Jailed for More Than Four Months, Physicist Faces Deportation Threat
Photo Credit: Erine Trekoff
At home after his release from prison, Branislav Djordjevic holds his son Marko, while his wife Dragana, his daughter Milica, and Dragana's uncle look on.
APS leaders and its Committee on International Freedom of Scientists (CIFS) have written letters to immigration authorities on his behalf and continue to support his case, but the outcome remains uncertain.
Djordjevic, 48, came to the US from Yugoslavia in April 1991. Then a PhD candidate in physics in Belgrade, he planned to spend a semester as a visiting scholar at Michigan State University, working with Michael Thorpe.
Soon after his arrival in the US, war broke out in Yugoslavia. Djordjevic had been politically active against Milosevic, and learned that military police had raided his home in Belgrade. Friends warned him not to return. With the help of an immigration lawyer in Michigan, he filed for political asylum in the US. Djordjevic remained at Michigan State, studying amorphous diamond, a carbon-based material that has properties similar to diamond but is cheaper to produce and is useful in many industries, including automobiles, razor blades, and semiconductors. He developed a computer model of the material that was "the biggest model at the time, and still attracts a lot of attention," he said.
After completing his PhD in 1996, he went to work for a small computer software company in Michigan, and then moved to the Washington, DC area to accept a job as a telecommunications software specialist with Verizon.
He bought a house in Falls Church, VA, and lived there with his wife, Dragana, (whom he met in Yugoslavia and married in the US), their two children, both of whom are US citizens, and Dragana's disabled uncle, also a US citizen.
In May 2002, Djordjevic was granted an approval notice for an H1-B visa, which would have been valid through 2004, but his former attorneys never followed procedures for him to receive the visa. Verizon also sponsored Djordjevic for a green card, and he was in the process of adjusting to permanent resident status.
Then in December 2002, the INS denied Djordjevic's appeal for asylum. The law requires applicants denied asylum to leave the country within 30 days or apply for a new judgment. Djordjevic's former lawyer failed to notify him, and left the country, dropping his case entirely. So the 30 days had long since expired by the time he learned of the denial.
On July 30, 2003, at about 5 a.m., when immigration authorities raided the family's house and arrested Djordjevic, he still did not know what the problem was.
He was taken to jail and held for months as legal proceedings dragged on, because the government considered him a flight risk. "That I was a flight risk was really a ridiculous argument," said Djordjevic. "When I heard that, it was like someone telling me snow is black."
Since Djordjevic's immigration troubles began in Michigan but he was being held in Virginia, the government raised arguments over which court had jurisdiction to release him on bond, complicating and delaying the case.
Djordjevic's lawyer, Douglas Wachholz, called the case one of the most complicated he'd seen in 30 years, though he added that "The immigration system is fraught with problems. There's not a lot in the system that's clear."
During his months in jail, Djordjevic often felt discouraged by the seemingly endless legal battle and uncertain outcome, and was most distressed by the separation from his family, especially his two children, ages 5 and 7, who were not allowed to visit him.
"Every day I feel enormous pain and stress from not being able to hug my kids for so long time, and not even knowing when they will release me," he wrote in a letter from jail to Irving Lerch, then Director of APS International Affairs, and now retired.
Describing the conditions in Hampton Roads Regional Jail, Djordjevic wrote, " For four and half months I have not seen the daylight, or taken a breath of fresh air. Neon lights are always on in this place, so you feel like [you are] living in a deep basement."
Officers allowed Djordjevic only the core of a ballpoint pen to write with. An air conditioner constantly blasted air directly into his face as he tried to sleep. Authorities denied his requests for confession and communion with a priest from his Eastern Orthodox church.
"I felt I was halfway to the grave," he said in an interview at his house in January. "It was another world. I don't wish this experience to my worst enemy. It was painful, stressful, and humiliating, especially the separation from family."
Soon after Djordjevic's arrest, Thorpe and other physicists who had known Djordjevic in graduate school alerted the APS to his case. APS President Myriam Sarachik wrote a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge asking him to support Djordjevic's release, and CIFS wrote letters to the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Friends and supporters also set up a website, which includes news of the case, a petition to Tom Ridge, and a request for contributions to Djordjevic's defense fund. [People can contribute to the Djordjevic defense fund at http://www.freedjordj.org].
Lerch said he sent letters to various officials, especially immigration authorities and the Department of Homeland Security. He also attended a hearing in the Virginia Eastern District Court, and wrote an affidavit arguing that Djordjevic was a productive member of society, whose talents were very much needed in the US.
Edward Gerjuoy, chair of CIFS, was also active in trying to help Djordjevic. "The argument I' ve been trying to make, and we did make in our letters, is that here is a PhD physicist, educated in this country, at public expense. He has been gainfully employed. The government has made no allegation that he was involved in terrorism, or that he has a criminal record," said Gerjuoy, who is both a lawyer and a physicist. "Why are we deporting this guy? He has some extremely specialized skills that are very important to the US."
But all the letters APS sent "have gone into the void," said Gerjuoy. Either there was no response, or the response was a form letter that essentially said the government could give out no information about the case because of privacy issues. "We got no useful response from any government person we wrote to on this case."
Nonetheless Djordjevic felt thankful for all the support he received. "I am just without words to express gratitude for the help I've already received from the APS and my colleagues, and also from neighbors. I had support from everyone but the government. They expressed compassion for me. That's what I see as the greatness of this country."
Finally, on December 23, after he had spent 146 days in jail, the 6th circuit court ordered Djordjevic released on bond. "I feel like I came back from dead," he said. "When I got out, I found myself in a paradise. When you come out, you really understand the beauty of this world. I still feel very strange. It's hard to explain."
Djordjevic's children, who had been told he was on a business trip, also perked up when he returned. "The kids started laughing like normal kids again only when I came home. They're so happy I'm here that they won't leave me alone."
Still, Djordjevic's battle is not over. An appeals court must now decide whether to deport him. His wife gets nervous every time the phone rings, fearing bad news. Djordjevic worries about the possibility of being sent back to Serbia, which would mean uprooting his family, harming his career, and leaving the community he has become part of. "All major events in my life happened in this country. We feel this country is our home," he said. "I feel really blessed that I've met so many good people here. I feel even more attached to this country, in spite of my experience in jail."
After spending time reflecting on the case, Djordjevic does not see anything he could have done to prevent what happened. "I cannot think how I could do better. I did my best to comply with all the laws. I was simply another victim of the stressful period after 9/11," said Djordjevic.
People can help Djordjevic most now by publicizing his case, said Gerjuoy. "Essentially it's important that the government realize that this is an unpopular action, and one which is not only inhuman, from Djordjevic's standpoint, but also contrary to the best interests of the US."
Wachholz suggests people write to Congress, and to the DHS. "People need to stand up," he said. "I think there's a greater threat to our liberties from our own government than from the terrorists."
While Djordjevic was extremely unfortunate, more cases like his may arise, said Lerch. "There are other people at risk because of the Patriot Act. There are a lot of people in jail who should not be. I think that this is going to continue to be a problem and may even grow as more and more people get caught up in this."
Lerch pointed out that half of physics docto
rates granted in the US went to foreign-born scholars. "Clearly this immigrant talent is absolutely central to the health and welfare of our enterprise," he said.
"Every academic research community should monitor its members," Lerch said, "When a case comes before them, they should do everything they can to support their colleagues and their families. Very often, they can provide expert testimony to the courts. There's a great deal that any community can do."
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