Jamaicans targeted for deportation
By Tanya Golash-Boza
Tanya is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and American Studies at the University of Kansas. The stories in this article are part of a larger project where Tanya interviewed over 150 deportees in Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Brazil and form the basis of her forthcoming book: Deported. She blogs about deportation and about being a professor.
Victor emigrated to the U.S. from Jamaica when he was five. He joined his mother and sister, who already lived in Brooklyn, and started school right away. Kids teased him: they called him coconut and said he came over on a banana boat. He had his first fight in elementary school, when another student threw a chicken bone at him during lunch.
By the time Victor got to high school, the taunting stopped, because he was indistinguishable from the other young black men in Brooklyn. When he graduated in the 1990s from an overcrowded, underequipped, and drug-ridden high school, Victor wanted the life his mother wanted for him, a life free from the poverty they knew both in Kingston and in Brooklyn. “I started seeing my mother struggling,” he says “and I just wanted to help.”
Victor earned little money, however, at his record store job. He decided to sell marijuana to make ends meet, and his life quickly turned sour. He was caught, charged with felony possession of marijuana, and put on probation at age 18. With a felony on his record, finding a job became next to impossible, though as a legal permanent resident, Victor could work. Department stores wouldn’t even hire him during the holiday season, “when they were giving out jobs,” he recalls. “I feel that one charge took my life through stigma,” he says. He went back to selling marijuana, and when he was caught again, he got a four-year prison sentence for violating probation. After that, the almost-native Brooklynite faced an even harsher sentence: Victor was deported to Jamaica, taking his place among the 30,000 deportees there who once lived in the U.S.
The story of Jamaican deportation is not a tale one familiar with Jamaican immigrants would expect to hear. Most of our cultural lore about Jamaican immigrants focuses on their economic successes, triumphant stories that are too often held up in contrast to what’s perceived as the lesser achievements of African-Americans. All this attention on West Indian economic success, however, obscures stories like Victor’s, which are in fact all-too-common.
Emigration has been a way of life for Jamaicans for over fifty years; today, half of the Jamaican population lives abroad. About 637,000 Jamaican migrants lived in the United States as of 2009, nearly half of those in New York City, and another 28 percent in south Florida. Remarkably, over half of Jamaican migrants to the U.S. are women, but more than 95 percent all Jamaican deportees are men, says Bernard Headley, a criminologist at the University of the West Indies.
When I met Victor in 2009, he’d been in Jamaica for ten years. I asked Victor how he felt when he first returned to the country of his birth. He told me he would sit in his room and “stress the hell out.” He was used to having “family that loves you and makes sure you are alright,” he said, “and you come here.” His ideas for his future revolve around leaving. He’s already tried to return to the States three times. The only thing stopping him from getting out, in his view, is money: “right now if I have $5,000, I’m gone … the time it takes you to work here and kill yourself, it’s better you go to America,” he said.
Victor lives in the same Kingston neighborhood he and his mother left in the 1970s – Allman Town, an inner city garrison filled with poverty and violence. Most Americans I met in Kingston feared entering
The United States government once agreed with Victor’s sentiments, as difficult as that may be to believe today. In 1953, when the U.S. government was deporting suspected communists, the Presidential Commission charged with reviewing deportation orders issued this surprising conclusion: “Each of the aliens is a product of our society. Their formative years were spent in the United States, which is the only home they have ever known. The countries of origin which they left … certainly are not responsible for their criminal ways.”
The idea that the United States should bear responsibility for the criminal activity of a person born abroad came to an official end in 1996, with the passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), which eliminated judicial review of criminal deportation orders. As a consequence, deportation laws in the United States are very strict: anyone who is not a citizen that is caught with illegal drugs faces deportation. No matter how small their crime, or how close their ties to the United States
Deportation and drug laws
Punitive drug and deportation laws have hit Jamaicans disproportionately hard. The War on Drugs began with the passage of the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which imposed mandatory minimum sentences on drug possession. Blacks and Latinos have been disproportionately affected by these laws, and we can attribute the massive rise in incarceration since the 1980s largely to the War on Drugs.
The drug laws of New York State have been particularly harsh since 1973, when Governor Rockefeller enacted mandatory prison sentences for drug crimes. These laws have been strengthened since then, and impose mandatory prison sentences for the possession or sale of small quantities of narcotics. Mandatory sentencing laws have sent millions of people to prison, mostly black and Latino men, yet have done little to reduce drug consumption in New York. Although whites make up the vast majority of drug users, blacks and Latinos are much more likely to be incarcerated. More than 94 percent of people jailed for drug offenses are black or Latino, according to David Leven of the Lindesmith Center.
One in 24 Jamaican legal permanent residents have been deported back to Jamaica since 1996. About 10,000 of those deportees were legal permanent residents of the United States, deported on criminal convictions.
Perhaps that’s because drug and deportation laws have something in common: they are so strict as to require selective enforcement. Deporting each one of the millions of people who lack the legal right to remain in the United States is impossible. Punishing the tens of millions of citizens and non-citizens who use and sell drugs in this country isn’t feasible. So the laws are, inevitably, selectively enforced.
In practice, selective enforcement translates into law enforcement agents chasing the most vulnerable populations and visible populations. As young black men, Jamaicans are prime targets. Incarceration has become a common event for black American men: sociologists Becky Pettit and Bruce Western point out that black men born since the 1960s are more likely to have gone to prison than they were to have served in the army or gone to college.
In the case of drug offenses, the data are particularly striking. In the United States, black men are sent to prison on drug charges thirteen times the rate of white men. Five times as many whites, however, use illegal drugs as blacks. These numbers are important for understanding deportations, as about a third of all deportees are deported for drug charges, and most criminal deportees are men.
Like many black Americans and other black immigrants, Jamaican immigrants live in areas with high levels of street crime and a heavy police presence. In New York City, various police initiatives have increased the likelihood that black men will be arrested. During the 1990s, the primary focus of quality of life policing initiatives was smoking marijuana in public view. By 2000, this had become New York’s most common misdemeanor arrest. Most of the people arrested have been black or Hispanic. Non-citizens face particularly harsh consequences: two marijuana convictions lead to automatic deportation, even for legally present immigrants.
The interviews I conducted with deported Jamaicans indicate that, in the United States, they lived in areas with a heavy police presence and were often racially profiled by police officers. For example, many deportees recounted that they were pulled over by a police officer in a routine stop and their car was searched. Others told me they were stopped and frisked on a street corner. One deportee explained how he was arrested for marijuana possession: “One time I was walking with [marijuana] in my pocket…but it wasn’t any major amount, just a little smoking portion.”
An American in Jamaica
Jamaicans, like many immigrants, come to the United States with high aspirations and have networks that enable them to find employment. But those connections don’t always translate into a living wage. Victor’s mother, for example, used her networks to find odd jobs babysitting and housecleaning. Without steady work, she struggled to pay the bills and support her family.
The Jamaican deportees I spoke with also described their neighborhoods as filled with opportunities to make money by selling drugs. O’Ryan, for example, was deported after drugs were found on a passenger in the car he was driving. Like Victor, O’Ryan moved to the United States when he was six years old, to join his mother and grandmother who had migrated a few years earlier.
“It took me years to learn how to talk like this,” O’Ryan told me with a strong New York accent. O’Ryan graduated with honors from his junior high school, and made it into John Dewey, a competitive high school in Brooklyn. However, as many of his friends dropped out, O’Ryan slowly stopped going himself. He earned his GED, and enrolled in Mercy College, where he studied computer programming.
His studies were cut short by an arrest. One evening, a friend called to ask him to pick him up when his car broke down. They encountered a police roadblock on the way home, and his friend confessed: “Yo, I’m dirty.” The police found the drugs and O’Ryan was sentenced to three to nine years for drug trafficking. He spent 18 months in jail, released early when he agreed to do a boot camp.
On the day of O’Ryan’s graduation from boot camp, his mother, his girlfriend, and his newly born daughter came to the graduation. O’Ryan saw his daughter for the first time. He expected to go home with them and start his life over. Instead, immigration agents showed up to tell him he was going to be deported. O’Ryan had been in the U.S. for nearly twenty years, and had no family he knew in Jamaica.
Talking to O’Ryan, it’s hard to believe that he’s lived in Jamaica for seven years.
These stories show that the aggressive policing and racial profiling that are part of the War on Drugs make it so that Jamaicans who use or sell marijuana or cocaine, who have friends that sell drugs, or who are peons in the drug business, are frequently arrested and charged with drug crimes. Their convictions lead to them spending time in jail, and, because of the aggressive enforcement of punitive immigration laws, they are deported after serving their time. The deportation of these drug offenders and drug users is completely unrelated to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) efforts to stop terrorism. Nevertheless, because of police cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), any Jamaican stopped by a police officer could end up being deported.
Deporting long-term legal permanent residents whose parents and children are U.S. citizens is a tremendous waste of resources, and has long-term social consequences. Immigrants turn to selling drugs because of the undesirable nature of low-skilled jobs and the abundant opportunities to sell drugs. Deporting small-time drug offenders does nothing to change those systemic issues, so deportation does little to get drugs off U.S. streets. The costs to their families left behind greatly outweigh any benefits – real or perceived – of deporting small-time drug offenders. Victor and O’Ryan face a life of poverty in Jamaica, as do the children left behind in the United States when their fathers are deported.
Kanstroom, Daniel. Deportation Nation: Outsiders in American History. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2010.
Ong Hing, Bill. Deporting Our Souls: Values, Morality, and Immigration Policy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Ngai, Mai, M. Impossible Subjects lllegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.
Tanya’s book, Immigration Nation: Raids, Detentions, and Deportations in Post-9/11 America, is forthcoming in September 2011 from Paradigm Publishers.