Chico filmmaker stuck in France
Gerard Ungerman has been in the U.S. for 20 years, but may not be allowed to return
At the beginning of the year, the CN&R named Gerard Ungerman one of nine local movers and shakers to pay attention to in 2010 (see “Who to watch in 2010,” Jan. 7, 2010). We dubbed the French-born environmental filmmaker a “green visionary” for his devotion to a more sustainable world.
His cutting-edge documentary films, such as 2005’s The Oil Factor, questioning the connection between the U.S. military’s role in Iraq and Afghanistan and America’s consumption of oil, and 2008’s sustainability-focused Belonging, narrated by Dustin Hoffman, were both part of Chico State’s popular 10-week Green Films & Solutions Series in 2009.
Ungerman also set up a go-to website, www.greentransitionchico.org, that posts events and stories related to local sustainability, and was working on a follow-up film to Belonging.
“For his part, in the coming year Ungerman would appear to be setting the bar for involvement in the green movement,” we wrote.
Little did we—or he—know that 2010 would end up being the year that Ungerman would become involved in what may be the most difficult battle of his life.
On Dec. 13, Ungerman—after being “stuck” in Paris for five months while he wrangled with U.S. immigration authorities over his right to return home to Chico—was officially barred from re-entering the U.S. and coming home to his partner of five years, former KZFR Music Director Stacey Wear, and her two children, with whom he has lived since November 2008. This happened despite U.S. Homeland Security’s previous approval of his immigrant visa, which should have allowed him to return and continue living in the U.S., his adopted home country for 20 years.
U.S. immigration authorities in Europe charged that Ungerman had been living in the U.S. illegally, and therefore was not eligible for the visa that had already been promised him and that he had traveled to the U.S. Consulate in Paris to pick up on orders from Homeland Security.
Ungerman has until mid-January 2011 to wage a legal fight for his right to return to the U.S., for which he and Wear recently secured a high-powered (and costly) immigration attorney from Portland, Ore. Failing that, Ungerman faces a 10-year wait before he is eligible to apply for another visa, according to current U.S. immigration law.
“I’ve lived in the U.S. since early 1991 and I have always been under one visa or another (mostly work or press),” Ungerman explained recently by e-mail from France. “I applied for an immigrant visa last year that was finally approved early this year. … [A]ll the trouble came from the fact that my previous legal status ran out after U.S. immigration had already started processing my case.”
Both Ungerman and Wear believed that, as Ungerman put it, “[b]eing under immigration procedure pretty much universally gives you blanket protection because you are in the fold of immigration, they know your whereabouts and they are treating your case.”
In other words, even though Ungerman’s visitor visa had run out at the end of February 2009, and Homeland Security did not grant him his immigrant visa (which he applied for early that same month) until April 2010, Ungerman believed he was in the U.S. legally, since his new visa was in process and he was in ongoing contact with immigration authorities. They never told him he had become “illegal.”
“What I didn’t know is that I should not have left the country,” Ungerman continued, “but I should have worked out with a lawyer to convert my immigrant-visa approval into an actual immigrant status from inside the country. Instead I went out to Paris, where I had been ‘invited’ to pick up my visa at the U.S. Consulate. By doing that, I stepped into a bear trap because the consul there accused me [in July] of having stayed illegally and told me I was ineligible for my visa for 10 years and couldn’t go back home.”
Ungerman next filled out a “Waiver of Ineligibility” form that, if granted, could have allowed him re-entry into the United States, while Wear worked frantically stateside assembling piles of documents and letters in support of Ungerman’s returning home. He waited five months in France for a reply, only to find out that his waiver request had been denied.
“The legal fees that I will now incur are going to be brutal, and that is an area where my family and I are really going to need help,” said Ungerman.
“According to the [waiver-request] denial notice, what’s not at issue is our relationship,” said a weary Wear by phone recently. “Gerard’s political activism doesn’t seem to be, either. What they said is that we failed to illustrate that it’s an extreme hardship for me [that Ungerman remains in France], which is ridiculous. Not only is he my partner, but they’re well aware of a situation … concerning my daughter at the precise time Gerard was leaving to presumably pick up his visa.”
Wear said that her 10-year-old daughter, Marley, had just been diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder and was put “on a serious course of treatment” involving several months of trips to UC San Francisco and the Enloe Cancer Center. Wear said Ungerman had told her, “I’ll be back [from Paris] in three weeks. We’ll get through this together.”
Additionally, Wear’s divorce agreement with her daughter’s father stipulates that she cannot relocate outside of Chico until Marley, her youngest child, is 18, or she must give up custody of her children to their father.
“I pled with [immigration authorities] to send him home,” said Wear of Ungerman. “I got together three pounds of documents in four days—letters, medical records, all sorts of stuff. I was like Erin Brockovich. … The kids wrote letters, too. I don’t know how anyone could read Marley’s letter and not send him home.”
“I know he’s OK,” said Wear, “and there’s beautiful things coming out of this—he’s writing a book. But the thought of him not being able to return to me and to this place he calls home on a technicality—is insanity. I don’t think it’s melodramatic to say that this has the potential to totally ruin our lives. If we had known this was going to happen, he wouldn’t have gone [to Paris]. … Basically, he paid his own deportation costs.”