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They were seconds away from a stamp that would change everything.
One stamp of approval on the I-130 form would mean that the Bureau of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services would recognize the marriage between Gennady and Melinda Denisenko. It would get Gennady a work permit so that he could be paid once again to be an interpreter at the University of Virginia Medical Center and give him another chance to file for a green card.
While the couple was anxiously waiting for the immigration employee to return with that stamp April 30, a man and woman walked into the Fairfax office with handcuffs. Instead of getting a work permit, the 57-year-old Gennady was taken away to be deported back to his native Russia.
After being physically separated from her husband, Melinda watched him being led down the hallway, telling her that he loved her as she cried. She has not seen him since.
Gennady is being detained in Texas, where he is awaiting deportation. Back at home in Albemarle County, Melinda and a cadre of friends and concerned residents are fighting to bring him back.
"We have to bring him home," Melinda said. "He deserves to be here."
Gennady flew to the United States in 1991 with the help of an American family he met once in the Soviet Union. Melinda said he told officials that he was planning to visit them and would return.
He never did. Gennady was an outspoken supporter of democracy, a system viewed negatively by the Soviet government. Prior to leaving his home country, the former prosecutor was forced to stop practicing and spent several years in a Siberian labor camp.
Melinda said Gennady came to the United States seeking political asylum, but he came at a bad time. The Soviet Union fell that year, and his claim was denied. Gennady spent years appealing the decision, during which time he earned a master's degree from Florida State University and fell in love with Melinda, an American citizen.
Fighting to stay
While in the United States, Gennady has gotten married, started a final dissertation for a doctorate at UVa, become involved with his church and volunteered at UVa hospital after his work permit ran out. However, there are two black marks in Gennady's past that have drawn the immigration agency's attention, said Mark Urbanski, Gennady's immigration lawyer.
In 1996, Gennady was given a voluntary departure notice ordering him to return to Russia, but he did not. In 2007, Gennady was charged and convicted of possessing a fake driver's license in Albemarle General District Court. According to court records, his 90-day jail sentence was suspended and he had to pay $66 in fines.
"It's a crime, but it's a crime that our criminal system says is so minor that you don't need to go to jail," Urbanski said. "They want to banish him from the country for the rest of his life over it."
The Denisenkos hired Urbanski after Gennady was detained. He has already tried to file a joint motion with the district counsel's office in Orlando to help get the case in front of the Board of Immigration Appeals, but Urbanski said the motion was rejected. The lawyer now is working on reopening Gennady's asylum claim.
He has to do it quickly. Gennady could be deported at any time, and Urbanski said the immigration agency claims that security reasons prevent them from saying when people will be sent away. The agency typically gives amnesty every few years to some people who came here illegally or have overstayed visas, Urbanski said, but it hasn't done it since 2001.
The Charlottesville-based Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties and human-rights organization, has taken up Gennady's cause and sent letters to President Bush with copies to Sen. John W. Warner, Sen. Jim Webb and U.S. Rep. Virgil H. Goode Jr.
John W. Whitehead, founder of the institute, said the politicians could help Gennady.
"All they need to do is make the phone call," Whitehead said. "It would restore my faith in democracy if one of these guys did something."
In a letter to Bush dated Friday, Whitehead wrote, "There can be no excuse for allowing this man to continue to be subjected to the demeaning, bureaucratic and undemocratic treatment he has received."
Both Melinda and Urbanski have expressed concern about what would happen if Gennady is sent back to Russia.
"Even though the Soviet Union has changed in many ways, really Russia is still a place that punishes political enemies," Urbanski said. "He is still afraid of Putin's government in Russia."
Around 11 p.m. Thursday night, Melinda's phone rang for the second time in five minutes. This time, Gennady's call went through.
"How are you doing, sweetie," Melinda asked, beaming once she heard his voice. She paused and her smile faded as she listened to Gennady. "To be moved where?"
After hanging up the phone, she explained that there was a rumor going around that he would be moved.
"It could be another facility, or what we don't even want to think about," Melinda said.
Gennady is being housed in a large room with bunk beds. He wears blue clothes, Melinda said, which identify him as a low security risk. He usually calls her three or four times a week, and sometimes more if he just needs to hear her voice.
Back at home, Gennady's keys and watch hang from a picture frame near the front door. His hat and Cavaliers jacket are waiting for him next to the stairs. Melinda has his letters spread out near the fireplace, and pictures of the two of them are scattered around.
Gennady's daughter, Anna, is away at college. Alex, his 15-year-old stepson, remains at home with Melinda.
Before going to bed Thursday night, Melinda said she would send an e-mail to her network and let them know how Gennady is doing. He said he would call her again to tell her if he has moved. But if he is deported, he may not have access to a phone.
"You hope and pray that he will be able to [call]," Melinda said. She paused. "You don't know. You just don't know."