Karolina Bladek has spent most of her short life swaddled in red tape.
Until Saturday, when it unraveled in her mother's kiss.The 2 1/2-year-old Polish girl, accompanied by her grandfather, trotted off the plane from Warsaw at John F. Kennedy International Airport and tumbled into her mother's arms for the first time in two years.
Clutching a giant stuffed lion, Regina Bladek whispered her daughter's pet name - "Karolinka, Karolinka" - terrified that the toddler wouldn't recognize her.
Karolina's response sounded magical to her mom.
"Mama Regina," she cried in Polish, squeezing her mother's face. "I remember you from the pictures."
This was no typical immigrant family reunion.
A U.S. senator had to intervene on Karolina's behalf. And a relatively rare immigration procedure called "humanitarian parole" had to be approved before she could enter the country.
For two years Karolina was stuck in Poland, shuttled from one relative to another, while in Enfield, Conn., her parents waited in their dimly lit, basement apartment - at a loss to understand why their daughter was prevented from following them to America.
"How can you keep a baby from her mother?" sobbed Mrs. Bladek, who last saw her daughter on April 9, 1994, when Karolina was 8 months old. "How could I have stayed away?"
Karolina's convoluted journey began in 1993, when Greg Bladek, 24, and his 22-year-old wife won green cards in an immigrant lottery.
The green cards would allow the Polish couple to emigrate to the United States where they could live, work and raise their baby.
"America was our future," Bladek said.
In recession-racked southeastern Poland, he worked in construction and Mrs. Bladek was a hairdresser, and they lived with his parents because they couldn't afford a place of their own.
Lottery visas come with strict requirements and deadlines - health checks, administrative forms, proof of financial support. The Bladeks met them all, right down to the tiny passport photo of their 4-month-old baby.
Then Karolina got pneumonia. Worried about the effect of the journey on her health, but under a deadline to enter the United States by April 1994, the Bladeks left their daughter behind with relatives. They assumed she could join them when she had recovered. Meantime, they would live in Connecticut where Bladek had cousins and the promise of a job.
But when the time came for Karolina to join them, her parents were told that the baby's papers had expired and their only recourse was to file a "petition for alien relative" - a process that takes about three years.
The couple said they were afraid - mistakenly - that if they returned to Poland to see her they would not be permitted back into the United States.
"There was no doubt that the baby was entitled to be here," said Mark Stephanou, an aide to Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn. "But once they let her visa expire, they were in trouble. They had to show exceptional circumstances and that is very difficult to do."
Stephanou got involved in Karolina's plight after a friend of the family turned to his office for help.