For 13 years, Steve deMeer lived the American dream. The blond-haired, blue-eyed son of Dutch immigrants graduated from Florida Institute of Technology and started his own photo-processing center, S&S Custom Photographic Services, with his college buddy and sometime housemate Stan Cheslock. He bought a house on Gulf Stream Bay Court. A 17-foot fishing boat. Jeep Wrangler. Two motorcycles.
DeMeer is a compassionate, gregarious sort who rescues stray dogs, says Wayne Ebinger, a friend and veterinary technician who would help nurse the dogs back to health. "He had an older chocolate Lab -- the connection there was that my daughter has one, also," Ebinger says. Others say deMeer loves practical jokes and off-beat, high-powered action. During the Gulf War, when business was slow, deMeer inaugurated a rocket-building contest between his store and the vacuum-cleaner shop two doors down.
A few years later, when an electrical fire destroyed the vacuum shop and $150,000 of inventory, plus the apartment upstairs, deMeer put up shop owner Scott Chapman and his wife in his home, Chapman says. "He's just a really good person as far as people go; he'll do anything for you."
He's also a gun enthusiast, says Larry Gimondo, who used to work at a karaoke place between the photo lab and the vacuum-cleaner store. "We'd go shooting and hang out at the beach," Gimondo says. "We went shooting a lot."
A merger of Norman Rockwell and velvet Elvis, the picture of Steven deMeer's life was quintessentially American. But deMeer isn't all-American. Although he moved here as a boy, he never applied for citizenship. And on Oct. 4, 1993, having a gun in his glove compartment -- and showing it to a man during an altercation -- marked deMeer for deportation.
He pleaded nolo contendere -- an oft-used legal term that does not admit guilt but subjects the defendant to the will of the court -- to two counts of aggravated assault with a firearm. After paying his fine and completing three years' probation, he thought the matter behind him. He learned otherwise in 1997, when he decided to finally start the paperwork that would let him become an American citizen.
A letter summoned deMeer to the local office of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Their talk was threatening. DeMeer emerged and went looking for help. No one could offer him any calming assurances.
"We contacted all these lawyers," he says over the phone from Amsterdam, to which he fled before he could be ordered away, " and they told me that Bill McCollum put this law together that allows them to kick my butt out."
Robert Anthony Broley also had a life in America. The son of Canadian immigrants was himself born in Canada. But home for him was in Orange County.
That is, it was home when he wasn't in jail elsewhere.
Broley has a criminal record dating to 1984, when he was sentenced to community supervision on burglary charges. He also has been arrested on charges of drug possession and driving under the influence of alcohol, and in 1993 he was charged with forging $4,175 worth of checks from the Orange County Republican Party, for which his father -- also named Robert -- served as treasurer.
For that last crime, Broley was sentenced in October 1994 to prison, where he served four years. In December 1998 he was released from Marion Correctional Institution.
Subjected to the same laws that caused a panicked Steve deMeer to run -- laws advanced by Congressman Bill McCollum, which were rewritten in 1996 to deport all immigrants who had committed any crime that carried a sentence of at least one year -- Broley was handed over to the INS for deportation.
But here the two men's experiences diverge further.
McCollum, a Longwood Republican on whose campaign Robert Broley's mother, Barbara, had worked, concluded that Robert Broley had done his time. He filed what is known as a "private bill," asking his colleagues in Congress to agree with him that it was time to allow Broley -- and only Broley -- to be excused from the provisions of U.S. immigration policy and welcomed home from Canada.
The Broleys could not be reached for comment. Neither did McCollum nor his spokesperson reply to requests to be interviewed for this article. But in the St. Petersburg Times, which in January broke the story on McCollum's special bill, the congressman explained that Broley "had a problem with drugs and he stole from his parents in order to be able to feed his drug habit. And they had been concerned about it," he said.
"Finally out of exasperation, they decided the best way to get him off drugs was to swear out a warrant for his arrest. He wasn't dealing drugs. He was using them."
Critics of the immigration policy learned of Broley's father's status within the local political party and raised their eyebrows. McCollum has said the relationship is entirely coincidental, and the fact that Barbara Broley worked on his campaign had no bearing on his decision to introduce the relief bill.
"I don't believe that somebody like Broley should be treated any differently than anyone else simply because his parents are involved in local politics," McCollum told the Sentinel. "I think his case should be judged on the merits."
Individual consideration would seem to be the last thing Congress had in mind when it recast the immigration policy.
In 1995 McCollum introduced the Criminal Alien Deportation Improvements Act as part of the Newt Gingrich-defined Contract With America. That bill was meant to tighten standards for criminal alien deportation, and it was aimed particularly at smugglers who bring in aliens as indentured servants.
McCollum resisted efforts to soften it. Early on, Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) introduced an amendment that would have excluded resident alien wives and children of U.S. citizens from falling under the category of "alien subject to deportation." Under then current law, U.S. citizens could bring their wives and children to the U.S. to live as legal residents.
McCollum argued that such people would not be subject to deportation unless they had committed aggravated felonies -- and if they did, then they forfeited their right for protection no matter their alien status. The judiciary committee agreed, and voted the amendment down.
That bill later failed, but many of its provisions were made part of the Illegal Immigration Act of 1996, which was in important ways even stricter. The 1996 act, which McCollum also helped shepherd through Congress, redefined "felony" for the purposes of immigration to mean any crime for which a perpetrator could be sentenced to one year. The old standard had been five years.
The measure applies to crimes committed before the bill was passed.
"And Congress took away the authority of the federal courts to review whether or not the INS and administrative judges are interpreting the law correctly," says Carol Wolchok, director of the American Bar Association's Center for Immigration Law and Representation. She and others who monitor immigration law warned that the 1996 bill would result in massive deportations and serious injustice. McCollum ignored them.
"There are a few things in this bill that maybe I could quibble over, but very few," McCollum said on the House floor as the bill went to a vote. "The bill is excellent."
Since the law passed, thousands of people who had committed minor crimes, sometimes many years in the past, have been deported.
People like John Gaul of Bradenton, adopted from Thailand as an infant, guilty of auto theft in his late teens and now, at age 25, shipped to Bangkok where he knows no one and does not speak the language.
People like Gabriella Dee of Pennsylvania, a graduate student deported to Canada this year because in 1985 she smuggled her Israeli boyfriend into the U.S. from Canada.
People like Cyrus Atefi, who came here in 1978 at age 2 as a refugee from revolutionary Iran, served a six-month work furlough for possession of methamphetamines in 1997, then straightened out and set his sights on dental school. Now he's about to be sent back to Iran where, because his father was in the Shah's secret police, he will probably be tortured.
Though he wasn't actually deported, Steve deMeer also was caught up in the net.
The drive-through at the McDonald's restaurant at Orange and Michigan avenues used to have two ordering lines leading to a single pay and food window. DeMeer says a woman in a Camaro in the other line was revving her engine and suddenly pulled forward as if to cut in front of deMeer. He surged forward to prevent it, and the woman's passenger, William Tipper Jr., got out of the car."He's got half his head shaved, other half running down to his shoulder," deMeer, whose own head was shaved, recalls. "He was a pretty big guy. Not too big. Maybe 6 feet tall."
DeMeer reached in his glove compartment and pulled out a six-shot .22 magnum revolver. "He's at the window `yelling`, ‘What the hell you doing?'" deMeer remembers. "I just went nuts. I yelled back, ‘Didn't you see the line? Get the hell back there!' But I think I used stronger language than that." Tipper saw the weapon, deMeer says, and looked at it without fear, "like maybe he wants to buy the gun. I said, ‘Get out of here before I blow your head off.'"
Tipper's sister, Angela Lindsey, got out of her car and confronted deMeer, who showed her the gun and threatened to blow her "fuckin' head off." DeMeer was not entirely convincing.
"Well, shoot me then," Lindsey said.
DeMeer didn't. He got his burgers, returned to the store and told Cheslock what had happened. The two hid the gun in Cheslock's car. When police first confronted deMeer he denied he had the gun, even as Cheslock told them the whole story.
A few months later, on advice of his lawyer, deMeer pleaded nolo contendere to two counts of aggravated assault with a firearm. He was sentenced to three years' probation, fined $200 and ordered to attend an anger-management class. The sentencing document is titled, "Order withholding adjudication of guilt and placing defendant on probation."
"He did everything to the ‘T,'" says Cheslock. "Every month he paid his probation fee."
In 1997, after paying his debt to society, deMeer decided it was time he became an American citizen. He went to the local INS office and got the form to fill out. "They have the question: ‘Have you been found guilty of an aggravated crime?' Since it was nolo contendere, I thought no," says deMeer. "So I filled in ‘no.' I thought it was wiped off the records and I was OK to go."
A few weeks later he received a letter telling him to report to the INS office on Semoran Boulevard. "I showed up there and they told me they were thinking of deporting me," deMeer says. "I was freaking out. They took a whole bunch of Polaroids of me with little numbers on it as though I was a criminal again."
That was the beginning of a nightmare of uncertainty. DeMeer consulted five lawyers. One told him to marry his girlfriend forthwith. Another said don't, because it will only upset the INS. One said to stay and fight. Another advised hightailing it out of the country. There was one element on which the attorneys all agreed: Bill McCollum's law left deMeer few options.
He took the advice of the last attorney and, with his girlfriend Charity Makarewicz, left the country.
A web site maintained by the Florida Immigration Advocacy Center in Miami contains a notice to imprisoned aliens: The center can no longer represent them because of changes to immigration law. But there is a Hail Mary bit of advice under the heading "private bills":
"When all other roads have been explored, when administrative relief has been denied and court action has proved fruitless, many persons have sought to avert the impact of the immigration laws by special legislation. The introduction of a private relief bill does not in itself block deportation. But in many cases it will induce the administrative authorities voluntarily to stay their hands until Congress can act. ... A person wishing to have a private relief bill introduced must, of course, persuade a member of the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives that he or she has a meritorious claim for relief. If the Senator or Representative believes the matter merits legislative consideration, he or she introduces the private bill for the relief of a named individual or individuals."
Private bills, like the one meant to benefit Robert Broley, often face careful scrutiny by Congress members wary of granting special favors. "I would expect there would be enormous opposition to that," Wolchok says of the Broley bill, "because there are other people with more sympathetic cases."
Even INS director Doris Meissner says the 1996 reforms "overreached." At the same time, however, her agency has been interpreting the law liberally: If there is any hint that some past indiscretion could subject one to deportation, the INS deports. The burden is on the deportee to prove their innocence.
The INS also has reviewed thousands of cases of people who already have been naturalized, and has notified many that it plans to revoke their citizenship, forcing the agency into a five-year backlog of cases waiting to be heard, rescinding the individuals' right to vote and, in some cases, deporting them as well.
"They want the power to denaturalize anybody without going to court," argues Daniel Levy, a California lawyer who has filed a class-action suit against the immigration agency.
Levy's lead plaintiff, Irina Gorbach, is a Microsoft engineer and a naturalized U.S. citizen. Last year the INS tried to revoke her citizenship because she moved from Utah to Seattle -- where her new job was based -- in 1996 while her application to become a U.S. citizen was working its way through the process.
"INS theory is that if she would have disclosed `her Seattle residency`, then Utah would not have sworn her in `as a citizen` because they didn't have jurisdiction," says Levy. "It's a completely wild story. A lot of these cases are arrests with no convictions."
Among those joining in the lawsuit: An Oregon house painter who failed to disclose traffic-related arrests, which are specifically excluded from naturalization applications; a Nebraska man who failed to report a 1986 arrest on suspicion of concealing stolen property because charges had been dropped; and a California woman who didn't mention a five-year-old arrest for having a common house plant that police mistook for marijuana.
Levy estimates there are more than 5,000 potential class members.
The INS counters that although the arrests might not have been severe enough to disqualify the individuals for U.S. citizenship, the individuals' failure to report them represents a failure of the "good moral character" required by federal law in order to earn that citizenship.
A judge has ruled for the plaintiffs; the INS is appealing.
Meanwhile, opposition to the 1996 law is growing. Next week members of Citizens and Immigrants for Equal Justice, a group of people affected by the 1996 changes, will meet with members of Congress to advocate for a reform of the reforms. And a bill introduced in January by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) would return the definition of felony to crimes carrying a five-year prison term. That bill also would create a seven-year statute of limitations, allow aliens the prospect of bail, and restore judicial review of individual cases -- probably the most important element from a legal perspective, notes Wolchok. She says that in many cases, "the courts are saying you can get review. But the fight has been only whether you have the right to be here, not whether the law is being interpreted correctly."
Moynihan's bill is still in committee, an aide says, and as yet it has no sponsors. But Wolchok sees hope. "It was a nice surprise when he introduced that bill," she says. "I think in the coming weeks you may see a lot of interest in this type of remedy."
The widespread attention of critics who focused on McCollum's championing of a favored son may help. McCollum has reportedly expressed interest in a broad remedy as well, but so far his only contribution to the cause is a bill that would establish a full-fledged immigration court.
"McCollum has had a proposal for years to make the immigration court autonomous," says Wolchok. But the result would be an end to appeals to the federal court, she adds, which could be bad for people like Steve deMeer.
Fearing he could be thrown into jail while he awaited resolution of his case, deMeer turned in his green card and moved to Amsterdam on his own. He has since married Makarewicz, an American citizen. Both say they miss the United States.
Their friends in America miss them, too.
Cheslock has kept S&S Custom Photographic Services in business, but it hasn't been the same without deMeer. "Steve was sort of Stan's salvation at the end of the day, whether it be talking on the radios or having rocket races, or ... anything that they would come up with, any goofy thing," says Charlene Cheslock, Stan's wife. "He doesn't have anyone there with him to joke around with."
Stan Cheslock says he's been hospitalized twice for stress-related illness since deMeer left. The irony of his business partner's situation still shocks him after a year apart, Cheslock says: "He's more American than, shoot, me."