His name was John Lincoln. He chose it because it was very American, he said. He was a Romanian immigrant, originally Stefan Andreescu. He came to the US as a student to study English at a community college in Seattle in the early 1990’s, and before his visa expired, he married a US citizen, a woman more than 20 years his senior. She was one of the volunteer tutors at the college, recently divorced. John moved into her big house in a neighborhood of broad lawns and quiet streets and took a job delivering pizzas until, he said, his English improved and he could get an associate’s degree in computer networking. But he didn’t get the chance.
Four months after the wedding, before he could have his permanent resident interview, his new wife threw him out of the house and out of the marriage. She got a divorce and wrote to Immigration to withdraw her immigrant petition for him. With the petition withdrawn, the Immigration Service placed him in deportation proceedings. That is how I came to know John. I was working as an attorney at a downtown immigration firm in the late 1990’s, and John’s case was assigned to me. I had my first meeting with him to assess the kind of relief available to him, if any. The US immigration system is based primarily on family or work, and asylum. When one is in deportation proceedings in immigration court, one must usually prove that one merits legal status, and that a family or work visa is available. John did not have any US citizen or legal resident family, or an employer able or willing to petition for him. What he did have was the absolutely unshakable desire to stay in the US. There is no way I’m going back he said, not even if I’m deported.
So I began to examine him for a possible asylum claim, based on a fear of persecution by the government of Romania if he returned. The fear, to qualify for asylum, could also be of a group the government could not or would not control. John would have to have suffered this persecution because of his race, nationality, social group, religion, or political opinion. I had been practicing asylum law for more than 15 years by the time I interviewed John, but no matter how I framed the questions, he steadfastly refused to give me any information about his life there.
“I had parents like everyone does, I went to school, I left, that’s all,” he said. We were stuck. I would have to refuse representation. He would be better off going to court alone than paying a lawyer who could learn nothing to help him. We sat in silence for a while; John stared at his feet and I looked at his bowed head. He was still in his twenties but he looked much older. His hair was thin and dull and he already had a bald spot. His skin was pasty, and his narrow shoulders and hunching made him look like a great blue heron tucking its head under its wing.
I asked John what it was about the US that made him want to stay here. His head snapped up, and he nearly shouted, “Freedom, freedom!” He told me that in the US he could go wherever he wanted, live where he wanted, get work where he wanted, have the house he wanted, study if he wanted to, or not. Back in Romania, could he do the same? I asked. “Never, never, never,” he shouted.
And then, rushing as if he were running away from his own past, he began to tell me his story. His mother died when he was five, and his helpless father gave him and his younger sister to a great aunt to rear. His great aunt died when he was six, his father couldn’t be found, and he and his sister were sent to separate orphanages. When John was twelve, after repeated attempts to run away, he was committed to an insane asylum. I would only get the story from John in the weeks that followed; it was so painful for him to tell it that he cried, sweated, writhed in his chair, and pounded my desk as he spoke. He could only talk for a half hour or less at a time, before both of us were exhausted. I wrote his story taking close notes. We would need every detail for the asylum hearing.
John had been committed at the age of twelve to one of the Soviet Empire’s most notorious experimental insane asylums. He had suffered years of solitary confinement, shock therapy, strait jacketing, chaining, and drug “therapy,” all for his mental illness of running away. He was completely unable to communicate with anyone outside the asylum. At seventeen in 1989, he succeeded in running away for good, with the help of a sympathetic kitchen worker in the asylum, who hid him in her Pentecostal pastor’s house for a few months. The entire country was convulsing in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1989. The Romanian dictator was executed by his own people, and the notorious asylums, the torturous prisons, the entire secret police structure which reached into the lives of nearly everyone in the country, were deserted by their staff when the government no longer paid them.
In the chaos, the pastor and his congregation managed to get John a passport and visa to Spain, and paid for his flight. John had no idea until years later who had done this for him, nor how hard it must have been for the church to pull off, and for him, a friendless stranger. At the time, he didn’t even know he was on a plane or what a plane was until he saw the ground fall away under him. He didn’t know he was arriving in Spain until he got there, and then spent weeks thinking he was in a part of Romania that had a different accent to the language (Romanian is a romance language with marked similarity to Spanish), and was much warmer.
He was assigned to a refugee camp on the outskirts of Valencia, and began to go to school. He was an apt pupil, and learned Spanish in a few weeks. He then taught himself, with the help of a passionate set of camp schoolteachers, an astonishing array of subjects: arithmetic and then algebra and trigonometry; English; geography; European and American history; and the new information technology skills. He was fascinated by what he learned of the US, particularly of its personal freedom, and determined that he’d get a student visa to go there. After two years, he succeeded in getting the visa to the Seattle community college.
I drafted John’s affidavit for his asylum claim, based on the persecution he had suffered in Romania by the Romanian government. We had expert testimony in his case from a US political science professor who specialized in Romania during the Dictator Ceausescu’s reign. We included testimony from a Seattle psychotherapist who corroborated John’s story of mental abuse, based on his current symptoms of fear and post-traumatic stress. We won the case, in large part because John’s story of the abuse he had suffered was detailed and consistent.
Bringing up all the torture was to relive it again, for John. After his win, and his grant of permanent residence in the US, he went into a deep depression and lost his pizza delivery job. I lost touch with him for years, until he contacted me in 2010. He called and said, “Hello, this is John Lincoln. Do you remember me?” Of course I did; no one else with a Romanian accent had a name like that. He told me that he had indeed gone to school and gotten a network administrator diploma, and then a job. He was married, and had two children and a house in Bothell. He had become a US citizen, and petitioned for his sister’s residence in the US as soon as he could, his sister from whom he had been separated at age six. He wanted help with the legal procedure to bring her and her husband and children to the US.
When I saw John again, he looked younger than he had 10 years before, and his wife and children seemed happy, and happy to be with him. I asked him if America had been for him what he wanted, all those years ago in the refugee camp in Spain when he dreamed of freedom. He was unhesitating. “Yes. But it’s more complicated than I could have known. It took me a long time and a lot of suffering to build a life here, despite or maybe because of all the freedom.”