The family has spent about $100,000 in legal fees so far.
By DENISE DICK
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
BOARDMAN — He immigrated to the United States at 15, graduated from Boardman High School and earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Youngstown State University.
But for the last 10 months, Virgil Ciprian “Chip” Gilea, 30, has been in jail.
He’s not charged with a crime.
He was at work Dec. 27, 2007, when agents from the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement showed up and arrested him. He’s been locked up ever since.
He was first in Bedford Heights, Ohio, then Mahoning County Jail, and he’s now in Tiffin, Ohio — labeled a flight risk, unable to secure supervised release despite several attempts through the courts.
His family fears he could be put on a plane out of the country at any time.
“ICE doesn’t look at individuals, at what they’ve accomplished, what they’ve done for the community. People are just numbers,” Chip said via telephone from jail.
After earning his degree from YSU, he started working in 2004 for Energy Development Inc. at the Allied Waste carbon limestone landfill in Poland Township, where his father, Virgil Gilea, also works. In 2006, Chip bought a house in Austintown.
“These people came to this country, learned English, raised their children, sent them to school; they have jobs. They never cause any problems. Their home is always well maintained,” said Jeanne Hanuschak, a next-door neighbor of the family. “If we don’t want these kinds of people in this country, who do we want?”
She collected signatures from about 200 friends and supporters, asking for Chip’s release. The petitions were sent to local politicians and to President Bush. Supporters at the family’s church, Holy Trinity Romanian Orthodox Church, Youngstown, have also written letters on Chip’s behalf.
“No one will take the time to sit down and look at this case and see what’s going on,” Hanuschak said.
In a July decision to continue his detention, ICE officials wrote: “Your lack of regard for the immigration laws of the United States is blatant.” Because of that, “along with facts that you have no equities in the United States, and little sponsorship if released, that you are considered to be a flight risk, and deemed likely to abscond.”
Chip and his family find that characterization puzzling.
“A person who’s a flight risk doesn’t buy a house, doesn’t work at the same company and live in the same community for years,” Chip said.
His father, a U.S. citizen, was at work the day of Chip’s arrest and tried to persuade the agents to allow his son to call his attorney before taking him away.
The agent “told me, ‘Stay back, you’re a U.S. citizen. You don’t want to harbor an illegal immigrant,’” Virgil said, his voice breaking. “He’s my son.”
An attorney from Cleveland, formerly retained by the family, was notified about the problem: Chip stayed in the U.S. beyond his authorized period of admission. That resulted in a notice in 2001 to appear before an immigration judge, Chip’s first indication there was a problem. Chip went to court in 2002 and was given until March 2003 to file an application requesting asylum.
But the attorney filed the application three days late and a judge denied it.
Chip was granted a voluntary departure order, which would have allowed him to leave the country voluntarily within 30 days without deportation. His attorney at the time failed to inform him. So, Chip didn’t leave within 30 days.
The attorney even filed paperwork with the court attesting to the fact that Chip didn’t know about the order.
Since then, he’s traveled throughout the country for his job, and hasn’t encountered any difficulties.
“If I would have known about the voluntary departure, I would have done it,” Chip said. “At least that would have given me time to get things in order.”
When a person is deported, they’re barred from five years to life from returning to the U.S.
Now, ICE agents have told him that he’ll be deported by next week. The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals last week denied a motion for a stay in his case.
An agent will take him to the airport and he’ll fly to Bucharest. All he can take with him is a 50-pound bag, and the agency won’t tell him his exact departure date for “security reasons,” Chip said.
His parents and sister are in the U.S. The only family in Romania are his maternal grandparents, who are both elderly; one suffers from dementia.
“From Bucharest, it’s seven hours to my grandparents’ house either by car or by train,” Chip said.
Michael Gilhooly, an ICE spokesman, said that after the initial voluntary departure order, Chip’s attorneys filed an appeal and in November 2004 Chip received another voluntary departure order, giving him until December of that year to leave.
He wasn’t arrested until December 2007 because his appeals process wasn’t exhausted until that November, Gilhooly said.
Chip is considered a flight risk and has remained in detention because when agents came to arrest him, he fled, Gilhooly said. Agents apprehended him after a half-mile foot chase, the spokesman said.
Both Virgil and Chip contend that Chip left the building to try to get a cell phone signal to call his attorney.
While Chip doesn’t face criminal charges, he’s been charged with an immigration violation, Gilhooly said.
“It’s a crime to be in the U.S. illegally,” he said.
The ordeal has taken a toll on the family in many ways.
His family has spent about $100,000 in legal fees since Chip’s arrest. They’ve also made his house and car payments, first with Chip’s money and then with their own.
“Without my family, I would have lost everything,” Chip said.
Virgil, Chip’s mother, Minerva, and his younger sister, Bianca, make the roughly three-hour drive each week to visit Chip in jail.
But they can’t hug, kiss or touch their son and brother. Glass separates inmates and visitors.
Minerva holds her hand up, palm out to show how she and Chip press their hands on either side of the glass to feel closer.
Virgil has begun to dip into his retirement savings to pay all of the bills. Minerva said she’s lost 70 pounds since the case began and cries often. Bianca, 27, who got engaged about two years ago, has put her wedding on hold.
“I don’t want any other family to have to go through what we’re going through,” Bianca said.
Virgil and Minerva came to the U.S. in 1990, leaving their two children with their grandparents in Romania.
“I came with $15 in my pocket and two suitcases,” Virgil said.
The couple spoke no English but learned, taking classes at the former Mahoning County Joint Vocational School.
In 1994, with help from his then-employer, BFI, Virgil was able to bring his children to the U.S.
“We were already split from our children once for four years,” Minerva said. “Now, we’re separated from our son again.”
The children didn’t speak English but learned while students at Boardman, where both graduated. They both also earned degrees from YSU.
Bianca was granted citizenship because of her younger age. Chip wasn’t.
“I’ve lived here for half of my life — all of my adult life. My life is here,” Chip said.
He still loves this country. “It’s still the country of opportunity if you have the will,” he said. “I just don’t agree with how ICE treats people.”
He’s hopeful that after he leaves, a new Cleveland attorney’s attempts to secure him a waiver of the ban prohibiting re-entry to the U.S. will be successful and he’ll be able to rejoin his family. But he doesn’t know how long that process will take.
The family is grateful for the community support. Some of Chip’s co-workers, however, say they’re disappointed that calls to area politicians haven’t helped.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Charlie A. Wilson Jr. of St. Clairsville, D-6th, said the congressman doesn’t comment on cases that are pending.
Minerva said U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown’s office has recently taken an interest in the case.
Meghan Dubyak, Brown’s spokeswoman, said the office plans a letter to immigration officials asking that they give “full consideration” to Chip’s latest appeal. There are at least five identifiable errors in paperwork filed when Chip first arrived in the U.S., she said.
“It seems to me that the whole family is getting a bad deal from our whole country and from our politicians,” said Rick Durham, who’s worked for about five years at Energy Developments. “I think the whole thing is disgusting.”
Virgil has been in this country for 20 years, paying his taxes, following the rules and trying to do things the right way, said Durham, the plant’s lead operator and health and safety coordinator. “It’s terrible.”
Durham described Chip as a hardworking, knowledgeable employee and an honest, respectful man.
“Chip was a good worker and a clean-cut kid with manners,” said Tim Powell, the plant’s operations supervisor. Powell said he doesn’t understand why the government wants to deport Chip when the mistake was someone else’s.
“I would never say I’m not proud to be an American,” Powell said. “But it sure makes you downhearted about it.”
U.S. BUREAU OF IMMIGRATION AND CUSTOMS ENFORCEMENT
U.S. Department of Homeland Security
Among its operations is the Office of Detention and Removal Operations. DRO: Promotes public safety and national security by making certain, through the enforcement of U.S. immigration laws that all removable aliens depart the United States. The office makes use of its resources and expertise to transport aliens, to manage them while in custody and waiting for their cases to be processed, and to remove unauthorized aliens from the United States when so ordered.
An Austintown man is one of those the agency is trying to remove from this country:
• 1990: Virgil and Minerva Gilea immigrate to the U.S. from Romania.
• 1994: Their children, Chip and Bianca, join them.
• 1994: Virgil and Minerva buy their home in Boardman.
• 2004: Chip begins working at Energy Development Inc., Poland.
• 2006: Chip buys a home in Austintown.
• Dec. 27, 2007: Chip is arrested at work by ICE agents.
Source: ICE Web site and Gilea family