Valeria Vinnikova says her situation was not unique

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(Host) Valeria Vinnikova, the fiance of a Dartmouth College coach, is free after spending a month in jail for a minor visa violation.

But Vinnikova and her lawyers say her situation is not unique.

VPR’s John Dillon has been following the story.

(Dillon) Late last week, after public outcry and political pressure, the Department of Homeland Security released Vinnikova from a jail in Portland, Maine.

Vinnikova told her story at a Dartmouth College lecture hall. She says her troubles apparently began with a sloppy handwritten visa form, and a 3 that looked like a 13.

(Vinnikova) "The officer who issued me this form didn’t have the best handwriting in the world I would say. So instead of putting October 3 – he did put October 3 but it looked like 13 – because the ‘T" was so close to the 3."

(Dillon) October 13th was the date she thought her permission to be in this country expired. She says U-S officials twice confirmed that date. But on a trip to Canada on October 12, she learned that the visa waiver actually expired on the third.

U.S. guards arrested her – gave her two minutes to say good bye to her boyfriend — and took her to jail.

(Vinnikova) "The worst thing was they told me that I’m not allowed, or that I have no right to contact an attorney. They just told me I have no choice, I’m to go to jail and I’m to be deported on Monday."

(Dillon) But she wasn’t deported immediately. A loosely knit group of supporters in Hannover started working the phones. The group was centered at the squash courts at Dartmouth College, where her fiancé – Hansi Viens – works as an assistant coach.

The group found her a pro- bono attorney in Maine to handle the case. The lawyer is Cynthia Arns.

(Arns) "Her situation was a little unusual, just the way it came about. The way she was treated is not unusual at all."

(Dillon) Arns grew increasingly frustrated over what she says was a colossal case of bureaucratic buck-passing. She says no one in the various divisions of Homeland Security would take responsibility for Vinnikova’s case.

(Arns) "And what was frustrating to me was either the unwillingness or inability or combination of the same for the people who had control over here to look at her as an individual."

(Dillon) While Arns and Hanover lawyer Weyman Lundquist worked the legal angles, Liz Chamberlain, an aide to New Hampshire Senator John Sununu began calling contacts in Washington.

They had two concerns. First, they wanted Vinnikova out of jail. Second, if she was deported, she would be barred from returning to the U.S. for 10 years.

(Arns) "Hansi has a job here, they like it here. They’re planning to get married."

(Dillon) Vinnikova says she met several women in the Portland jail whose situation was much worse. She says one has cancer and was arrested while she was going to Canada for surgery. Another woman had a kidney condition and was not getting her medication.

(Vinnikova) "People from immigration, I mean to be honest.. they didn’t help her. She stayed for two weeks with us and went to another prison without having any medication at all."

(Dillon) Arns, the Maine attorney, says Valeria is free now only because of the political intervention and the outside pressure.

(Arns) "The difference between those people and Valeria is that Valeria had advocates. And most immigrants being held in jail do not have advocates, do not have access to advocate, don’t realize they even can."

(Dillon) Eventually, the government relented. Homeland Security revoked the deportation order. The only condition is that Vinnikova had to agree not to sue the government.

She plans to return to Germany soon, get married and then move back to the Hanover area.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Hanover, New Hampshire.

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