Family torn by immigration laws
by By Deborah Young
Sunday March 23, 2008, 7:16 AM
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- Indika Senanayaka was alone with his infant sonBrian in his Concord townhouse -- as he is most nights -- when he gotthe call from Sri Lanka during the pre-dawn hours Wednesday.His sister's application to visit was denied for a second time by theU.S. Embassy in Colombo.The decision by the American official, apparently rendered after avery brief interview, means the only family Senanayaka has in thiscountry can fit in the crook of his elbow, searches for him when hegets hungry, and has a shock of straight black hair just like his mother. Senanayaka's wife, Tai Ling Feng, 36, a Taiwan-born American citizen,died of mysterious liver failure two and a half weeks after giving birth."I'm by myself at night time and I think about her. We did everythingtogether; every single thing," Senanayaka, 34, said, recounting theirfirst smiles at each other when she walked into the restaurant wherehe works, and detailing the sweet path of their uniquely American lovestory. His words briefly lifted the grief from his face until hereached the part about the final days with her, dying, in the hospitalbed.For now, while Senanayaka is at work managing two Subway stores inEltingville and West Brighton, an extended family of friends,co-workers and in-laws helps care for Brian -- something he had hopedhis sister could do before embassy officials rebuffed her, claimingshe might never return to her poor, war-torn country in the Indian Ocean."Last night, I was thinking I don't know what to do. My mother wascrying, saying I should go back," Senanayaka said in a quiet voice ashe played with the two wedding rings on his finger, his and hiswife's. "This is my country. I have friends here; I work; I pay taxes;I bought a house. I came here with nothing and I can be an example topeople. I am not getting angry, it's a decision I have to make."Thousands of Staten Island immigrants make such wrenching choices,weighing the intensity of the connection they feel with their adoptedcountry against the love and comforts of family they left behind.And many of them, frustrated and dispirited over ever-changingimmigration regulations, appeal to congressional representatives for help.More than 1,000 requests for immigration assistance a year come to theoffice Rep. Vito Fossella (R-Staten Island Brooklyn), which has afull-time liaison dedicated to shepherding people through the process,according to his staff.On file are hundreds of pleas from Islanders wondering if they willever have the legal right to leave and return to this country -- anadopted homeland which has also become something of a cage for them,keeping them from seeing aging mothers, fathers and other familymembers in their homelands.And there are baffling predicaments: Take the Albanian family arrestedand jailed on immigration charges last month. Their 24-year-old,Americanized daughter now faces deportation to a place where she isnot literate in the language and which she not seen since she was atoddler.In the case of Senanayaka, some longtime customers, who had grown toadmire the calm and charming store manager, were shaken by his tragedyand connected him with Fossella."We did get involved; we argued this is an extreme case. Thecircumstances are so unique and tragic," Fossella said.After Senanayaka's sister was first denied a visitor's visa,Fossella's office contacted the embassy in Colombo, urging them toreschedule the interview. He wrote a letter she used as part of herfailed appeal.The denial demonstrates the limit of his sway, Fossella said: "Wecan't wave a wand and makes things happen."A consular official with the State Department could not comment on thespecifics of the case, but said applicants for visits must prove theywill return home by showing strong work and family ties in their homecountry. Requests "are adjudicated on the merits that the applicantbrings to the interview table," he said."She's still crying," Senanayaka said about his sister, Nandee, whomhe said was crisply informed during her 5-minute interview that theydidn't believe she intended to return to Sri Lanka. "She feels so bad."There is one final chance for Nandee to beseech the Americangovernment to allow her to come here, help tend to her newborn nephewand offer some measure of consolation to her grieving brother:Humanitarian parole.Senanayaka said he has contacted his attorney to help him understandthe paperwork."It's an extraordinary measure that is sparingly used ona case-by-case basis for urgent humanitarian needs, a compellingemergency or significant public benefit," said Shawn Saucier, aspokesman for the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.Roughly 1,500 people annually apply for this exception. If it isgranted, the length of stay varies with the circumstances, andvisitors are always expected to return home, he said."If he does apply, we will continue to do what we can," said Fossella."Who can plan for a woman to give birth and die within a couple ofweeks? I think these are extenuating circumstances."Deborah Young is a news reporter for the Advance. She may be reachedat young@....Â© 2008 Staten Island Live LLC.