From his kitchen table in Italy via Skype, deported U.S. Army veteran Arnold Giammarco said the years apart from his family have been “devastating.”
“It’s tough,” said Giammarco, a legal non-citizen veteran of the Army and National Guard, during a Skype interview with C-HIT. He was deported in November 2012 for nonviolent drug and larceny convictions for which he had previously served jail time.
“You can’t hold your wife,” he said, dabbing tears from his eyes. “You can’t hold your daughter.”
Giammarco, 60, had lived in the United States since he was 4, but never became a citizen. In 2011 federal immigration officers arrested him at his home in Groton and detained him for 11 months, then deported him.
He has been fighting to return to Connecticut ever since, with the help of free legal representation from Yale Law School clinics. The state Board of Pardons and Paroles has twice rejected his request for a pardon. Since his deportation, he has unsuccessfully applied four times to visit home, once to attend his father’s funeral.
In February the legislature’s Judiciary Committee co-chairmen issued a subpoena ordering Giammarco and Paula Milardo, another Connecticut resident deported to Italy, to appear at an April hearing in Hartford. Earlier this month, a U.S. District Court judge blocked that effort. Yale has appealed the judge’s ruling.
State Rep. William Tong, co-chairman of the judiciary panel, said lawmakers want to understand how state criminal prosecutions “can lead to deportation under federal law.” Tong, a Democrat from Stamford, said the legislature could consider a pardon for Giammarco.
“Obviously, we know his story and it’s compelling, but I want to hear it from him,” Tong said.
On daily Skype calls with his family, now living in Niantic, Giammarco tries to be a parent, helping his daughter, Blair, 7, with math and spelling.
Sometimes Blair puts her mom’s iPhone in her Barbie car and pretends her father is driving, as she listens to him talk. “She doesn’t know any other way,” said Sharon Giammarco, Arnold’s wife.
Giammarco lives in Campo Di Fano, a mountain town of about 300 people. He had been working as a caregiver for a family friend who recently died. He has to move out of her house in July. It’s hard for him to find work, he said, since he speaks little Italian. “As soon as I say three words, they know I’m not Italian,” he said, adding he also faces skepticism from people who think he must have “hurt somebody” or “robbed a bank” to have been deported.
His routine helps him deal with his stress. “I go to church. I work in the garden. I help people out,” he said. “I pray morning, noon and night that I will come back. I’ve never given up hope.”
“We’ll get you home,” Sharon Giammarco promised via Skype. She works at the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and has two weekend jobs.
Each day, Giammarco said, he wrestles with the questions: Why was he deported years after he quit drugs and crime, when he was a “clean and sober” family man? Why weren’t his military honorable discharges considered?
He said he would have understood if he were still on the streets abusing drugs, committing thefts to support his habit, and sleeping in cardboard boxes and abandoned cars. “When I got my life together, that’s when they picked me up,” he said.
Giammarco and his wife quit drugs when she became pregnant. He said his family’s three-room apartment in Groton was “a mansion” to them. They paid their bills, kept their refrigerator stocked, and bought a used car. Giammarco was the night manager of a fast food restaurant. He took care of Blair when his wife attended school. He told other addicts at support meetings that “there is hope without drugs.”
“It was great,” he recalled, before his “life changed overnight.”
“I take full responsibility for what I did,” Giammarco said of his crimes. “I can’t erase it. I paid my price. I never hurt anybody. The harm was to myself and my family.”
Giammarco applied for U.S. citizenship in 1982. He contends the application was never processed. The government maintains it wasn’t complete. In March a federal judge ordered the Department of Homeland Security and its Citizenship and Immigration Services to adjudicate his application. “A three-decade-long delay exceeds any rule of reason,” wrote U.S. District Judge Vanessa L. Bryant. She also cited Giammarco’s honorable military service.
The ruling noted a nolled sexual assault charge, which initially delayed the application. Giammarco had written immigration officials about the nolle. Officials said they sought documentation, which the judge noted is filed in Hartford Superior Court.
Non-citizens with green cards have long served in the U.S. military. Giammarco is part of a number of non-citizen military veterans who have been deported for crimes for which they have already been punished, according to veteran advocates.
“I’m so frustrated with the efforts they’re putting in to keep my husband out of the country,” Sharon Giammarco said. “He’s just a guy from Connecticut. We are never going to give up.”
For now the family is together in Europe, the first time since 2013. To Giammarco, the visit is bittersweet because it is temporary. “They will be away from me again,” he said.