Latvian family fights for asylum a decade after coming to U.S.

Myrtle Beach Sun News, SC
Macon Telegraph, GA
St. Louis Post, MO
Nov 29 2004

Latvian family fights for asylum a decade after coming to U.S.

BY PETER SHINKLE

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS – (KRT) – Ofelia Boudaguian says she hoped for fair
treatment when she and her family came to the United States in 1995,
after years of suffering discrimination and violence in Latvia.

After nearly a decade in the St. Louis area, though, Boudaguian says
she feels let down by the American legal system, which has denied the
family political asylum and now threatens them with deportation at
any moment.

“We live now day by day. It’s so scary,” she said. A knock on the
door might mean that she and her husband, Vitalik Boudaguian, and
their two children must gather their belongings, submit to arrest,
and go to a detention facility to await deportation.

Their one-year tourist visas expired May 18, 1996.

The family’s efforts to gain asylum have drawn support from a
dedicated group of friends, who met Ofelia Boudaguian through her job
as a cosmetologist at the Personalities Hair and Nails Salon in
Manchester.

After the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals here ruled July 22 to
deny the family’s request for asylum, the friends launched a
full-bore campaign to block their deportation. They have met with
First Lady Laura Bush, peppered acquaintances of Attorney General
John Ashcroft with letters and phone calls, visited the office of
President Bush’s uncle in Clayton, corresponded with the offices of
U.S. Sens. Christopher “Kit” Bond and Jim Talent, and collected 2,000
signatures on the family’s behalf.

When Laura Bush appeared in St. Louis on Aug. 17, Jeanne Nevens, the
campaign’s informal leader, had Ofelia stand in front of the first
lady holding a sign, “Ofelia Boudaguian,” while Nevens told the
family’s story. Ofelia cried; Nevens kept on talking. Secret Service
agents had warned them not to give Mrs. Bush anything, but Nevens
said she gave papers on the Boudaguians’ case to an assistant. Mrs.
Bush asked that information on the case be sent to her, Nevens said.

Later, after Nevens sent a packet of information to the White House,
Denise Bradley, director of correspondence for Mrs. Bush, sent a
letter saying she had passed it to the White House staff member
“responsible for your issue.” She wrote: “The agency will be in touch
with you directly.”

Since then, the family has heard nothing from the immigration
authorities. Indeed, it is unclear whether the campaign has had any
effect. A deportation order is in effect, but no one has come to
enforce it – or announce its cancellation. Has it been forgotten? Has
it slipped through the cracks? Is someone reconsidering the case? No
one seems to know.

A representative of the Justice Department declined comment on the
case.

Nevens said she was aghast at how judges in the 8th Circuit, in a
hearing in February, appeared to play down the bomb that exploded
outside the family’s home in Latvia. “That’s our legal system, and I
think it stinks,” she said.

Vitalik and Ofelia, both Christians of Armenian descent, grew up in
Shemakha, a village roughly 80 miles west of Baku, in Azerbaijan.
After Vitalik completed his education and his Soviet military
service, the couple moved in 1982 to Latvia.

There, the family claims it suffered a string of acts of persecution,
physical attacks and threats by ethnic Latvians. The Boudaguians, who
have the olive complexion and black hair typical of Armenians, say
they are easily distinguished from Latvians, who tend to be
fair-skinned.

Since Latvia became independent in 1991, Latvians have often shown
resentment toward non-Latvians who came to their country from other
Soviet republics during the Soviet era, the family says. For
dark-skinned foreigners, Latvians often use a Russian slur involving
the word “black,” Vitalik said.

The family claims a litany of abuse:

_In 1993, Vitalik Boudaguian was forced by the Latvian government to
close his business under duress, and a smoke bomb was thrown into the
family’s apartment. In addition, teenage boys doused the Boudaguians’
son, Khristopher, with gasoline and were poised to set him afire
until Vitalik intervened.

_In 1994, another bomb was thrown at the children’s bedroom wall,
causing the wall to crack, and Vitalik’s nephew was beaten and robbed
by Latvian police.

_In March 1995, Vitalik was badly beaten by Latvian policemen because
of his ethnic background, and when he reported the attack, he was
repeatedly warned to drop his complaint and leave the country or his
family members lives would be in danger.

In May 1995, the family came to St. Louis with the help of an
Armenian friend who already lived here. They began preparing a
request for asylum on the basis of persistent persecution – and fear
of more persecution if they return.

The U.S. Department of State said in a report in February that while
Latvia is a parliamentary democracy, some security forces have used
excessive force and mistreated people, and there are “some reports of
discrimination on the basis of ethnicity.”

Once the family settled in St. Louis, the children, Khristopher and
Khristina, began attending school. Vitalik worked as a contractor and
Ofelia, a cosmetologist. They live in a small townhouse apartment in
Manchester. They attend an Armenian church in Granite City.

“This family did everything right,” Nevens said.

The asylum case came before an immigration judge in 1998. The judge
found that Vitalik Boudaguian’s testimony about the incidents was
credible, but that those incidents did not rise to the level of
persecution, which must be shown if asylum is to be granted.

The judge said Boudaguian failed to prove the acts occurred on
account of his nationality or membership in a particular social
group.

Boudaguian appealed, but in June 2002, the Board of Immigration
Appeals dismissed the case, again finding that the family failed to
prove “past persecution or a well-founded fear or clear probability
of persecution in Latvia.”

The Boudaguians’ attorney at the time, Gene McNary, a former U.S.
commissioner of immigration, did not pursue an appeal in the 8th
Circuit Court, but instead filed a motion urging the board to
reconsider its ruling. On Dec. 3, 2002, the board denied the request.

Then, with a new attorney, the Boudaguians appealed to the 8th
Circuit. Here they faced arguments from the U.S. Department of
Justice that the Boudaguians had added no new evidence to their case,
and that they had failed to file their appeal on time.

The 8th Circuit agreed and dismissed the appeal on the grounds that
the Boudaguians “did not file a timely petition” to ask the 8th
Circuit to consider the case. The deportation order was issued.

Now, Vitalik Boudaguian is angry with McNary, whom he blames for
waiting too long to file the appeal. “The lawyer’s mistake cost me
too much,” he said.

McNary dismissed the notion that any mistake was made. “We felt that
our option was to file the motion to reopen,” he said. “I really
don’t want to argue the law.”

The Boudaguians have an opportunity to appeal to the U.S. Supreme
Court, but appeals in such cases are extremely rarely heard by the
court, said Timothy Wichmer, the family’s current attorney.

So now, the family waits. Khristina and Khristopher, both of whom
graduated from local high schools, are attending community college in
an effort to obtain their degrees before they must leave. Each day
the family fears the end of their life in America – and a return to
Latvia.

“We don’t know whether we’re going to be alive or dead,” Ofelia said.

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