Baby Hannah has the hiccups. As the spasm hits her chest, her brown eyes, already as big as moons, widen in surprise. The baby, the namesake of her great-grandmother, Hannah Smith, bounces stiffly on Smith's lap. Smith starts to sing, "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."
"You're my star, Hannah," the great-grandmother coos into the baby's face. "You're gonna be my star."
The baby, mesmerized and still spasming rhythmically, launches awkwardly forward, latches onto a leathery cheek and starts to suck.
Everything about this late spring afternoon scene appears comfortingly familiar: a doting great-grandmother, a bright-eyed, gurgling 4-month-old baby dressed in a yellow onesie and a bib. The music box tinkles with nursery rhymes. The picture of normal.
Except that it isn't. It is a tableau framed by civil war. A single moment of impetuous violence. Relatives who no longer speak. And immigration during the war on terrorism. Though the future of all babies is uncertain, Baby Hannah's at times seems desperately so.
Baby Hannah was born in Carroll County in January, not in one of those new, sleek birthing suites to gushing parents, but in a detention facility of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service, to a mother she would know for seven days.
Claudia Smith, Baby Hannah's mother and Hannah Smith's granddaughter, is set to be deported to Sierra Leone for violating U.S. immigration laws. She hasn't seen the war-torn African country since she was 5 years old. She has exhausted nearly all her court appeals and has pleaded for clemency in letters to members of Congress and to Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. All have been denied. The few times Baby Hannah has seen her mother, she has been in shackles.
Hannah Smith, 69, limps from the chronic arthritis in her joints. Her blood pressure is high. She retired from working as a nanny last year because she couldn't keep up with the toddlers anymore. She is the only mother Baby Hannah has ever known. Claudia, 24, in letters written in purple ink, asks that Smith be the only one to care for the baby. Of some other members of the family, she writes, "don't even let them know about her."
The cramped one-bedroom apartment in a senior housing complex is the only home Baby Hannah has. During the day, her world is bounded by the walls of the 16-by-12-foot living room. The objects that catch the baby's fascination are the porcelain knickknacks -- the Princess Diana plate, the framed photo of President Bill Clinton, the maple syrup displayed in a bottle the shape of a maple leaf. At night, the baby sleeps in the back bedroom, where stacks of suitcases run halfway up the wall. She curls up on the double bed with pink sheets next to her great-grandmother.
A baby swing and a yellow and orange activity center with bright balls to spin and doughnut rings to turn are crammed among statues depicting "The Last Supper" and the end table with Smith's Bible on a lace doily. Not far is a wooden plaque depicting Jesus, and reading, "Suffer the Children to Come Unto Me."
Hannah Smith knows she cannot keep her great-granddaughter hidden here forever. She has taken her to the Mormon church for services on Sunday and to appointments with the pediatrician. But nowhere else. Baby Hannah has never been to the park. Or out for a stroll.
The subsidized senior housing building has rules. No cats. No dogs. Definitely no babies. If people find out, Smith is afraid she'll be forced to leave. And it's only a matter of time before they do, she says. Thank heaven the baby doesn't cry much, she says. If they're forced out, she doesn't know where they'll go. A previous employer waded through the confusing bureaucracy to get her this place. And there is no money for anything else, she says. She spent all her money on legal fees trying to save Claudia.
And now that Claudia's case is lost, she does not want to lose Claudia's daughter. "Adoption. Foster care. No. We take care of our children," she says firmly. "I don't want her to go to anyone. I'm the one. I don't know how long God will allow me."
Sending the baby back to Sierra Leone with Claudia is unthinkable. All of Smith's seven children are in America or England. All of her brothers and sisters are dead. There are no friends to call on for help. Or nobody who would help if they knew the truth about Claudia. For years, she told family that Claudia was just away at school. "It's a great shame," Smith says. "A big disgrace on my family."
Other relatives declined to comment. Some have recently fallen out over Baby Hannah's future, Smith said. Others, like Claudia's father, one of her seven children, she said she has not spoken to in years.
Sometimes, when Smith needs a break from the five bottles a day, the rice cereal, the two baths, three naps and long, slow hours of playing peekaboo, a friend from upstairs comes down with her walker. Sometimes, when Baby Hannah starts to cry, Smith cries as well. "If I knew this would happen to me, I would not have come to America," she says in a lilting West African accent. "Better that I die over there."
Baby Hannah, still hiccupping, gurgles and chews on her fist.
Baby Hannah's story begins long before she was born, in 1980 in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Claudia's father was working in Liberia. Claudia's mother came to visit Smith in Freetown. She said she was going out to run some errands. She never came back. Claudia was 7 weeks old. Smith thinks Claudia's mother may later have been killed in the war.
In 1985 Smith brought the 5-year-old with her to America, to escape the civil war, and to live the American dream of fresh starts and second chances.
They lived for a time with one of Smith's daughters in Virginia. Claudia was doing well in school. She attended a magnet program. She ran track. Then Smith got work as a live-in nanny and moved out. Smith said she doesn't know, really, what happened next. But something went terribly wrong. When Claudia was 13, she went to live with her father and his new American wife in Washington. At 15, Claudia ran away from home. She wound up on the streets in Prince George's County.
What happened next depends on whom you believe. The court transcripts say Claudia fired a gun into a car. Claudia, in a letter to Ehrlich, remembers it differently: an angry fight over another girl's sofa, a gun fired in the air to scare the girl and her friends off, then apologies and a sleepover that night to make things right.
What is undisputed, however, is that a bystander was grazed by a bullet from a gun that Claudia fired. A public defender counseled Claudia to plead guilty to aggravated assault with intent to kill. A felony. She was charged as an adult and spent seven years in prison. Another girl charged with the same offense, who hired a lawyer, pleaded guilty to lesser charges and served less time.
This is where the war on terrorism comes in. While in prison, Claudia's visa expired. No one in her family had sought to make her a legal resident, though at the time becoming legal was fairly easy, the federal government giving protection to those fleeing the war. When she was released from prison in February 2002, the war in Sierra Leone was over and so were the easy visas. On a visit to check in with her parole officer in May 2003, immigration agents were waiting for her. She has been in detention ever since.
In the mid-1990s, Congress tightened immigration laws and made it easier to deport aliens with criminal records. The war on terrorism, which put immigration enforcement under the Department of Homeland Security, ensured there was enough money and agents to make deportations happen.
In 2001, the year the World Trade Center was hit, more than 1.4 million criminal aliens were detained and more than 71,000 deported, or "removed," the highest number ever, according to the 2002 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics.
Smith doesn't excuse Claudia for the gun. But she was young. She paid her dues, Smith says. She hasn't found a place for her and the baby because she always figured Claudia would, somehow, be freed. Baby Hannah's father was willing to marry Claudia to make her legal, her attorney said, but he was already married to somebody else. "People make mistakes in life. God forgives us. Why don't they forgive her and let her stay? Let America give her a second chance?" Smith says.
Baby Hannah begins to rub her eyes. Smith, fretful after another sleepless night, doesn't notice. She sighs and, as she does often, looks up at the ceiling, invoking the merciful Lord. "How will Claudia go back to this African life? She doesn't speak the language. She don't eat African food. She likes American food. She orders pizza and McDonald's. How will she start her life?"
The baby yawns, breaking her great-grandmother's trance. She looks at the tired baby. "Come here, Hannah Bannah," she says softly.
She rises from the chair with difficulty and limps the length of the living room. In her bedroom, she lays the baby on her tummy in a navy blue portable crib, a loan, like all the other baby things, from a former employer. Baby Hannah curls her legs up and wiggles back and forth, her diapered bottom in the air. The noise from the air conditioning unit and the radio tuned to a static-filled Christian station lull her. A music box plays "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." She pokes her tiny thumb into her mouth and falls into the unencumbered sleep of the innocent.