Mateo Kraja was repairing a house June 2 when he received a frantic phone call from his Madison Heights home. Police had arrived, his mother-in-law said. Kraja sped home. The men were not police, but immigration agents there to enforce a deportation order. They arrested Kraja immediately.
BY TAMARA AUDI - Detroit Free Press - FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
Now Kraja, 45, who has spent seven years seeking political asylum from his native Albania, sits in the Calhoun County jail in Battle Creek, part of the latest federal roundups of thousands of illegal immigrants across the country.
This month, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced it had picked up more than 2,000 immigrants nationwide for deportation. In one four-day sweep in Detroit in late May and early June, 63 immigrants were rounded up, including Kraja and 24 other Albanians.
As the nation grapples with immigration reform, Kraja's arrest after an exhausting journey through the U.S. immigration system reveals a complex, often subjective process. It also underscores the difficulty in reforming a system that has presided over an influx of 1.3 million legal and illegal immigrants a year since the early 1990s, and labored for decades under backlogs and politics.
It's a system that frequently awards residency to some members of a family, while denying it to others. Kraja's parents, in-laws, sister, nephew and brother-in-law -- anti-Communists who fled the same Albanian town -- were awarded residency in the United States. Kraja, his wife and son were not.
Federal officials have called men like Kraja fugitives, and they touted the arrests as a sweep of dangerous criminals who have hidden from U.S. authorities. They promise more arrests to come.
"We're dealing with lawbreakers," said Robin Baker, the head of detention and removal for U.S. Immigration and Customs in Detroit. "Unless you're a U.S. citizen, or have permission to be here, you're in violation of the law."
But many of the immigrants caught up in the sweeps, like Kraja, have no criminal records and were not only readily available to immigration officials, but have repeatedly sought their help. Many had been living at the same address for years. Kraja, for instance, owned his own business and a home and paid taxes.
His is an American story that begins in an ancient, volatile city in northern Albania.
History of struggle
The people of Shkoder (pronounced sko-dra) seemed always to be fighting. In the 11th Century, against the Serbs. In the 15th Century, against the Ottomans. In World War I, it was the Montenegrins. In World War II, the Italians.
In the early '90s, it was the Communists.
Those known as pro-democracy agitators were imprisoned and harassed, according to Amnesty International.
They included Mateo Kraja's sister, Huana Kurti, who said she was at risk after she became involved in organizing pro-democracy rallies.
"It got to the point that I never went anywhere alone," she said. "If I was grabbed and disappeared off the street, I wanted someone to tell my family, 'They got Huana.' "
Finally in 1991, Kurti and her husband fled to Italy. The couple made it to the U.S. Embassy in Rome where they immediately sought, and received, asylum in the United States.
They moved to Michigan and started over. But Huana worried about her brother Mateo and his family, still in Albania. During 1997 riots in the fledgling democracy, her brother was marked as a U.S. spy by some holdover communists in the government because of his work with the Peace Corps, Kurti said.
"We were afraid for our lives," said his wife, Lira, who said the family was repeatedly harassed during the conflict.
So Mateo Kraja, an engineer, sent his wife and young son to the United States on a visitor's visa to stay with his sister.
As the country became more chaotic, his family said, Kraja could not get a visa for himself. In 1999, he paid smugglers to sneak him out of Albania. He entered Detroit from Windsor with a fake passport in 1999.
Within a month, he and his family applied for political asylum in the United States, citing his membership in the Albanian Democratic party and the political turmoil in his homeland, his wife and sister said.
Making a case for political asylum is often difficult. A person has to prove a well-grounded fear that he or she will be tortured or killed if returned to his or her homeland because of race, religion or political or social memberships. It's not enough for an applicant to say he or she will be treated as a pariah; real physical danger must be shown.
While the asylum officers follow guidelines, they also enjoy considerable discretion to decide individual cases.
Immigration officials say the task of sifting through the claims of asylum seekers can be daunting. Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, many have felt tremendous pressure to err on the side of caution, officials have said in dozens of interviews.
Even immigration advocates concede tall tales are not unusual, with many immigrants working the system through manipulation or lies.
But Kraja's family, along with dozens of supporters -- including Peace Corps colleagues from Albania -- attest to Kraja's honesty in letters and interviews, and believe his stoic nature worked against him.
On the way to his first interview with an asylum officer in Chicago in 1999, Kurti was worried. She said her brother had a strong case. But Kraja was quiet. She knew his best shot at asylum was to convey his fear.
But her brother, she said, was too nervous.
"Immigration is a different world," said Aleksander Kurti, her husband. "People are so scared just talking to the clerk. You know that everyone in that immigration building has your life in their hands. For them, it is just a job, just another case. But for you, it's your life."
In the past year, a number of immigration judges around the country have been rebuked by federal courts for their handling of asylum cases -- the complaints have ranged from incoherent decision-making to rudeness to asylum seekers.
U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, meanwhile, is conducting a nationwide review of immigration judges, after criticism of their conduct and decisions in asylum cases.
"You have different judges and different attorneys presenting the cases and you have different district counsel" arguing for the government, said Marisa Petrella, an immigration lawyer in Southfield. Some federal lawyers "are more aggressive than others. Asylum is a highly subjective type of evaluation."
After filing for asylum, Kraja and his wife, Lira, applied for Social Security numbers and work permits. The asylum officer, though, eventually denied Kraja's family asylum, ruling that Mateo Kraja failed to prove that he would be harmed if he returned to Albania.
Kraja appealed to a federal immigration judge in Detroit.
Asylum cases often wend their way through immigration court for years. In 2003, for example, Detroit judges spent an average of 814 days -- 2 1/2 years -- to decide a case.
In 2001, the immigration court denied Kraja's appeal, agreeing that he failed to prove he was eligible for asylum.
Kraja appealed again, this time to the Board of Immigration Appeals in Leesburg, Va. That board upheld the court's decision. The family then went to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.
Meanwhile, Kraja started a home-repair business. The couple now had a toddler, Kris, their Albanian-born son, Zef, and a bungalow in Madison Heights. Zef joined the Waza soccer league. Kris took ballet lessons at Juliana's Academy of Dancing in Royal Oak.
In November 2004, the 6th Circuit rejected their appeal.
By then, Kraja seemingly had one last hope. His sister had sought a visa that would allow her to sponsor him as a resident. According to federal records, the sister's application was approved in June 2002.
But the immigration office responsible for actually issuing Kraja's visa, the California Service Center, is just now processing sibling visas approved in 2001. Without a visa in hand, it is of no legal use to Kraja and his family.
Now the Krajas are in disarray. Kris, the Krajas' 6-year-old daughter born in Michigan, is a U.S. citizen and can stay. But her family will not separate, her mother said.
Kraja's friends and neighbors have flooded the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees immigration, with supportive letters, arguing Kraja is precisely the sort of immigrant who should be allowed to benefit from amnesty legislation, if it were to pass.
But one letter, signed by the pastor of Our Lady of Albanians in Beverly Hills, made the plea most simply: "I ask that you see with your heart, and in this case, let Mateo stay."
A bit about Albania
The Albanian community in Detroit started small, with ethnic Albanians initially arriving in Detroit from Montenegro in the 1950s and 1960s to work in auto factories. The population grew in the 1990s, with nearly a decade of political and ethnic warring in the Balkans.
Albanian elections in 1991 left the former communists in power, but unrest led to the formation of a coalition cabinet that included non-communists. But the late 1990s marked a highly volatile time of riots, killings, torture and detentions, according to Amnesty International.
In 1997, the country plunged into economic crisis from the collapse of fraudulent investment schemes. Socialists were elected to power and violence consumed the country. According to Amnesty International, 1,600 Albanians were killed in 1997 alone.
The 2000 U.S. Census estimated more than 15,000 Albanians live in Michigan, and more than 100,000 nationwide.
The Albanian American Civic League, a national lobbying group, claims a higher Albanian presence: roughly 75,000 Albanians in Michigan and more than 700,000 nationwide.
IMPACT ON INDUSTRY: 'Michigan is being hurt'
Detroit factory boss angry over loss of best worker
Alfred Lacinaj of Utica was the kind of employee who, during breaks, would walk through Matt Seely's hot, greasy Detroit factory floor and look for ways to make the machines run more efficiently.
"He'd come back with a whole list of things we could do better -- repair this light, fix this machine," said Seely, the owner of Quality Bending & Threading, a small factory that for 46 years has produced specialized steel parts for industries such as construction and equipment manufacturers.
"He was my best employee," Seely said, "and my friend."
Over the 12 years that Lacinaj, a soft-spoken Albanian, worked for Seely, the men became close. Seely attended Lacinaj's wedding. And when Lacinaj told his boss he was having problems with immigration, Seely found him a new lawyer, testified at his immigration hearings and paid some of his legal fees.
"It's hard to find people who can do this, who want to do it, and who know how to do it," said Seely of his five-man factory.
The day after Memorial Day, Lacinaj was leaning into 1,200 degrees of steel-bending fire, shaping one-inch-thick metal pins into parts for U.S. military vehicles, when two men came for him.
Seely's best employee was led out in handcuffs.
His 12-year quest for political asylum had bounced endlessly through the court system, with one Detroit judge finding he lacked credibility because he had claimed he was from Yugoslavia, not Albania, when he first arrived in the United States.
Lacinaj said the deception was the work of his first immigration lawyer, an explanation rejected by the judge. However, an immigration appeals court later concluded Lacinaj did not knowingly lie -- yet, for reasons that remain unclear, the court did not rule on his deportation.
Along the way, even Lacinaj's good fortune turned cruel. According to his current lawyer, Lacinaj once was granted permanent residency through a lottery system, but then was forbidden to accept his new status because he was already fighting deportation in the courts.
By 2005, Lacinaj had lost every immigration appeal, and had pinned his hopes on the government to offer amnesty to some immigrants.
"He had a child, he had no criminal record. He was so hard working. He was exactly the kind of immigrant you'd want here," Seely said.
Dan Kane, spokesman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services bureau, said the agency does comment on individual cases, but noted, "everybody has their day in court."
Seely notes that Lacinaj had a valid Social Security number when he hired him, and paid taxes. According to Lacinaj's tax forms, he earned $34,800 last year, and paid $6,468.43 in taxes, Social Security and Medicare.
"I'm being hurt by his deportation," Seely said. "Detroit is being hurt by his deportation, his family is being hurt by his deportation and Michigan is being hurt by his deportation.
"Who wins here?"
Now, Lacinaj waits in Calhoun County jail in Battle Creek to be deported, and Seely is scrambling to find a replacement with his skills. Lacinaj's Albanian wife and U.S.-born, 5-year-old son have fled the state, fearing they, too, will be taken away.
"I have been trying to do the right thing," said Lacinaj, struggling to steady his voice from behind a wall of glass in jail. "I don't belong here."
Even if he is sent to Albania, part of him will remain firmly in Detroit: The steel rods stabilizing the Detroit River Walk seawall were made by Lacinaj.
ACL - 25 June 2005