July 2, 2009

American children with Jamaican passports: Should we hold minors responsible when their parents don’t apply for their citizenship?

We live just four blocks from the Devon House, where they have splendid gardens and sell fabulous ice cream. This afternoon, Nando and I walked with the kids over to the Devon House to get some fresh air and ice cream. I had no idea I would meet a deportee with an interesting story on the way back.

Walking back from the Devon House, Raymi decided she wanted to take a break. She sat down at the bus stop while Tatiana, Soraya, their friend MJ, and I kept on walking toward the house. When Raymi decided she had rested enough, Nando and Raymi began walking again. They stopped at the corner to let a motorcyclist pass. Instead of passing, the driver stopped to ask Nando if he was lost or looking for something. Nando told him that he lived nearby. The driver commented that the place looked expensive. Nando responded that we are visiting from the US.

They got to chatting, and it turns out the young man is a deportee named Dwayne. Nando told Dwayne that his wife (me) is writing a book on deportees, and offered to introduce him to me. Nando and Raymi got a lift on the motorcycle home.

When they arrived, I was outside with my twin daughters, as Nando had the key. Nando introduced us, and Dwayne began to tell me his story. One of the first things he mentioned was that he is looking for a better job. I noticed he had a nice motor scooter. He said that his mother helps him out in Jamaica, but that he wishes he could be more independent. Here, he has no hope for things getting much better.

Dwayne moved to the US when he was six years old with his mother. He went to school in Cleveland, Ohio. After graduating from high school, he got mixed up in dealing drugs. He was arrested on a drug charge, convicted, and spent time in prison. Upon release from prison, Dwayne was deported to a country he barely remembered.

Dwayne told me, “I’m no angel, but I never killed anybody.” He said the only criminal activity he had engaged in was selling drugs. He had never killed, robbed, or done any other violent crimes. Nevertheless, here in Jamaica, he faces a severe stigma for being a deportee. Other Jamaicans see that he has been abroad, and still hasn’t made much of himself. So, they look down on him.

Back in Jamaica, Dwayne is just barely getting by. He says that in the US, he had hopes and dreams. Here he has nothing. He told me he stays out of trouble. He has heard about how awful, filthy, and hot the prisons are in Jamaica. Even if he wanted to sell drugs, he doesn’t have the connections to get involved in the extensive criminal enterprise in Jamaica. In the US, Dwayne’s crime was selling illegal substances.

In the United States, over 40 percent of people over the age of twelve have used drugs (http://www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov/publications/factsht/druguse/ ). I am not denying that drug use is a social problem in the US. However, it does not seem as though deporting people like Dwayne to Jamaica does anything to ameliorate the situation. There is no evidence that deporting drug offenders alleviates any of the social problems associated with drug use.

There is, however, evidence that deportation leads to other social problems both in the US and abroad. Dwayne, for example, left two children in the US. His eldest daughter was six when he was deported. She has grown up without a father present. They chat on the phone, and she occasionally visits, but it is not the same as having a father providing constant material and emotional support. Dwayne’s mother, a hospital nurse, has to wrack her nerves about whether or not her son is surviving in Jamaica. She also must blame herself for never naturalizing him, even though he qualified for citizenship when he was eleven. Had she taken her son to be naturalized, he would not have been deported.

It seems wrong to deport people who qualified for citizenship when they were minors. How can we hold children responsible for not seeking citizenship? The deportees I have met all said that if they knew then what they know now, they would have become naturalized citizens. Why should they suffer the consequences for what their parents did not know – that if they did not naturalize them, they could be deported?

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