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Families Torn Apart by Deportation

Color Lines, News Feature, Seth Wessler Posted: Oct 25, 2009

Editor's Note: Calvin James was separated from his family when federal immigration agents deported him to Jamaica after a lifetime living in the United States for a decade-old, non-violent drug crime. 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. Part two will be published tomorrow.

It was shortly after 5 on the morning of June 2, 2004, when Calvin James woke up, put on his bathrobe and headed outside to put the trash bins out on the street for the pickup. As the super of his building in Jersey City, New Jersey, James liked taking the trash out early in the morning before the humidity settled in. Besides, the 45-year-old had to be at the first of his two bike messenger jobs in New York City by 7 a.m.He left his girlfriend, Kathy McArdle, asleep in their bed. In the next room was their 6-year-old son, Josh.

As he walked outside, James spotted a black SUV across the road. He thought nothing of it and continued his work. But as he pulled the last trash bin to the curb, four people jumped out of the vehicle, dressed in black clothing marked with the letters ICE. They bolted toward James, demanded he confirm his name, handcuffed him and pulled him into the back of the SUV in which several other officers were sitting in silence.

Inside, McArdle was startled awake to the sound of banging, followed by yelling. Officers with Immigration and Customs Enforcement were pounding on her front door and screaming, Federal agents, federal agents! We have Calvin James! We want pants, shirts, socks and shoes, right now!

McArdle pulled on some clothes and rushed out of her room to the front of the apartment. As she opened the door, four officers charged into the hallway. Immediately, her eyes fell to the guns on their holsters.

The officers took the clothes and shoes and left as quickly as they had arrived. After four months in immigration detention, first in New Jersey and then in Louisiana, James was put on a plane and deported to Jamaica, a place he had not set foot in since he was 12 years old.

Calvin Jamess crime? Being vulnerable to a dramatic change in U.S. immigration law.

The shift has altered the balance among some of our countrys most tightly embraced values and principles: we believe that nations have a sovereign right to determine who can enter and stay within their borders; our Constitution demands that due process be given to all; and people across the political spectrum claim to value families as central to our way of life. In the past decade, the scale has tipped in favor of an iron-clad attachment to that sovereign right, and hundreds of thousands of immigrants of color have been deported as a result.

For years in the United States, prisons have been filling up. When inmates are released back to their communities, they face a range of challenges from racial profiling by police to discrimination against people with criminal records. Despite the U.S. Constitutions prohibition on double jeopardybeing tried and convicted twice for the same crimeincarceration is just the beginning of a barrage of punishments that follow.

For immigrants who enter the criminal justice system, double punishment is a formal part of their legal landscape. While it has been true to some extent since the early part of the 20th century that immigrants convicted of some crimes could face the possibility of deportation after completing their sentences, the passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Individual Responsibility Act in 1996 changed this possibility into an airtight conclusion.

Before 1996, immigrants convicted of crimes served their time in prison and then could petition a judge to let them stay in the U.S. In most cases, judges held the power to weigh the many factors in a persons case, including how long a person had been in the country, if they had partners and children, if they were committed to turning their lives around. The system led to the deportation of tens of thousands of people each year, but for many, relief was available.

In 1996, immigration courts were suddenly stripped of the power to consider a persons full situation. It no longer mattered that they had children or had been in the U.S. almost all their lives as legal permanent residents. For immigrants found guilty of crime, deportation became the mandatory result of their conviction.

Now, anyone who is not a citizen can be deported even if convicted of a relatively minor misdemeanor and even if it happened many years before. By broadening the number of crimes that trigger mandatory deportationcalled aggravated felonies in immigration nomenclaturethe 1996 laws has pushed hundreds of thousands of immigrants who have already served time in prison into detention and deportation.

After their criminal cases have ended, immigrants are subject to the civil procedures of immigration courts, which are administrative bodies. Dana Leigh Marks, a federal immigration judge and president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, describes the civil nature of the courts this way: We are basically doing death penalty cases in a traffic court setting.

In 2008, almost 360,000 people were deported from the United States, about 100,000 as a result of some non-immigration-related criminal conviction. This is about three times the number deported as a result of criminal conviction before 1996. Eighty percent of criminal deportations were for non-violent crimes.

Separated from their families, these deportees are barred from ever returning to the U.S. and in effect are cast into permanent exile.

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