Teresa's choice: An immigrant's story

Laura Berman
The Detroit News

It was a May morning like any other. On her way to her clerical job at a doctor's office, Teresa Pecovic noticed an unmarked police car following her. When a red light suddenly flashed behind her, she struggled to remain calm, praying this was not the moment she had feared for the last eight years.

She was shackled at the ankles, handcuffed and placed in a holding cell in the Dearborn jail. The cold and shocking degradation of those surroundings linger in Teresa's memory. "I had never been in jail before," she said last week, in a phone call, and it was not a place she imagined she'd ever be.

"She shone as a serious student. Intrinsically interested in learning, a great writer, a deep thinker," is the way Kimberly Redigan, her teacher for high school advanced placement English, recalled her in a plea to authorities recently. Redigan, who teaches at the University of Detroit Jesuit High School, says the "nation needs a million more Teresa Pecovics."

For five months, Teresa wasted in a Calhoun County jail cell, some of that time in a maximum security section, where she was placed with armed robbers and other violent criminals. She lost weight; she lost hope. Last week, just as family and friends mounted an effort to plead publicly on her behalf, she was again handcuffed and deported to Montenegro, the homeland she doesn't remember.

"I do not even know where I am," she said in a telephone call last Friday, her first day there. "It is surreal."

Through a series of circumstances and events, most not of her making, Teresa Pecovic is experiencing the kind of culture shock few of us could imagine —dropped into a place travel guides despair of recommending, with limited language skills, and little chance for future reprieve.

"People in America talk about immigrants and say, 'Go back to your country' But it is my country. That is where I went to school, where I learned to drive, where I worked and have friends and family," she told me.

Her mother and three brothers are all Americans or safely on paths to citizenship, survivors of deportation, who were able to return. At 20, she stayed behind to raise her American-born brother, then 14. To support him, she dropped out of college, and eventually — fearful of deportation — stopped reporting to authorities.

Her story is at once astonishing and mundane. To Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, she is Tereza Pecovic, a fugitive who defied an order of voluntary departure and failed to report to authorities. In her early 20s, she pleaded guilty to driving while under the influence of alcohol, a misdemeanor that invalidates her petition under the so-called Dream Act. "She blew .07, below the legal limit," her brother Drazen says.

In the inelastic world of ICE, her removal is "a priority under ICE's current enforcement strategy," which emphasizes deporting criminals.

To her sister-in-law Gada Pecovic, the college friend who married Teresa's older brother Drazen, Teresa is "the loveliest person you could ever know," the sister who sacrificed her safety so her American-born brother could stay in his homeland. A young woman who learned to express herself through kindness and a sense of grace.

"The only thing she ever did wrong was being brought here as a child," says Drazen, 33, who lives in Dearborn Heights and is a supervisor at Comcast. "My parents were adults. They made decisions you might argue with. But we were kids. We were brought here. This is where we have family and friends, where we were educated. We don't know anything back there."

The family arrived in 1989, as the Balkans erupted into war, and their Albanian-born parents fled, seeking political asylum. Eventually, they were denied that special status. Their misfortunes continued with the death of their father, who was killed by a hit-and-run driver. The family was officially "under supervision," reporting to authorities every three months, still able to work. One day that status ended.

"I was deported to a place that was — you cannot believe," says Drazen Pecovic. "It is like being in a place from 200, 500 years ago." He lost his home, his job, his car — but after 18 months, he was able to have his immigration status changed and win a path to citizenship. "I worked 60 hours a week with two kids," says Gada. Their family was reunited, stronger they say for the separation. "It set us back for sure," says Drazen.

As a family, they have fought to escape war, learn the ways of the United States, graduate from college, navigate the immigration system.

"Through it all, Teresa carried the burden of not only excelling in school but of helping the family out financially. The memory is sharp of young Teresa trading in her Catholic school uniform for an apron and crossing Vernor where she joined her mother at Colombo's, where they worked long hours waiting tables to make ends meet," Redigan, the teacher, wrote. "It was always obvious to me that Teresa had to mature quickly — something she did ...while maintaining nearly perfect grades."

Teresa Pecovic won the hearts of many of those who know her and, speaking to her, it is easy to understand why. She is a funny, lively, young woman — an American in spirit, if not documentation. She arrived in Tuzi, Montenegro, last Friday lacking even the suitcase her family had packed for her with her most important possessions. Like the rest of her life in America, it had simply disappeared.

"It's a very harsh system in terms of process. You see these results that seem manifestly unjust to people looking at them with human eyes," says Susan Reed, supervising attorney at the nonprofit Michigan Immigrant Rights Center.

"Her problem is finding a way back here," said Ronald Kaplovitz, an Orchard Lake immigration lawyer. "It can take 10 or 12 years or even more. It's especially sad because her whole family is here, not there."

Teresa's 9-year-old niece cries herself to sleep at night, worrying about the aunt she loves. Her aunt, who has fought to be an American since she was a 5-year-old, is at least momentarily resigned to being a stranger in a very strange land.