Coach's fiancee held in immigration mixup

by Mat Grudzien | 11/15/07 3:41am

Valeria Vinnikova, the German fiancee of internationally recognized squash player and assistant Dartmouth squash Coach Johan Weins, was released from jail on Nov. 9 following her arrest for allegedly violating immigration procedures. Her case, which she described in a panel discussion in Moore Hall Wednesday evening, garnered the attention of local businessmen, lawyers and politicians.

Vinnikova was arrested by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol on Oct. 12 for violating the terms of her visit.

Weins and Vinnikova came to Untied States under a visa waiver program that allows citizens of certain countries to stay in United States for a period of 90 days.

After receiving a job from the College, Weins applied for a yearlong American visa. Vinnikova was not able to get an appointment with the U.S. consulate, she said, so she decided to go to Canada and renew her visa waiver there.

"There is a precedence that says if your visa waiver is going to expire in less than 30 days, you can get an extension upon entering the United States," Charlie Conquest, a Hanover businessman and friend of Weins, said.

Vinnikova said her arrest resulted from a misunderstanding with federal authorities on whether her visa allowed her to stay in the United States until Oct. 3 or Oct 13.

"This entire situation stems from a poorly written I-94 [immigration form], which everyone who read it determined that it authorized her to remain until October 13," Cynthia Arn, Vinnikova's lawyer, stated in her filing with the Department of Homeland Security.

Patrick O'Malley, spokesman for CPB, refused to comment specifically on Vinnikova's case.

"The [I-94] somehow disappeared after the incident," Conquest said. "It's been the patrols' fault, regardless of what anyone says."

Vinnikova said she had been advised by a CBP officer to cross the Canadian boarder on Oct 12. and then re-enter the United States, which would give her a day's extension to her visa. She said it was not until she encountered Canadian border officers that the U.S. CBP mistakenly identified her visa waiver as having expired on Oct. 3.

CPB consequently took Vinnikova into custody and began deportation procedures.

Visa waiver violations do not always trigger deportation proceedings, O'Malley said.

Prior to 2003, all immigration procedures were controlled by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Arn said. The INS was later divided into Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, CBP and Citizenship and Immigration services.

"This separation caused a lot of confusion and buck-passing," Arn said. "It was CBP that issued the order of removal, but it was ICE that had the custody. We spent weeks climbing up the ladder looking for someone willing to talk to us."

Vinnikova said she had been told she would spend three days in jail, while in fact she spent a total of 28 days in three different prisons. In the second prison, she said she was put into one cell with two women charged with murder.

Weyman Lundquist, a trial lawyer, former Dartmouth adjunct professor and former assistant U.S. attorney, advised Vinnakova on her case. He first met Vinnikova when she was 14 and was jailed on a similar immigration offense. She was later cleared of those charges.

Vinnikova's recent case was hard to handle, Lundquist said, because of immigrants' legal status in the United States. Her case required outside advocacy, he added.

"It was almost a presumption of guilt-- immigrants stated illegal are presumed guilty until proven innocent," Lundquist said. "They are in the gulag of deportation, so normal court procedures are suspended."

Vinnikova's support team aused a website launched by Conquest.

"This way, everyone could just log their efforts," Conquest said. "With the website, if someone made any progress in the case, everyone could see it."

It is this advocacy that prompted the involvement of politicians, including Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H.

"When I heard about the case I said 'no, no, no, no, no: she's either a criminal, she's had a criminal record or she's been deported before " it couldn't happen like this,'" Liz Chamberlain, Sununu's press secretary, said. "I then made a couple of phone calls, because first I needed someone directly connected to the case to ask the senator to get involved in this."

Robin Catmur, associate director of the College's international office, said Dartmouth did not legally get involved in the case because it can only assist in cases where the individual is actually sponsored by the College.

"We cannot act as a legal advisors to an unmarried partner of the College employee," Catmur said.

After 28 days of continuous efforts, Vinnikova's deportation order has been vacated.

"Finally, we got through to one civil servant that was brave enough to step up and make the right decision," Lundquist said. "All the others were just misleading if not lying to us about the status of her deportation order."

Although Vinnikova's record is now clear, Lundquist said that her case is just "the tip of the iceberg."

Vinnikova said that there are millions of immigrants in American jails who are waiting several months for the execution of their removal order. They often have life-threatening medical conditions, but there is no real way to speed up the process, she added.

"If Homeland Security keeps putting these immigrants into those almost Guantanamo-like or quasi-gulag situations, they will send back home millions of immigrants who will from then on absolutely hate America," Lundquist said.