Witness fears forced ouster

Estonian who testified against church leaders wants to stay in U.S.

`Taken advantage of'

July 29, 1999|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

After months of laboring at menial jobs for the pastor of a Woodbine church, a young Estonian immigrant says she faces another injustice: a forced return to her country and a family that doesn't want her back.

"They promised to help us, and they didn't," said Rita Rastas, 18, referring to federal agents. "Why can't they let us stay?"

Rastas' fear is shared by other young Estonians who were brought illegally into the country with the promise of a free education and instead were exploited by leaders of a small Howard County religious group. Three leaders of the Word of Faith World Outreach church in Woodbine were sentenced to up to 27 months in prison Tuesday for conspiring to commit visa and immigration fraud.

Some of the dozen Estonians have returned to the small country on the Baltic Sea. But Rastas doesn't want to. Rastas, her twin sister, Julia, and a friend, Jelena Parmanova, live with a family in Perry Hall.

With other Estonian immigrants, the trio provided crucial evidence against the church leaders. They described how after arriving in the United States, they were forced to clean a bookstore and apartment buildings and install office furniture.

After helping federal authorities with their case, Rastas faces a return to a bleak life in Estonia. She says her father doesn't want her to return, and she has nowhere to live. Like five other Estonians remaining in the United States, she was told by federal authorities to leave by Aug. 31.

Immigration and Naturalization Service officials are offering them a slight hope that they can stay -- though without assurance that they could stay permanently.

Pay for education

An INS official said yesterday the Estonians can remain if they go to high school and pay the costs of their education from restitution the three convicted leaders have been ordered to pay. According to federal law, immigrants must pay to attend public schools.

A 19-year-old Estonian, who hasn't finished high school, and his 21-year-old brother live in Catonsville. They are working for a local company and had the option of staying but declined to do so, said an INS official who requested anonymity. They're expected to leave soon.

An 18-year-old living in Pennsylvania has also decided to return to Estonia and finish her education there, that official said.

More than $4,000 each

For the trio living in Perry Hall, staying here under INS conditions would mean paying more than $4,000 each to attend public high school next year, they say.

"I really think they have been taken advantage of," said Martha Carter, the woman who is taking care of them. "On Monday, [federal agents] asked what day they wanted to go back so they could get a plane ticket by Aug. 31."

Rastas' immigration lawyer says the INS is being unfair and can use other visas to let them stay, including one reserved for government informants.

"I think they are being victimized, to some extent, twice," said Ann Carr, the lawyer. "First, by the people who brought them over. Second, by the [authorities'] unwillingness to give them any opportunity to finish off their education."

Student visas

Barry Tang, assistant district director of investigations for the INS, said a student visa would be the only one that would be available.

"We told them that if they could afford school, they could go to school," Tang said. What would happen after school is unclear.

Rastas says she needs to complete at least two years of high school and likely will only be able to afford one. The Estonians don't know how much restitution they will receive.

"What about next year?" she asked. "Next year they'll just make me go back."

Carter and Rastas are also worried that restitution might not be paid before school starts in the fall.

To help her Estonian charges, Carter has made dozens of phone calls and written letters to officials, including U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland. She has received no response.

Accepting blame

During Tuesday's sentencings in federal court in Baltimore, Rastas was clad in baggy jeans and a tank-top shirt and sported purple- and blue-painted finger nails. She sat quietly in the second-to-last row of the courtroom doodling on a note pad and listening as the church's pastor, Joyce E. Perdue, conducted what sounded like a sermon about Perdue's past, being raped at age 18, and her love of God. More than once, Perdue opened her hands toward the spectators and accepted the blame for illegally bringing a dozen Estonians into the country.

"I've heard that stuff so many times over and over again," Rastas said. "She says one thing and does another."

Perdue, 55, was sentenced to 27 months in prison and ordered to pay the Estonians $67,494 in wages. The judge also ordered her to pay a $25,000 fine.

Associate Pastor Robert C. Hendricks, 38, was sentenced to two years in prison; administrator Elizabeth Brown, 40, received a one-year term and a recommendation that she serve it in a halfway house.

All three are free on bond pending an appeal.

Told them to lie

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