A Stranger in His Homeland
Color Lines, News Feature, Julianne Ong Hing Posted: Oct 26, 2009
Editor's Note: Calvin James was separated from his family when federal immigration agents deported him to Jamaica, where he was born. But in Jamaica, he found himself, not at home, but a stranger after a life spent in the United States. This story is part of "Torn Apart by Deportation," a series investigating the impacts of deportation on families of color and originally published by ColorLines.
When Calvin James stepped off the plane in Kingston, Jamaica, in 2004, it was late. In the dark, he could not make out any of the landmarks he remembered growing up with before he immigrated to the United States as a young boy.
Weeks later, he’d recognize his old school buildings and back alley playgrounds on those Kingston streets. But that first night, he recognized nothing. He never expected to return to Jamaica this way, on a charter flight with other men who, like him, were being kicked out of the U.S.
Deportees exist in an in-between land; they are not tourists, and yet they cannot go back home to the States. That night, James and the other deportees were taken to the central police station for questioning.
It is standard policy for Jamaican police to detain and question upon arrival the several thousand deportees who come every year—“Do you have family you will be contacting? What address will you be staying at? What are your local relatives’ names?”
But James had no one to call.
Like most deportees, he knew of distant relatives in the country, but he had no phone number or address for them. He gave what answers he could to the police and was let go into the streets of the notoriously dangerous Kingston.
“I landed in Spanish Town, in like a battle zone,” James recalled. “And that’s where they leave you. A foreigner don’t make it past a night on those streets.”
Even though he was born in Jamaica, James considered himself a foreigner. He had not been back since leaving for the U.S. when he was 12. He had grown up considering New York his home. After all, it was where his 6-year-old son, Josh, and his long-time partner, Kathy McArdle, were. He spoke very American English, having lost much of his Jamaican patois. Now here he was, 45 years old and exiled to Kingston.
Luckily, James had befriended another man who was on the same charter flight; he ended up staying with his friend for a week after confessing to him he had nowhere to go.
“When I first arrived in Jamaica, I could think about nothing else but, basically, survival,” James said. And yet, every day he missed his family in the U.S.
The same year James was deported from the U.S., Jamaica received 4,118 deportees from various countries, an all-time high. That year, 1,845 were deported from the U.S. alone, according to numbers provided by the Jamaican Ministry of National Security. The rest came mainly from the United Kingdom and Canada.
While the majority of people deported from the U.S. are kicked out for not having papers, another group of immigrants is deported because they have committed crimes like selling drugs or driving under the influence of alcohol. These people are very often legal residents, people who migrated with their families as children and were raised, educated and socialized in the U.S. They have owned businesses, bought homes and raised families of their own in the U.S.
Last year, 360,000 of these “criminal aliens,” as the immigration system calls them, were deported from the U.S.
It wasn’t always like this. But changes in immigration law in 1996 and policy decisions after Sept. 11 made any non-citizen who was ever found guilty of a broad set of crimes automatically deportable. Today, the criminal justice and immigration systems leave no room for the possibility of someone like James, who served time for selling drugs but had since become a respected worker whose life centered on his family, to stay in the country.
And because Blacks and Latinos are arrested, incarcerated and convicted at higher rates than other people, they are the ones at most risk of being deported. Systemic injustices built into the criminal justice system mean that immigration laws impact people of color disproportionately.
Deportees are separated from their families and lose forever their chance to rebuild their lives. Indeed, several Jamaican deportees interviewed for this article described deportation as a “life sentence,” a “death sentence,” an experience akin to “ripping up a flower from its roots and letting the buds fall where they will.”
James and other deportees describe an experience that’s defined by the struggle to make basic ends meet, by a forced social isolation and the desperate longing for family left behind in the U.S. These men and women end up paying with their entire lives for convictions—mostly nonviolent drug crimes—that they only want to leave behind.
Advocates are hopeful the Child Citizen Protection Act, proposed by Congressman Jose Serrano of New York, might curb the number of families who deal with the trauma of this forced separation. The bill would give immigration judges more discretion to consider the effect a parent’s removal from the country would have on a U.S.-citizen child before ordering deportation.
“While the bill is not reform,” admitted Manisha Vaze, an organizer with Families for Freedom, an immigrant defense network based in New York, “it’s definitely a first step to just immigration reform. Because it looks at the immigration system from the eyes of families, and comes from families, not in a top-down, exclusionary process.”
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