COVER- Ripped apart: How Homeland Security broke up this family
It was the moment Gennady and Melinda Denisenko had prayed would finally come. Nearly a decade after they met, and just weeks shy of their sixth wedding anniversary, Gennady, a man who had fled Soviet Russia to find the freedom for which he had advocated in his home country, and Melinda, a woman who had fallen in love with his big smile and gentle demeanor, were now sitting in the Fairfax office of a federal agency called Citizenship and Immigration Services, about to be legally recognized by the government as a married couple, paving the way for Gennady to at last realize his dream of becoming an American citizen.
At least, that's what they thought.
"Next thing we knew," says Melinda, "Two officers came through the door and put him in handcuffs, saying they had a final order of removal and that they were taking him into custody."
Melinda, already full of adrenaline from moments ago being so close to the dream, began "freaking out."
"I was holding on to his arm, saying, 'No, no, you can't do this,'" she says. "They literally ripped my husband out of my arms."
That was the last time Melinda saw Gennady. Now, nearly five months later, after years of making visits to D.C. to check up on his case, and filing all the paperwork the United States told him to file, Gennady sits in a holding facility in Texas, waiting to be deported "any day now," and the government won't tell his wife– or anyone else– why it won't grant him asylum.
Coming to America
In his previous life in his native Russia, Gennady Denisenko was an assistant district attorney based in Krasnodar, a bustling Black Sea port city of nearly 650,000. Soft-spoken by nature, Gennady Denisenko did not have the appearance of a political radical. But, behind the scenes, Gennady was an enemy of the Soviet state.
"He wrote several promotional materials advocating for increased democratization in Russia, and the overthrow of communism," says his attorney Mark Urbanski. "That was more than enough. The Soviets would imprison people just for being intellectuals."
This, of course, was a dangerous thing to do at a time when the communist government could make people disappear.
Gennady managed to stay under the radar for many years, but finally, in 1983, he could hide no longer.
"They said he had taken a bribe," says Melinda. "But really they wanted to know about a client of one of his colleagues."
That client, she says, was Natan Sharansky, an outspoken dissenter against the Soviet government, who eventually became part of one of the most high-profile prisoner exchanges in Cold War history. After the 1986 exchange of Sharansky with West Germany for two spies, Sharansky became a prominent Israeli politician whose 2004 book The Case for Democracy, became such a presidential favorite that George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Gennady Denisenko, however, was not so influential. Instead, he was sent in 1983 to a Soviet gulag, thousands of miles from his home, in a remote region of Siberia.
"It's not like an American prison where there's at least an appearance of order," says Melinda. "He told me that they really just leave you there to fend for yourself, growing your own food, trying to stay alive."
After enduring countless interrogations by KGB officials and subzero temperatures in the winter, the Soviets released Gennady in 1988. However, his debt to his government was still not yet fully paid. He had to spy on Americans.
"Back then," Melinda explains, "if you were an American visiting Russia, the government would send someone to come and make friends with you so they could keep an eye on you. Gennady was one of those people."
Melinda says this was as much about the Soviet's controlling what information the Americans received as it was about collecting information for the Soviets.
"They had sense enough to know that people coming from America would want to talk to native Russians, so they didn't want just anybody talking to them," she says. "They had [Gennady] there to say what they told him to say and make sure that the Americans were there doing what they said they were doing."
This, Melinda says, is the extent of her husband's experience in espionage.
"He would never tell anyone anything that would put an American in harm's way," she says.
Besides, says Gennady's first wife, a Russian woman named Lena Day, who met Gennady in Russia shortly after his release from prison and divorced him in 1994, Gennady's heart was with the Americans all along.
"He loved western culture," says Day. "He loved the language, he loved the music, he loved the ideas. He still considered himself Russian, and he loved that culture, too. But the Soviets kept watching him because they didn't think you could admire the west without abandoning Russia."
So when an American family came from Krasnodar's sister city of Tallahassee, Florida, Gennady was sent to keep tabs on them. But over the course of several weeks, Gennady developed a close personal relationship with the family, mostly due to their shared Christian faith. By the time, they left for home, Gennady had made an appointment to come to America.
"Through the sister city program," Melinda says, "they were going to invite him to America for this cultural exchange."
So in 1991, just prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Denisenko stepped off a plane and into the United States for the first time. Initially, says Day, this was only supposed to be a visit.
"But the longer he stayed," she says, "the more he wanted to stay longer. He just loved it too much. So he told us he was going to defect and that me, our daughter, and my son from my previous marriage should all come and join him."
And so the family tried to start a new life in Pensacola, with Gennady teaching Russian at a local community college under a temporary work visa. Beginning with his defection in 1991, he began applying for political asylum for himself and his family. Already familiar with Soviet bureaucracy, Gennady was beginning to discover that American bureaucracy had its own problems, too.
"We kept applying, and checking, and re-filing, and re-sending," says Day. "It put so much stress on all of us."
In 1993, the federal government denied Gennady's initial request for asylum. His lawyer says this is due to the fact that the country from which he sought asylum didn't exist anymore.
"By then," Urbanski explains, "the Soviet Union had fallen, and this was the time of [first Russian president Boris] Yeltsin, so after they denied his claim, that discouraged him from pursuing it further."
Instead, he reached a deal with the Immigration and Naturalization Service to voluntarily return to Russia in 10 years.
Amid all this, Day says, she came to realize that if she and Gennady were going to realize the American dream, they weren't going to realize it together.
"We finally had to divorce," Day says. "The stress of it was just too much."
An American family
In 1999, Melinda was living with an increasingly common fact of life in America– single parenting.
"I was part of a large group of single parents at our church near Orlando," says Melinda. "My son Alex was five, and he wasn't feeling the wholeness of a family. So I united with this group that would go camping, go to each others' tee-ball games, just help each other out."
It was there, at a July 4 church picnic, that she met an economics and history teacher from a nearby school with a nine-year-old daughter of his own.
"He just had this smile and an enthusiasm with the kids regardless of the kind of day he was having," recalls Melinda. "You can't help but absorb that energy if you're around him."
As she got to know Gennady better, Melinda learned the incredible story that led him to America. As she was falling in love, she was dumbfounded that the U.S. government had repeatedly declined him the protection of political asylum.
Officially, the Citizenship and Immigration Services agency limits political asylum to the grounds of "race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion."
"All I can figure," says Melinda, "is that you have to be a refugee literally being chased down by your home country's government."
That wasn't happening. At least not officially.
Gennady was able to stay in the country legally through a series of applications for a temporary work visas, though the process changed each time he did.
"Sometimes he would get it for six months, sometimes for two years," says Melinda. "It all depended on which officer he was speaking to that time."
And sometimes, Melinda admits, there were times when Gennady's visa would run out before the government had processed his application for a new one.
"But they would still cash his checks," Melinda notes, "even if they weren't giving him an answer."
The couple believed the issue of political asylum became a non-issue in 2002, when, three years after they met, Gennady and Melinda were married in Florida. As the legally wedded spouse of an American citizen with a marriage license to prove it, Gennady Denisenko stood poised to finally get his green card and the chance to become an American citizen.
Immediately Melinda applied for the chance to sit with her new husband before a federal official for an interview to prove that they were indeed married, as required by federal immigration law.
More than six years later, the federal government has yet to get back to them about it.
In 2001, confident that his then impending marriage would finally remove the last roadblock to an American career, Gennady enrolled as a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Virginia's Slavic Languages and Literatures department. Soon after the wedding, Melinda joined him in Charlottesville, and both quickly became active in the community.
While he was working on his doctorate, Gennady paid the bills by working as the only Russian interpreter at UVA Hospital, a job for which the hospital had a desperate need.
"We got 2,000 Russian patients last year alone," says Sally LeBeau, who oversees the interpreter program at the hospital. "We had an incredible gap, and Gennady was the perfect person to fill it."
That's because the job entailed much more than just translation.
"Gennady is the one who would call patients ahead of time to make sure they had an appointment," says LeBeau. "He'd be the one to make sure they understood where they needed to go both over the phone and once they got here. And then once they're here, he'd be the one advocate those patients had in a place that can be very intimidating, even if you do speak the language."
It was through his work at the hospital, as well as his involvement as a congregation member at First Baptist Church, that he came to help with a very special group of Russian-speaking patients.
"A few years ago, we had some folks in our church bring over some children from Belarus, some of whom already needed treatment for exposure to radiation, living so close to Chernobyl," recalls First Baptist associate pastor, the Rev. David Johnson, recalling the horrific nuclear reactor meltdown that poisoned much of Belarus. "He jumped right in to teach a Sunday school class especially for them in Russian."
Speaking Russian wasn't the only thing Gennady could do.
"He plays guitar," says Melinda, "and when these kids were in the hospital, sick from all that radiation, he would play his guitar and sing to them in Russian. He could make them smile when that was a hard thing to do. They called him 'Uncle Ginna.'"
It was that kind of service that caused the congregation at First Baptist to take notice; they voted Gennady a deacon in 2004.
"These are the people who do hospital visitation, bereavement, visitation of the homebound, and outreach in general," says Johnson. "It's a big job, with as big of a congregation as we've got at First Baptist."
But like at the hospital, this was service Gennady would always render with a smile.
"He's got some very close relationships in the church," says Johnson. "He's really endeared himself to folks, because he's got such a desire to be a servant to people."
However, his faith would be tested by a series of events.
'We were so excited'
By 2004, federal immigration officials still wouldn't give Gennady and Melinda's marriage a yea or a nay.
"They would always try to say that we didn't send the right form when we knew we did," says Melinda. "Or if we did send the form, then we didn't send it to the right place, but sometimes all we had to do was get in front of some other official and ask them to look in the file when another wouldn't, and it would be right there."
Navigating the post-9/11 bureaucracy proved a near-constant occupation for Melinda, who was already working full-time as a receptionist at a Charlottesville law firm.
"Every few weeks," says Melinda, "we would both have to take time off of work to go to Washington and ask questions. When we got there, they were always the rudest, unhelpful people. It's as if it's their job to keep you from doing what you need to do to stay in this country."
The need for Gennady to resolve his immigration status became more pressing when in January 2004, Melinda became pregnant with their first child.
"We were so excited," recalls Melinda. "It's what we had always wanted."
Five months later, though, the immigration issue would have to take a backseat.
"One night I started hemorrhaging, and they rushed me to the hospital, and by about midnight I had miscarried," says Melinda. "Just a few hours earlier, you could hear the baby's heartbeat."
Doctors would later tell Melinda that the cause of her tragedy was not entirely physiological.
"They told me it was really the stress from all this paperwork, and rushing back and forth that did it," she says.
Given that explanation, Melinda says she and Gennady haven't tried to conceive since.
"The miscarriage almost killed me emotionally," she says. "If all this went away tomorrow, of course we'd try to have a baby. But we just couldn't risk going through it again."
Devastated as she and her husband were, Melinda says the experience just made her all the more determined to put a successful end to her husband's ongoing struggle with her government.
"I had already lost my baby," says Melinda, "I wasn't going to lose my husband."
Truth, justice, and the American way?
In the fall of 2006, money was tight for the Denisenkos. Gennady had been put on unpaid leave by the hospital because his most recent temporary work visa had run out before his request for a new one had been processed. Yet, he continued to show up to work every day.
"It didn't matter to him that he wasn't getting paid," says Melinda. "He knew there was a need."
Gennady also continued to work on his doctorate, teaching Russian language students as a graduate assistant, volunteering homework help at the UVA Russian house, and continuing to play his guitar.
Gennady built such a rapport with students and faculty– including teaching Russian songs at periodic Russian folk festivals– that he was asked to represent UVA at an academic conference in Washington in December 2006.
In his entire time in the United States– 15 years at that point– Gennady had never been convicted of a crime of any kind. That changed as he made his trip to the conference. His offense? Driving in the HOV, High Occupancy Vehicle, lane along Interstate 66.
"He was thinking about the conference and just not paying attention," says Melinda. "But he knew he was wrong. So he took the ticket, put it in his bag, and went on his way."
That might have been the end of it, except for one thing.
"Months later, we got a letter from Prince William County saying Gennady's license had been revoked because he hadn't paid his fine," says Melinda. "As soon as he saw the letter, he ran upstairs and went digging through his bags, saying over and over, 'I can't believe I did this!'"
When Gennady found the ticket, he called the district court to learn how to get his license reinstated. All he needed to do was send the check and then show the court receipt to the Department of Motor Vehicles. Unfortunately, Gennady discovered that, for him, the process would not be that simple.
"Since his request for a new work visa was still being processed," says Melinda, "they told us they couldn't reinstate his license unless he could provide proper documentation."
Then came the one decision in this whole process that Melinda says she would take back.
"We each had to go visit family down in Florida, especially because my mother was sick at the time," she says, "and Gennady didn't want me driving 14 hours by myself."
But rather than risk getting pulled over without a license, Gennady said he wanted to make another appeal to the DMV to reinstate his license, hoping to tell his story to a more sympathetic bureaucrat.
"I told him he was going to need more than that," says Melinda, "so, desperate wife that I was at the time, I convinced him to get a forged permanent work visa, just to show to the DMV."
Unfortunately for the couple, the DMV spotted the fake and police arrested Gennady on the spot. The regret still lingers with Melinda.
"The frustrated American wife was sick and tired of all this," she says, "and I figured all we needed was something to get us from point A to point B. It was such a big mistake."
Gennady was able to explain his circumstance before a district court judge, who let him off with a $66 fine, which Gennady immediately paid. This, Mr. and Mrs. Denisenko hoped, would be the last time Melinda would have to watch Gennady get led away in handcuffs.
'Remove your hand, or I'll remove it for you.'
With Gennady's brush with the law an increasingly distant memory, this past winter, Gennady and Melinda finally got the letter they had waited more than six years to read.
"We got a notice to appear at the Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Fairfax on April 30 to do our interview to prove we were married," says Melinda. "We were thrilled."
So, on the appointed day, the Denisenkos once again took time off work and made the now-familiar trip from their Charlottesville home to the immigration office, ready to make their case before a CIS officer.
Despite the fact that they knew they would probably have to wait past the assigned time of their meeting, they got there early. After sitting in the lobby and waiting with about 100 others there for the same purpose, all waiting in excited anticipation, they finally got the chance to make the case they had waited so long to make.
"We brought everything we could think of," says Melinda, "wedding photos, our wedding license, bills we'd paid together, bank statements, you name it."
Around 3pm, they heard the words they had longed to hear.
"She told us," Melinda recalls, "'It's very evident that you two are married. Everything looks great. Let me go get my stamp.'"
Overcome with elation and relief, the couple gazed into each others' eyes as they waited expectantly. Their long bureaucratic nightmare was over.
That elation quickly turned to horror. Instead of the woman returning with her stamp, she came back with two uniformed officers from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, a division of the Department of Homeland Security.
"I just screamed, 'No!'" says Melinda.
Gennady tried to calm his wife down while at the same time peacefully acquiescing to his detainers. Melinda was hysterical.
"I kept asking 'Why, why?'," she says. "They said they had a final order of removal and that they didn't have to tell me why."
In her panic, she grabbed hold of her husband's arm as tightly as she could.
"The officer told me, 'Remove your hand, or I'll remove it for you.'"
After some characteristically gentle coaxing from her husband, Melinda finally let go.
She has not seen her husband face to face since that day.
An American prayer
In a wrenching postscript to the incident, Melinda eventually learned that the citizenship stamp was a ruse. As soon as he could get to a phone at a federal prison in Virginia Beach, Gennady explained.
"He told me that every one of the 100 or so people who had been waiting in the lobby with us had been on the bus with him down to Virginia Beach," says Melinda. "We were never going to get our marriage recognized at all. The whole thing was a set-up."
While Gennady was still in the Virginia Beach prison, Melinda was able to visit, but could only communicate with him via a small television screen and a phone.
"It's not the same," says Melinda, "you miss the touch."
Gennady's wife isn't the only one missing Gennady these days.
"To lose your one interpreter for 2,000 patients is tough," says Sally LeBeau, Gennady's boss at the UVA hospital. "We've tried having interpreters over the phone, and we've tried having undergraduate volunteers from the Russian department, but they're not Gennady. We're leaving his spot open for him for when he comes back."
"We all miss him at the church," says Rev. Johnson of First Baptist, "He's a good man, a good American, and a man of great faith."
Presently, Gennady sits in the Willacy Detention Facility in Raymond, Texas, where Melinda says he is treated "like an animal," and could be deported "any day now."
"It's a Guantanamo-style facility," says Urbanski, referring to the U.S. "enemy combatant" detention center in Cuba, "It's isolated. I can't meet with him. One time, his wife told me that he was denied access to pen and paper in order to write down some details for me and instead had to dictate them to her over the phone. I just have the feeling they have less rights there than in prisons for U.S. citizens."
His friends and family back in Charlottesville are engaged in a campaign to re-open the case.
"The church has helped pay for some of his legal fees, and I personally have written letters to President Bush, Senator [John] Warner, Senator [Jim] Webb, and Congressman [Virgil] Goode, asking them to intervene on his behalf," says Rev. Johnson, "and we've got 2,900 members, and I know a lot of them have written letters as well."
Members of the congregation have launched a blog, helpgennady.blogspot.com, to coordinate the campaign and provide contact information for the people in high places who might be able to do something.
And now a local legal heavy hitter has gotten involved. Noted author and civil liberties attorney John Whitehead, has put the full force of his Rutherford Institute behind Gennady's case, using the media savvy that the non-profit law group honed when Whitehead was the attorney for an Arkansas woman named Paula Jones in her sexual harassment suit against President Bill Clinton.
"It's ridiculous that he's languishing in a prison right now," says Whitehead. "All it would take is Senator Warner, or Senator Webb, or Congressman Goode, or President Bush to get on the phone and say, 'Take another look at this man's case.'"
Indeed, representatives for Warner, Webb, and Goode all tell the Hook that they have heard the pleas and are all inquiring about his case with Homeland Security. The Hook's calls to the White House Press Secretary's office had yet to be returned at press time.
When former Governor Mark Warner made a stop in Scottsville on September 15 in his campaign to become Virginia's next U.S. Senator, the Hook asked Warner about the case. In an era when politicians choose their words so carefully, the Democrat's response was surprisingly blunt.
"It's crazy that it takes this long to get a resolution," he said. "Cases like this are a tragedy, and it makes a mockery of the rule of law when it takes this long."
Asked to respond to Melinda's account of how Gennady's case has been handled, a spokesperson for Citizenship and Immigration Services said she could not "comment on the specifics of an individual case," and suggested that the Denisenkos "call our customer service line."
When the Hook asked the spokesperson, Chris Rhatigan, if alleged set-up operations conducted under CIS auspices, such as the one in which Gennady was detained were common, she refused to answer. Instead, she accused the Hook of being "disingenuous" for not having revealed this question at the outset of the interview, and she promptly hung up.
'They'll make him disappear'
Melinda says she doesn't expect any elected official to fast-track her husband's case or somehow magically grant him citizenship. All she wants is for her husband to have his day in court.
"All it would take," she says, "is for someone to ask for his case to be re-opened, and give him an opportunity to get in front of an immigration judge and explain what's happened."
Gennady wasn't able to have his day with the Hook, either. Melinda says his access to a phone is sporadic and unpredictable, and he can only talk for a few minutes every few days at a time that she is never able to predict. He did, however, pass this message along through Melinda.
"I want to be reunited with my wife and family and return to my church family, my friends and to quickly get back to serving and working in the community that I love," he says. "My heart is American. I want to have the chance to stand and to take the oath for this great country of ours and become a naturalized citizen. This is my dream– true freedom and liberty."
If Gennady never does get to make his case before a judge, Melinda fears the worst.
"If they deport him," she says. "I'll never see him again. The government will make him disappear.
"As soon as he gets off the plane," Melinda continues, "he'll be led away in handcuffs. He's a defector. It doesn't matter that the Soviet Union doesn't exist anymore. Gennady hears stories from his relatives back in Russia. The KGB is still real. You don't disgrace Mother Russia like that. He fears going back more than anything."
Urbanski says based on his knowledge of present-day Russia, Melinda's understanding is accurate, and thus he's optimistic that he can get Gennady's request for political asylum re-opened.
"The conversations I've had with the attorneys for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement have been hopeful," says Urbasnki. "Basically, [Russian prime minister Vladimir] Putin is taking out retribution on anyone who has expressed opposition to his government, and Gennady is on record in several American newspapers opposing Putin– that's in addition to the file the Russian government already has on him from his time in the gulag."
If only, says Urbanski, Gennady hadn't tried to circumvent the system with his forged visa.
"It's a major factor," says Urbanski. "If that hadn't happened, this would have been a breeze to get the government to re-open this."
UVA Russian history professor Jeffrey Rossman says that, based on the surface details, he isn't so sure that Gennady's life would be in danger.
"It's a tough call, but this case doesn't raise any red flags for me," says Rossman. "If this individual had been a KGB or military officer, and had access to military or national security secrets, he could expect to suffer retaliation. But based on what you have told me, I have difficulty imagining a circumstance under which the Russian government would set about the task of making his life difficult."
Still Rossman admits there's a lot that isn't known about the Russian government.
"Of course," he adds, "anything is possible in Russia."
Yevgeniy Khorishko, a spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington, says that such fears of his government are unfounded.
"He left a completely different country," says Khorishko. "There were many people who changed hands then. If it was a purely political defection, it's not a question. If there are no criminal charges against him, why should he be afraid?"
Those words don't do anything to ameliorate Melinda's concerns. She says any effort of her own to reunite with a deported Gennady would be futile.
"What could I do?" she says, "How could I help him if he stays alive? They're not going to tell me where he is."
So while Melinda continues to go to work every day, continues to go to church every Sunday, and continues to try to raise her 15-year-old son, once again lacking "the wholeness of a family" that Gennady provides, she continues to make her fervent plea to anyone who will listen.
"This is my whole life, right here," says Melinda. "And when it's your life, you'll go down screaming."
Editor's note: The print edition of this story incorrectly stated that the Russian Embassy had not returned the Hook's call at press time. That statement has been removed from this online edition.