HARTFORD — The painfully fresh memory of the 18 months that Valent Kolami spent away from his family in federal detention awaiting deportation is etched in the worry lines on his face.
Emotion sometimes overwhelmed Kolami as he recounted his story Monday, five days after he was released from the Etowah Dentention Center in Alabama with the help of U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.)
Kolami had been held since immigration authorities detained him on April 24, 2012, along with his brother-in-law and business partner Adrian Emin. The senator’s office helped secure Emin’s release on Aug. 16.
Both Emin and Kolami received stays of deportation; their immigration status must be renewed after one year.
Blumenthal is using the pair’s story to make an argument for immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the same predicament as Emin and Kolami.
“We hope something is going to happen with the immigration reform, not just for us, for everybody who is illegal and who want to stay in America legal. We want to come out from the shadow. We want to live like everybody in America. We want to build our life, build our kids’ life the better we can,” Kolami said.
Emin, 45, and Kolami, 42, had settled in Prospect after coming to the United States from Albania 13 years ago. The two men had visas, but remained in the country after they expired and built new lives here.
“We come to America for better life for ourselves and for our kids, and we tried to build our life by the law of this country. We start work. We started building our lives. We working very hard and it looked like the American dream was true for us,” Kolami said.
He blamed a former immigration lawyer for much of their troubles.
Emin and Kolami came to the country in November 2003. They immediately hired a lawyer to seek asylum to remain in the country. After the petition was denied, they hired a second lawyer to appeal while they continued to live in Prospect, raise their families and run a masonry business.
The two men alleged in federal court documents that the second lawyer mishandled the case and misled them into believing that their appeal was still pending after it had been dismissed. In fact, they had been ordered to leave the country in 2004.
They have since filed a grievance against that lawyer, according to court filings.
“We never know we have an order of deportation,” Kolami said.
They were surprised to learn otherwise when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement informed them of the 2004 deportation order last year. Initially, ICE agreed not to detain them, but then reversed that decision.
Kolami and Emin’s older children and their new lawyer contacted Blumenthal’s office asking for help.
Blumenthal argued that the two men should never have been detained based on their backgrounds.
“There are hundreds, if not thousands, of people who at one time or another have been through detention whose lives are in many ways indistinguishable to Adrian and Valent. They pose no threat, but they have been confined for lengthy periods of time,” he said.
Blumenthal called such treatment “unAmerican.” He said it should not have taken 16 to 18 months for Kolami and Emin to be released from detention.
“I don’t want nobody to happen what happened to us,” Kolami said.
Blumenthal said Kolami and Emin’s case makes a powerful argument for immigration reform. However, he declined to make any predictions about the prospects of Congress passing comprehensive legislation.
“If you listen to these stories, if you hear these voices, you conclude that the United States of America is better than to treat people this way. We are better than to lock up folks who come to this country simply pursing the American dream and to detain them for 16 to 18 months,” Blumenthal said.