that marrying a U.S. citizen means you're safe? Think again. Changes in immigration laws have made this path increasingly difficult, even more so when a spouse enters the country illegally.
Just consider the South Carolina minister whose wife, an undocumented immigrant from Honduras, was deported and told she would have to wait 10 years to apply for residency again. He eventually joined her in Honduras.
And the mother in Miami who in the middle of the night was dragged from her bed, her American husband and their 4-year-old son and sent back to Haiti.
And the Zumbulis of Glastonbury.
Darla Zumbuli had just returned from lunch Jan. 30 when her boss told her there were two immigration agents waiting to speak to her about Edi.
We can send them away, Darla recalls someone suggesting.
Instead, Darla called Edi at the restaurant.
"Oh, what did you do?" he teased.
It never occurred to her to lie, she said, because she knew Edi wouldn't have wanted her to.
When she brought the agents to the restaurant, Edi was waiting with his coat on.
"I never hid," Edi said when he spoke to me from Albania. Everything was always in his name, he said; the bills, the lease for the family's home, the restaurant where until recently Darla Zumbuli had placed a "Closed for Renovations" sign. Wishful thinking, she recently told me, that they'd miraculously be allowed to resume the life that was so suddenly interrupted.
A couple of weeks ago, Darla visited Edi in Albania. It probably wasn't the financially soundest decision. Lawyers advised her that even if Edi cleared all the hurdles to return to the U.S., she'd have to show sufficient income to support him. With a modest paying job at an insurance company, that's going to be a challenge. The family will likely need a sponsor.
Zumbuli said she had hoped officials at the embassy in Albania might offer more options for getting Edi back home sooner; they didn't. But, she told me Friday, it was wonderful to see him, to feel a connection other than the daily, long-distance calls that only seem to confuse the children.
Lately, 4-year-old Edi has taken to sleeping on the living room couch. He's waiting for Daddy, he tells Zumbuli when she tries to coax him upstairs.
She gently reminds him that Daddy won't be coming home for a while, and then carries him to bed after he falls asleep.
And she tells herself that if only she pushes harder, maybe one night her son will wake up to see his father has returned.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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