Domestic Wonderwoman or Domestic Terrorist? Kari Rein on thin I.C.E.(Immigration Customs Enforcement) By Corbin Brashear
My good friend, Kari Rein, is one of those classic SuperMom types: no job is too big or too small for this petite 5’2” Norwegian elf of a woman. Kari is the reason for my classroom full of new schoolbooks (she recognized the substandard materials we were using and tracked down a $10,000 supply grant for our school program). She has spent years serving on our various school boards, lending her calm, organized ideas towards the governance of our parent/teacher cooperative school. Yet Kari doesn’t just focus on the big picture. She is our trash and recycling guru as well, eagerly plunging with sleeves rolled up into a task deemed too disgusting for anyone else to want to tackle. Every Tuesday, I peek out of my classroom window and watch this little woman hurling around trash barrels that are almost as large as she is, patiently sorting through our endless grubby recycling and trash.
Kari could be the patron saint of SuperMoms. She deserves a medal recognizing her for the national treasure that she is. Instead, our government decided that Kari Rein represents a national threat. In January, while re-entering this country from a holiday visit to her native Norway with her husband and two kids, Kari was arrested by immigration officials, held in jail for three weeks, and now faces deportation.
What dark secret could possibly lurk in her past to warrant such extreme action against her and her family?
Little Norwegian supermom terrorist? What’s next, Al Quaida members flipping pancakes laced with ricin at the Sunday Grange breakfast?
In the wake of our post 9/11 national paranoia, the government’s hard line approach to immigration policy is aggressively seeking out immigrants who have been convicted of deportable crimes, regardless of their relation to terrorist activities. And just what was Kari Rein’s heinous deportable crime?
Growing six marijuana plants for personal use more than a decade ago.
Kari has always deeply regretted what she calls, “the biggest mistake of our life”. She and her husband, James Jungwirth, were convicted and sentenced to probation and community service. Judge Gerald Neufeld, after stating that he believed the marijuana was grown for personal use, said, “And I’m satisfied that the two of you are capable of being productive and are being productive in society and that I don’t think at this point that jail really serves any benefit to anyone.” James and Kari served their probation, did their community service, learned their lesson and went on with their busy lives—raising their two small children, running their successful seaweed business and volunteering in their small Siskiyou mountain community of Williams, Oregon.
In the ensuing decade, Kari made eight trips back to Norway to visit her family, with no difficulty from immigration. That’s why the family was utterly shocked when Kari was arrested at Sea-Tac Airport on December 30th as they returned from visiting her mother and sisters in her hometown of Stavanger, Norway. She and her family were all exhausted after their long flight as they went through the usual immigration procedures. But the routine computer records check dredged up the old marijuana charge and suddenly Kari’s status changed from just another sleepy traveler to being treated as a big time narcotics dealer. Kari describes the heartbreak on her seven-year old son Arek’s face as the agents took her into custody and led her away. “I’ll never forget the way he looked,” she said, “ His eyes were just so big, so scared and lost.” The family was not immediately informed about what was happening except that it would take awhile to get things sorted out. They were directed to make their connecting flight to Oregon. Kari was taken to an Immigration Customs Enforcement (formerly known as I.N.S.) detention center in downtown Seattle. The next day, handcuffed and shackled, she was transported to Saint Helens County Jail, where she spent the next three weeks. She was allowed to go outside one hour each day, and visit the law library for a whopping 5 minutes, twice a week, where to her dismay, she discovered pages missing from the law books she needed to help her understand her rights.
The official charge against her states that Kari is an “illicit trafficker of a controlled substance”, even though the judge in her initial case clearly stated that the marijuana in question was for personal use and not intended for sale. Had they bothered to investigate the initial charge more thoroughly, the Immigration Service might have realized that Kari wasn’t exactly a dangerous felon and released her until her court date. As it was, it took her husband James a couple of weeks to even find a lawyer willing to take the case, and in the meantime, Kari was held without bond. James eventually hired David Shomloo, a Portland attorney. Shomloo managed to negotiate a $15,000 bail for Kari by pointing out the facts in the case. Kari was also helped by over 100 pages of letters that poured in from her Oregon community supporting her impeccable character. At last, Kari was freed on bail on January 21st and returned home to her family until her next hearing, which fell on February 12th, the couple’s 16th wedding anniversary.
James describes Kari’s weeks of incarceration as “the hardest time in my life. I was a worn, nervous wreck. The hardest thing of all was having to tell the kids that their mother might never be allowed to come home again.” Amidst the chaos, the family managed always to have dinner together and prayed every night that their mother would come home soon. Their daughter Inka, 14, displayed her usual fortitude and grace as she took on many of the household chores during her mother’s absence, which occurred in part during finals week. Inka, a focused and powerful young woman, is a straight A Honors student at Hidden Valley High School. She managed to do well on her exams, even with the sense of dread at the thought of having to leave the tight knit web of friends she has known her entire life and move to Norway. Arek did not hold up as well. He is usually a bright and bubbly boy, who seems to have had a past life as a trapeze artist or perhaps a monkey. He spends most of his time during recess dangling in various intricate poses from our school rope swing while singing little happy ditties. If Arek is not doing his monkey act, he can be found leaping about dressed in his Ninja outfit, fighting the forces of evil. During his mother’s absence, Arek never once played on the rope swing. The forces of evil had taken his mother and no amount of Ninja power he possessed would bring her back. Arek spent his entire recess every day sitting alone and dejected at the picnic tables, refusing to engage with his friends or teachers. On the day of his mother’s release on bond, Arek looked a little brighter as he waited at school for his mom’s arrival. I hugged him and said I was really happy that he was going to finally see his mom. He replied, with a deep and heavy sigh, “Yeah, but it isn’t over. They can still take her.”
Victims & Supporters In 1996, the government enacted the Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IRIRA), which makes any alien (legal or illegal) who has been guilty of a drug or other offense automatically deportable. Even though Kari’s offense occurred three years BEFORE this legislation, and in the meantime, Kari had paid her debt to society, the government has decided that it can take effect retroactively. (Although there is actually nothing in the IRIRA that specifically says they can take retroactive action and Article I, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution states in part, “No bill of attainder or ex post facto law (formulated, enacted, or operating retroactively) shall be passed”).
While Kari was incarcerated, she met many women in similar predicaments, some who had been held for months. In fact, there are literally thousands of immigrants and their families all over this country who have been forcibly separated due to circumstances as absurd as Kari’s.
Kari is the fortunate one for she possesses what most of those women imprisoned with her do not. SUPPORT on the outside. Lots of support. A husband, kids and a whole town of outraged, concerned citizens rallying to help her in any way we can.
Williams is the kind of small town you could take for granted, until something unusual happens to make you realize how special it is. We take care of our own here. Everyone knows their neighbors, meals are made nightly for families with newborn babies, or illness—or a crisis like this one. During their crisis, our community circled around Kari’s family like an enormous many-armed hug. People cooked meals, coordinated childcare, wrote letters, baked cookies for bake sales and put together fund-raisers to help pay the family’s extensive legal bills.
And of course, we prayed. We prayed that Kari would be able to come home, we prayed that this injustice would not happen again, not in our little rural valley, and not in the larger world either. We prayed, and we woke up a little. The “War on Terror” has touched us intimately, and none of us can look at our government’s actions in quite the same way again. There is an illusion of safety when you live in an insulated little American town. If the “War on Terror” can strike unfairly here, against a small blond Norwegian PTA Mom and her family, it can strike unfairly anywhere.
Corbin Brashear is a middle school teacher in Williams, OR. She has been good friends with Kari Rein for over a decade and was Inka’s teacher last year and is currently next door neighbors with Kari and her family. She hopes to remain neighbors for a long, long time! Corbin can be reached at [email protected]