June 25, 2009

A Brooklyn Story

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Victor’s mother took him to Brooklyn when he was four years old. She obtained her legal permanent residency in the US, and brought her children to the States to live with her. When Victor first arrived in Brooklyn, other children teased him because of his accent, calling him a “coconut,” taunting him about the “banana boats.” By high school, no one teased Victor anymore, as he had become indistinguishable from the other black youth in Brooklyn. Growing up in Brooklyn, he learned to stand up for himself. He graduated from Wingate High School in 1991.

Upon graduation, Victor got a job as a messenger. He worked there for a couple of years, but the pay wasn’t enough for him to move out on his own and become independent. His mother had separated from her husband because of domestic abuse, and was barely able to make ends meet with housekeeping and babysitting jobs. Victor saw his friends making money selling marijuana, and decided to get in on the game.

As a street level seller, he quickly was caught. His first charge was possession of marijuana, and he was given three years probation. Victor managed to stay out of trouble for a while. However, in 1996, he was caught with 50 pounds of marijuana, and was sentenced to four years in prison. He served two and a half years, and, in 1999, was deported to Jamaica. Victor was 27 years old. He had visited Jamaica once when he was about 15, but had no close ties to the country.

Victor's mother found a cousin who was willing to pick him up from the airport and put him up for a while. But, this was a relative they barely knew. Plus, he had been to America. He had been given the opportunity of a lifetime, and he screwed up. Victor’s relatives barely had enough to get by themselves. So, he quickly wore out his welcome.

Victor can’t find a job in Jamaica. He doesn’t have any skills. He walks, talks, and acts like a Yankee. He has no connections – no one to help him find a job.

I asked him what he does to survive – he told me he sells whatever he can find. He burns CDs and sells them; he sells used clothes; he sells whatever he can. His mother in the US barely is scraping by herself, and can’t afford to support him. I asked Victor where he sleeps. He said “here and there.”

Transplanted from Brooklyn to Brownstown, a rough inner city neighborhood in Kingston, I am amazed he has survived this long. As I am talking to him, all I can see is a New Yorker. There is nothing Jamaican about him. I ask Victor if he can speak patois. He says, “Yeah, me can speak patwa.” He can, more or less, but he has an accent. Anyone can see he’s a Yankee.

Victor has been in Kingston for ten years. He is surviving, just barely.

Victor broke the law. He was a guest of the United States. But, does it really make sense to deport him to Jamaica? As the 1953 Presidential Commission charged with reviewing deportation orders from the US pointed out, “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” (quoted in Morawetz 2000: 1961).

Victor grew up in poverty in Brooklyn. His path into hustling was his own choice. Yet, it is also the path of many, many poor youth from Brooklyn. Many youth make the choice to sell drugs because it is a way to make money while maintaining their dignity. Selling drugs in Brooklyn, they don’t have to travel to Manhattan to clean up after rich folks. Victor saw what life held for the working poor when he looked at his mother, and he didn’t feel inclined to follow that path.

Had Victor been a citizen of the United States, he would have served his time, been released, and been able to make his choices about how to better his life in America. Instead, he was deported to a land he barely knows. Victor was eligible for citizenship. At age nine, his mother could have taken him to the INS and naturalized him. She probably didn’t have the extra time and money to do so. Victor could have become a citizen himself at age 18, but he didn’t do it. Like many American teenagers, he had other things on his mind. Now, he is paying dearly for his failure to apply for citizenship.

It’s hard to see who is winning in this situation, yet it’s crystal clear who the losers are – Victor, whose main wish is to return to America, his mother, who longs for her son, and Victor’s daughter, who has grown up without her father.

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