The Federal Government’s ICE trap: How a Serbian refugee/prisoner granted parole—but detained by ICE-- is facing a death sentence in Bosnia

The Federal Government’s ICE trap: How a Serbian refugee/prisoner granted parole—but detained by ICE-- is facing a death sentence in Bosnia
When will a Serbian refugee granted parole achieve liberty?

Those of you who know me are aware of two things:  my grandmother had a profound effect on my life because she always believed in me, and my parents forced me to go to law school, an experience that I mostly despised, with a silver lining; I met my husband and a few other great people (some of whom are the subject of this blog) at Northwestern Law.

I promise—there is a connection here.

But first, about my grandmother.  My grandmother was one of twelve children.  She was born in Mottele, Poland, and she survived the Holocaust because her eldest sister (a Chicago resident in 1924) needed a babysitter.  So, at 10, my grandmother was put on a ship and sent to travel on her own to live with a sister she barely remembered.  Of the twelve, the two Chicago sisters and one brother, survived the Holocaust.  The rest of the family perished; I have a transcript in my closet that tells the story of the Chez family (my grandmother’s maiden name).  In a sentence, most of our Chez relatives were thrown into a ditch, shot at, and killed by Poles supporting the Nazis.  The narrator of the story says that the Chez family was unique; in protest and in solidarity, my grandmother’s family members remained strong as they locked hands and faced death singing.  My great grandmother died before the Holocaust; I was named for her.  All I know about her is that she was shot in front of a synagogue, according to a letter that my grandmother received from a rabbi in Poland.

I don’t know much else because though I tried, my grandmother REFUSED to discuss any aspect of the Holocaust.  Yet, she was an inspiration to me, because every other topic was fair game.

Now back to law school.  There were a couple of classes that I loved:  Constitutional law, legal writing, work in the legal clinic during my third year of law school, and Ethics.  Northwestern had a great faculty.  Victor Rosenblum taught Constitutional Law and helped us make sense out of chaotic and often conflicting decisions.  Steve Lubet, my supervisor at NU’s legal clinic, assigned me to the Walter Polovchak case, giving me an opportunity to draft a legal brief (draft was sent to the ACLU) in support of a young boy who did not want to return to Russia. Walter Polovchak’s parents had decided that the United States wasn’t the haven they expected, and did not factor in Walter’s sentiments.  But it was Tom Geraghty whom I admired the most, a decent, diehard advocate and a most ethical human being.  Professor Geraghty taught Ethics and he (and my highly ethical husband) instilled in me a sense of ethics that had been lacking in my upbringing.  One of my closest friends was mentored by Tom Geraghty, and I will never forget watching potential come to fruition, as Geraghty supported Kay (pseudonym) in her argument in front of the 7th Circuit.  To this day, Kay and Geraghty continue to collaborate on community initiatives.  

And here’s where my two worlds intersect:  my refugee grandmother and Northwestern’s Center for Wrongful Conviction.

I righted my course in life by leaving the law and becoming a teacher. I had the good fortune to be supervised by Anne Krosnjar, a kind, incredibly decent, and inspiring educator in the field of gifted and talented education.  I had the privilege of working under Anne for eight years, and to this day, we remain friends.

In 2012, Anne told me about the case of Mladen Pecanec, a Serbian refugee (with significant language barriers and learning disabilities) who had been wrongfully convicted of a crime and sent to prison in Nevada.  You might be wondering why Mladen’s case came across Anne’s desk.  Anne and her husband, Djuoro Krosnjar, are members of the same church that Mladen attends, the Serbian Orthodox Church, and the Bishop of the Church, asked Anne and her husband to take a look at this case.  

Anne mentioned it to me, because she knew I had a legal background. After reviewing the case, I sent the pleadings to the late Jane Raley, a friend and then co-director at Northwestern’s Center on Wrongful Convictions (CWC) at, and the Center, though very selective, decided to take Mladen’s case.

After six long years of trying to clear Mladen, working with leaders of the Serbian Orthodox Church, detectives, private investigators, and lawyers at the CWC, Mladen was granted parole—thanks in large part to the tireless efforts of the lawyer who assumed the case after Jane died, Sara Sommervold.  Mladen, now in his 50s, had served 20 years; freedom, however, eluded him.  There was an ICE hold on Mladen’s parole, and so Mladen, even though granted parole, was unable to see his family.  Instead, Mladen was immediately sent to an ICE detention facility in Nevada.  Mladen’s team found outside counsel, with the help of CWC, and at first, we all were optimistic because ironically enough, Mladen, born in Serbia, could not be sent back to that country because it no longer existed.

Still, ICE officials refused to release Mladen.  Mladen was scared; COVID had come to the prison, he caught COVID, yet he soldiered on.  An immigration judge, however, ruled against him in a follow up proceeding, and now Mladen faces the prospect of deportation, not to nonexistent Serbia.  In an unbelievable twist, ICE officials tried to convince Mladen that he was born in Poland and he could return there, but the Krosnjar family told him NOT to sign any documents.  This was done BEFORE Mladen met with immigration legal counsel.  In fact, shortly thereafter, Mladen’s new counsel, Dee Sull, was misdirected to the actual facility in which Mladen has been detained. 

Sometimes, I wonder whose side some government officials are truly on.

I could go on and on about the injustices facing Mladen because they are breaking my heart in spite of the devotion of his family, the Krosnjar family, the Serbian Orthodox Church, my family, Mladen’s current counsel, Dee Sull and NU lawyer, Sara Sommervold.  We persist, but time is running out!  And now all I want to do is SHOUT.   I want to SHOUT to the Biden administration that there is still time to save Mladen’s life and allow him to live with his family, particularly his mother who has cancer.  I want to SHOUT that the US government needs to FOCUS on how refugees are treated, looking at individual cases and not as numbers on a border or held in ICE detention.  I want to SHOUT that unlike the death and destruction in my grandmother’s family, there is still TIME to SAVE Mladen and return him to his family in Nevada.  Take a look at where the government wants to send Mladen:

The situation for Serbians returning to Bosnia is not a life; it’s a death sentence.  

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