June 17, 2009

Three interviews in one day

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

I pulled myself out of bed this morning to take a pain reliever for the sore throat I developed somewhere between Rio and Kingston. Although I was feeling a bit under the weather, it was a big day, and I wasn’t going to miss it.

Evelyn, my research assistant, had arranged for me to meet three deportees who would tell me their stories. She came to pick me up at 10:00 am from my apartment. I told Evelyn I would give her gas money and pay her for each interviewee she introduced to me. In turn, she would explain to me the neighborhood and answer any questions I might have after the interview.

The first interview was in a mixed income neighborhood in Uptown Kingston. The neighborhood has everything from fancy two story houses to wooden shacks. We pulled up on a street of modest cement homes and Evelyn called out for Bobby to come outside. His brother said he had stepped out, but would be right back.

Bobby arrived within a few minutes. He was wearing a thin white tank top and white sweatpants. Bobby is dark-skinned, wiry, and muscular. He offered his hand to me to shake and I saw that he has the hands of a worker – hard and calloused. I shook his hand, although Evelyn pointed out his hands were dirty from working.

We settled down on some chairs in a half-way constructed room adjacent to the main house. The walls were partially constructed, and the roof was open. Turns out this was Bobby’s workshop. He is a trained welder, and had his equipment in this room.

As I interviewed Bobby, I learned that he had been in trouble with the law before going to the United States. He had been in several altercations, and spent some time in prison in Jamaica. Once he was released, his brother, who was living in the US, arranged for him to migrate to the US. Bobby had a temporary visa, yet he overstayed and became an undocumented migrant.

During the six years Bobby was in the US, he had three children, and worked several jobs. Yet, his brother was a hustler, and Bobby got caught up in that as well. As a consequence, Bobby was picked up by the police, and deported back to Jamaica. Few people would pity Bobby. However, as he pointed out, his children in the US are growing up without a father, and he doesn’t have the right to ever pay them a visit. He keeps in contact with his three children, and sends them money when he can. As a skilled welder, Bobby has been able to find ways to make money in Jamaica.

Our next stop was downtown Kingston – Raytown, a poor neighborhood by the sea. This is one of Kingston’s infamous inner-city neighborhoods. My second interviewee – Harold – was in his sixties, was emaciated, and wore tinted glasses and a white tee-shirt and khaki pants. I didn’t know him before he was deported, but it looked to me as if he had aged thirty years in the past ten.

Harold traveled back and forth from Jamaica to the US on temporary work visas from 1982 to 1988. In 1988, he and his wife decided they would stay in the US to earn enough money to put their children through school. They overstayed their temporary visas and set down roots in Fort Lauderdale. Harold worked as a welder and was doing fairly well for himself. However, he had an accident at work that destroyed two of the disks in his back. He was severely injured, and was in the process of figuring out his worker’s compensation when he found an opportunity to get his legalization.

In 1994, an immigration business in Fort Lauderdale told him he could get his papers for $3,000.00. Harold thought it would be a good idea to do that, so that he could apply for legalization for his children who he had left in Jamaica. It turns out that the office not only was a fraud, but also that the fraud operation was targeted in the moment Harold was in the office. So, somehow he ended up being detained and deported. In addition, he was unable to collect any settlement from his employer, although he is permanently disabled as a result of the work accident.

I asked Harold to tell me what happened several times, but I am not sure I understand exactly. I do know that he has paid dearly for whatever mistakes he made. I also know that he is having a very hard time in Jamaica. He has been back for ten years, and has not been able to get back on his feet. He looked old beyond his years; he didn’t have a chair for me to sit on; and he lives alone in a room in the back of a house.

I asked Harold if anyone helped him in Jamaica. He said they don’t. I asked him how he survives, and he responded by the grace of God. He then pointed out that Evelyn had seen him not too long before, and had asked him if he was hungry. Then he paused and tears began to stream down his cheeks. He said it touched him so deeply that anyone cared what happened to him. Deported to Jamaica, far from his wife and kids, he feels abandoned.

My last interviewee of the day was also in Raytown. Kareem has been back in Jamaica for two years, after having been deported from the US, where he lived for ten years. Kareem went to the US in 1994 to join his mother, who had obtained legalization several years before. Because of his mother, he also obtained legal permanent residency in the US.

He moved to Flatbush in Brooklyn, NY with his mother. Once he found a job, he moved out on his own, and was doing fairly well. Kareem met a woman, and they had two kids together, although they never married. Like many Jamaicans, Kareem smokes marijuana, and this habit got him into trouble. He was picked up a couple of times by the police and charged with possession. He never spent any time in jail for these offenses, and had no idea there were immigration consequences for these charges.

One day, Kareem was found driving with a suspended license. His license was suspended due to unpaid tickets. The police took Kareem to Riker’s Island Jail and set the bail at $3,000. Kareem chose not to pay it, and decided he would prefer to spend three days in jail. The next day, Kareem was informed he had a visit. It turned out it was immigration agents, and they took Kareem into custody.

His multiple drug possession offenses – i.e. being caught smoking weed twice – combined to become an aggravated felony for immigration purposes, and Kareem faced deportation. He was placed in immigration detention, where he spent seven months, until he was deported on a US Marshall plane back to Jamaica.

In Kingston, Kareem has no close relatives – nearly all of his family is in the US. He lives in Raytown, where he could find an inexpensive room to rent, and dreams of the day he can drive a taxi to make a living for himself.

Bobby is doing okay for himself because his brothers live with him, and he has a skill that he can use to employ himself. Harold is having a very hard time because of his injury. He does have children in Kingston, but they seem to have lost interest in supporting him. Kareem says he felt completely lost for several months, but now plans to get back on his feet. He needs money to do this, and was getting funds from his mother in the US, until she fell ill not too long ago.

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