There’s no hint in their wedding photos from April 2017 — Lauren Meriano in her black suspenders and necktie, her bride Daiva Kleinauskaite in a floral-print dress, flashing their sparkling wedding bands for the photographer — of the storm clouds that the Philadelphia-area newlyweds were facing on two continents.
Some 4,400 miles away in Kleinauskaite’s native Lithuania — a nation plagued by virulent anti-LGBT discrimination — the appearance of those photos from the same-sex wedding ceremony on Facebook created not only a flood of nasty comments online but even inspired someone to slide a threatening, hate-filled note under the door of Kleinauskaite’s mother.
Here in Philadelphia, the now-33-year-old Kleinauskaite — who came to America a decade ago on a tourist visa and never returned home — had a much more immediate problem: A date with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, that had been prompted by a 2016 drunk-driving arrest. Her then-lawyer assured Kleinauskaite that the appointment probably was routine and that if immigration agents did take her into custody, she’d probably be released quickly on bail.
The appointment wasn’t routine.
“There was no interview or meeting — they just immediately took her in and processed her,” Meriano recalled, some 11 months later. After four hours, as federal authorities were about to ship Kleinauskaite to the detention center in York County where she’s been jailed ever since, one ICE officer was surprisingly apologetic to the newlyweds.
“I’m sorry — I thought in no way they will tell me to take her,” the ICE agent told them, as recalled by Meriano. “I have no control. I get orders from above.”
Imagine Franz Kafka with a Lithuanian accent, and you’d have a sense of Meriano’s nearly-year-long struggle — aided by her new lawyer, Jonah Eaton of the Nationalities Service Center — to even get a bail hearing that might free her wife from the York lockup while they fight the government’s plan to deport Kleinauskaite to her original homeland, where she’d face near-certain discrimination.
Just this week, a joint investigation by the Inquirer and ProPublica has shown that ICE’s Philadelphia office has taken a notably aggressive stance in detaining undocumented immigrants since President Trump, with his hard-line stance on immigration, took office in early 2017. The article noted that the local office, which oversees Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Virginia, has a particularly high rate of seizing undocumented migrants not charged with any crime.
That’s not the case for Kleinauskaite, whose allies concede she made one big mistake in the DUI case in which she was ultimately convicted in Montgomery County (and, in perhaps a cruel irony, sentenced to “time served”). But Eaton and Meriano said they’ve been startled by the lack of discretion that ICE has shown toward Kleinauskaite — who seemed well on her way toward receiving a green card when she was detained — in weighing her one mistake during 10 years in America against the love she found with Meriano and her family, including the father-in-law she cared for as he was dying of lung cancer. Eaton said the immigration judge in York who heard Kleinauskaite’s plea for political asylum in America said her story cried out for “prosecutorial discretion.”
“Why is it necessary for this person to be behind bars?” Meriano asked, noting that Kleinauskaite wasn’t even allowed to attend her dad’s funeral when he finally succumbed to his cancer last year. She said her 2017 bride is in jail “under circumstances that are ridiculous to me — completely unwarranted.”
Meriano and Eaton decided to publicize Kleinauskaite’s plight because they’re particularly frustrated with the huge backlog of immigration cases that’s made it impossible for her to even get a bail hearing — which would allow the Lithuanian native to reunite with Meriano and her widowed mom at their New Castle, Delaware, home while she continued to fight deportation in court.
Nationally, the backlog of immigration cases has spiked over 600,000 — a record, which includes hundreds of cases stuck in the York Immigration Court. That big number seems pretty abstract, but it gets depressingly real when one contemplates the nearly one year that Kleinauskaite has spent behind bars, triggered by a first-time DUI offense which for an American citizen would probably mean just a fine and a visit to driving school.
Officials with ICE’s Philadelphia office wouldn’t comment on the specifics of Kleinauskaite’s case but told me, not for attribution, that there are case-by-case reviews for “determining whether the continued exercise of prosecutorial discretion is appropriate under current policies and directives.”
Those cold words don’t offer much comfort or immediate hope for Meriano or Kleinauskite and the bitter twist in their love story that had once seemed so fated when the two met three years ago in a Philadelphia lesbian bar that neither had frequented before, each dragged there by friends on that particular night.
“I saw her when I walked in,” Meriano told me. “We started talking and started dating after that and then being around my family — it was so easy. My family loved her.” Eventually, Kleinauskaite — unable to work a conventional job without a green card — worked around the clock caring for Meriano’s sick dad in Upper Darby while Meriano was out collecting a pay check in food service.
Meriano said the new life suited Kleinauskaite, who’d fled Lithuania as a not particularly inviting place for young adults, especially one who was questioning her sexuality in a culture so openly hostile to gays and lesbians. In America, the questioning continued — she even had a very brief marriage to a male friend — until she seemingly found the answer in Meriano. “One thing she loved about me,” Meriano says, “was how open I was and how confident I was in my lifestyle and my sexual orientation and being OK with that.” It was nothing like Kleinauskaite had known growing up in Eastern Europe.
Ironically, both Kleinauskaite’s journey of discovery that led her to Meriano and the hostile anti-LGBT climate in Lithuania are at the core of her plea for political asylum, now before the 3rd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia. Normally, migrants have just one year to seek asylum unless circumstances change back in their native country — and lawyer Eaton is arguing that’s exactly what happened when Kleinauskaite’s marriage drew such open hostility in 2017. The York immigration judge who heard that argument rejected it on strict legal grounds even as, according to Eaton, he urged ICE to consider discretion.
But right now the greater frustration for Meriano and her lawyer is the inability to even get a bail hearing while the asylum fight plays out. Eaton said Kleinauskaite’s long detention defies legal logic since she’s shown she poses no flight risk. “She voluntarily presented herself to ICE,” he noted. “She did what she was supposed to do.”
Meriano — who calls her wife’s detention “a violation of human rights” — is eager to spend time with her spouse, even if some of that time is spent considering the prospect of leaving her American family to face the huge logistical hurdles of trying to make a brand-new life in some third-party nation like Ireland or the United Kingdom if the government eventually succeeds in deporting Kleinauskaite.
Eaton said the inability of Kleinauskaite to get a bail hearing “is rendering kind of useless one of the core protections of rights in this country — against unlawful detention. This is fundamental stuff.” But then, a lot of fundamental stuff is getting ground up in Trump’s ever-accelerating deportation machine — not just rights but just basic human compassion and common sense.