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No More Delays in Family's Reunion

After nearly six years of legal obstacles, a Burmese man granted asylum in the U.S. brings his wife and three children to safety.

September 27, 2004|Lisa Getter | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Tialhei Zathang kept his arms crossed in front of his chest, the only outward sign that the former math teacher was nervous. He had not seen his wife, his two sons or his daughter for nearly six years -- not since he left them in hiding in India, after fleeing persecution in Myanmar, while he sought asylum in the United States.

And now they were finally here.

Their plane arrived Thursday evening, 44 minutes late. Two hours later, most of the people awaiting the flight to John F. Kennedy International Airport had come and gone. Their friends or relatives had emerged from behind the silver wall where Zathang knew his family must still be, dealing once again with U.S. immigration authorities.

Zathang, 45, had his own experiences with those authorities -- part of a tortuous journey to freedom that began Dec. 4, 1998, with his application for political asylum. The long delays he encountered and the arbitrary decision making along the way were detailed in The Times in 2001 as a window into the problems plaguing U.S. immigration courts. He eventually won asylum in 2002, which let him begin the paperwork that would allow his family to join him.

But it took an additional 990 days for the reunion to occur.

He was sure his children would remember him, even though the two youngest were 5 and 6 when he saw them last. He had tried to speak with them by phone every week. Sometimes they had been able to talk for as long as five minutes.

The last call was Wednesday, just before they boarded a Kuwait Airways jet -- their first time on a plane -- for the trip from New Delhi to Kuwait to London to New York.

While he waited, Zathang popped cough drops into his mouth to keep his breath fresh, and leaned over the metal rail that separated the waiting area from the arriving passengers.

The hall filled with Polish speakers awaiting a flight from Warsaw. And suddenly, among them, Zathang spotted his elder son, Tialceu, 20. And his wife, Hlawntial, more beautiful than in his few cherished family photos. And Tlunaguk, 11, and Rinsang, who celebrated her 10th birthday Sept. 20.

In seconds, Zathang was over the metal rail. He would not kiss his wife -- not in public, as his society frowned on such displays. But he swiftly embraced his children, who could not keep their hands off him. He put an arm around his wife, briefly.

Zathang said his heart was pounding so hard it hurt. He put his hand on his daughter's chest and felt her heart fluttering wildly too. Their smiles were enormous. None of them had slept in days.

Meanwhile, his wife tightly hugged Jessica Attie, who had come to the airport to be with Zathang. Attie had helped make this day possible. She had handled Zathang's case all these years -- first as a Georgetown University law student representing him in immigration court, later as a lawyer with White & Case, a large firm that allowed her to work on the matter at no charge.

"I am sure God has sent you to us," Hlawntial Zathang told Attie.

It has been an excruciating trip through America's immigration system for Zathang and his family, one marked by bureaucratic errors, questionable decisions and difficult hurdles. The final obstacle was a request by immigration authorities this year that they undergo costly DNA tests to prove they were related.

Attie, 30, handled the logistics, getting up at 3 a.m. to make countless calls to India. She smoothed out complications that developed when Zathang's forms were rejected because they were photocopies, not originals. On that day alone, she said, she called India 15 times.

"It was my first case ever. There was something about it that resonated with me," said Attie, who recently left White & Case for a job with Brooklyn Legal Services, where she will work with the poor. "I was so angry about how he was treated. It's embarrassing."

Zathang and his family fled Myanmar, the Southeast Asian nation once known as Burma, in February 1998. He was an activist for democracy and a practicing Christian -- both unpopular positions in his country, a military dictatorship with a majority Buddhist population.

He had been arrested, detained and beaten once before. After being alerted that he was about to be arrested again, Zathang and his family made their way to India. There, they went into hiding after learning that Indian officials were deporting illegal immigrants back to Myanmar.

Zathang decided to seek refuge in the United States, and purchased an Indian passport on the black market.

Once in the U.S., he applied for political asylum. His case was assigned to an immigration judge, Joan V. Churchill, who rarely approved such requests. The government argued that because Zathang had traveled on an Indian passport, he must be a citizen of India, not Myanmar, and was committing fraud by claiming he was Burmese.

Unlike many applicants, though, Zathang had evidence and witnesses to support his claims.

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