Roanoke Times, VA
Jan 30 2004

Tommy Denton: Two sisters ponder meaning in 'family values'

As of this writing, I'm not sure of the status of the jailing of Emma
and Mariam Sarkisian.

The sisters were under the impression they were from Las Vegas, Nev.,
but federal officials disputed that they belong anywhere within the
United States. Last week, after their Jan. 13 arrest in Las Vegas,
they sat in an immigration detention cell in a center adjacent to the
jail in Los Angeles County in California, at one point missing a
court-ordered deportation flight by less than an hour before a
federal judge granted an extension of their appeals.

Emma, 18, is a 2004 graduate of Palo Verde High School in Las Vegas;
Mariam, 17, is - or had been, depending on her legal status - a
senior at PVHS.

Officials with the Homeland Security Department have sought their
deportation for violation of U.S. immigration laws. It would appear,
according to the feds, that the girls are guilty of living in America
after their father divorced his former wife, who was a U.S. citizen.

At least U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., urged Homeland Security
Secretary Tom Ridge on Thursday to look personally into the actions
of his minions. But by then, much needless damage was already done.

Emma and Mariam had accompanied their mother and father, Anoush and
Rouben Sarkisian, when they slipped out of the Soviet Union on a
tourist visa in 1991 and fled to America. Rouben remains a legal
resident. So were the sisters, according to letters sent from the
U.S. Justice Department in 1997 that showed acceptance of their
applications for residency.

For Rouben Sarkisian, who now runs Tropicana Pizza at the
all-American intersection of Pecos Road and Wigwam Parkway in Las
Vegas, the years since arriving in his new country have not exactly
been filled with unceasing romanticism.

Not long after the Sarkisians arrived, Anoush petitioned for
political asylum just as the Soviet Union was dissolving. Her
petition was denied, but she and Rouben had three more daughters in
the next three years before their marriage broke up.

A second marriage, to a U.S. citizen, provided Rouben legitimate
residence status, but that marriage ended as well. For the next few
years, Rouben lived with his five daughters and shared rearing them
with Anoush.

Last July, he took Emma and Mariam to immigration officials in Las
Vegas to inquire about their status. His marriage to a U.S. citizen
may have provided residency status for him, he was told, but that
divorce erased the daughters' standing. They would have to go - to
Armenia, a country that did not exist as a country in 1991, a "place"
where the girls may have been born but where they knew no one and
knew not one word of Armenian.

But Armenia - now an independent nation, formerly a Soviet republic -
refused to accept them, saying the girls had been born in a country
that no longer exists, that is, the Soviet Union. So they took up
virtual residence in Limbo.

By Jan. 14, Armenia changed its mind and declared that the daughters
would be issued passports after all. To the Homeland Security
Department's apparent satisfaction, they were placed in custody and
put on a plane to Los Angeles.

Local Russian and Armenian supporters rallied to their cause, with
Las Vegas attorney Jeremiah Wolf Stuchiner filing a federal habeas
corpus petition, the stay granted by a U.S. magistrate, that at least
kept the sisters in the L.A. detention center.

A 26-year veteran of the Immigration and Naturalization Service
before opening his private law practice, Stuchiner must have thought
that his quarter-century of experience was irrelevant to this
Kafkaesque scenario of an official insistence upon rending two
sisters from the rest of their family.

Stuchiner called the proceedings "madness," and noted that the
bureaucratic rigidities arising from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist
attacks have taken a toll on reason and common sense in this
particular case.

"[The attacks] have caused the most compassionate nation in the
world," Stuchiner told the Las Vegas Sun, "to not have compassion
with a couple of teenage girls."

Maybe things that never should have happened are eventually going to
work out all right after all, 14 years after a young family sought
refuge from the Soviet tyranny.

Don't be surprised, though, if Emma and Marian Sarkisian read with a
more jaundiced eye the words inscribed at the entrance to the
pedestal of the Statue of Liberty: "Give me your tired, your poor,
your huddled masses yearning to breathe free" - in the land of family
values.