(Host) The community of Hanover, New Hampshire is rallying around a Dartmouth College squash coach and his fiancée.
The coach is engaged to a young German woman, who faces deportation because of a problem on her visa.
VPR’s John Dillon reports.
(Sounds at a squash court)
(Host) In the staccato intensity of the squash court, Hansi Wiens is clearly in control.
The game is like tennis with four walls. Players use speed and cunning to place shots that bank like high-speed billiard balls from corner to corner.
Wiens is a native of Germany and is an internationally known squash player. He was ranked among the world’s top ten players at one point. This fall, he started a job as the assistant squash coach at Dartmouth College. He’s engaged to a young German woman, who’s also a squash player. They love the Hanover area, and were ready to make their life here.
(Wiens) I really feel like I’ve been here a few years already and that’s great. I have friends and I’ve only been here two months.
(Dillon) Wien’s fiancée’s name is Valeria Vinnikova. The last time he saw her was almost three weeks ago at the U.S. customs office in Highgate Springs Vermont. They had gone to the border to clear up one piece of paperwork before settling down in the Hanover area. They had to extend her stay for another 90 days.
But the U.S. border guards had bad news: Her permission to be in the United States had already expired, nine days earlier. The guards arrested Valeria, handcuffed her and took her away.
(Wiens) They told me you got two minutes to say goodbye and that’s it. And obviously she was crying, trying to hug me, trying not to let go. But there were three or four policemen around me and just asked me to leave. I didn’t know where she’s going to go, and what’s going to happen…
(Dillon) The couple’s troubles apparently started with bad handwriting. They’ve since spiraled into a post 9-11 bureaucratic maze, where their supporters say common sense has been sacrificed in the name of security.
Valeria was in the U.S. under a visa waiver – that’s a common procedure that allows people from western Europe and other friendly countries to come here without a visa. The waivers are usually extended without much trouble.
Valeria Vinnikova and Hansi Wiens thought her waiver expired on October 13th. He said that’s what a U.S. border guard told him on an earlier trip to Canada.
According to Wiens, the date in the visa waiver was handwritten. October was abbreviated to O-c-t – and the "T" was close to the 3. So it looked like the number 13. But that was an error. The visa waiver actually expired on October 3rd. For U.S. officials, Vinnikova was in this country illegally.
(Woo) When a person chooses to enter the United States under the visa waiver program. It’s very rigid as far as the length of stay, and it does not allow for longer stays or changes.
(Dillon) Ted Woo is a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection, a division of the Department of Homeland Security. He wouldn’t discuss specifics of the case but says there are strict penalties for violations.
(Woo) Now the ramifications are that you will be removed, and deported, and you will not be allowed in for 10 years.
(Dillon) Ten years of separation is not how Wiens and Vinnikova planned to start their marriage. He had to make a choice between their life together — and a promising career at Dartmouth.
(Weins) She is my fiancée. I’m going to stick to her, whatever happens…
(Dillon) Vinnikova has been moved from a jail in Newport Vermont to the Cumberland County Jail in Portland, Maine. The German government has told her she’ll be flown home in a few weeks. Weins continues his coaching duties at Dartmouth. The players there have rallied to the couple’s cause.
(Lundquist) Believe me this is not any act that I see secures America.
(Dillon) Weyman Lundquist is a squash player, trial lawyer, former Dartmouth adjunct professor and former assistant U.S. Attorney. He’s helped Wiens with pro-bono legal work, and he’s worked to get the New Hampshire congressional delegation to block the deportation. So far, they’ve been unsuccessful.
(Lundquist) The frightening thing is, the political side of America, the Democratic side, the vote responsible people can’t push through the bureaucratic side. So you’re trapped.
(Dillon) Charley Conquest is a Hanover businessman who has set up a web site with updates on the case. He puts the blame squarely on U.S. officials – who he says couldn’t read the date on their own documents.
(Conquest) If any kids from the Upper Valley were in jail for a month without rights, people in this community would go out of their minds. So it’s shocking. It just seems so wrong. I mean, people can make mistakes. But it seems this has been covered over.
(Dillon) Wiens says he understands bureaucratic stubbornness. He’s seen it in his own country. But what he’s encountered in America, he says, is worse.
(Wiens) I’ve been living over 30 years in Germany. It sounds very German to me, to be so correct. But they wouldn’t be so hard, I don’t think so. If I would come from a country where America has a problem with, I would understand this a little bit. But I mean we are supposed to be friends. America and Germany are supposed to be friends and help each other.
(Dillon) Wiens may have to give up his coaching career at Dartmouth. But he’s not putting his wedding on hold. Once his fiancée is deported, he says he’ll fly back to Germany next month and get married.
For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Hanover, New Hampshire.