July 15, 2009

Citizenship Application Delayed Five Years Leads to Deportation

Deportee Profile: O’Ryan

Talking to O’Ryan, it was hard for me to believe that he has been in Jamaica for seven years. He seems like he just came from Brooklyn yesterday. Talking to him, I thought to myself he easily could be one of my students at the University of Kansas. He is articulate, poised, and thoughtful.

O’Ryan was wearing a red T-shirt and jeans. His simple tennis shoes were perhaps the best indication that he doesn’t live in Brooklyn. He explained to me that he moved to the US when he was six years old, to join his mother and grandmother who had gone a few years before. He went as a legal permanent resident.

Coming from a small town in Jamaica, O’Ryan was impressed with all of the cars and big buildings in the Bronx. He lived in the Bronx for about three years, and then moved to Brooklyn. In elementary school, the other kids teased him at first, because of his accent. “It took me years to learn how to talk like this,” he told me with a strong New York accent.

By junior high, kids were no longer teasing O’Ryan. He spoke and acted like a typical kid from Brookly. He played sports and was very popular in school. O’Ryan graduated with honors from his junior high school, and made it into John Dewey, a competitive high school in Brooklyn. He was glad to get into Dewey; he wanted to get out of his neighborhood, as he thought that would get him away from the trouble his friends were getting into in junior high school. Many of his friends from the neighborhood were beginning to get into fights and other sorts of trouble.

At John Dewey, it turned out he knew a lot of people. So, it wasn’t easy to stay out of trouble. He tried out for the track team, but didn’t make the team. Most of his friends weren’t attending school, and he slowly stopped going to school. After dropping out of high school, O’Ryan earned his GED, and enrolled in Mercy College, where he was studying computer programming.

While studying for his GED, and then at Mercy College, O’Ryan worked part-time at a series of jobs. He had a good job at a trucking company, but lost his job after getting into an argument with his boss. Unable to find a new job, O’Ryan had to quit school. With nothing to do, O’Ryan began hanging out again with his friends on the streets in Brooklyn. He tried to stay out of trouble though, because he hated the look on his mother’s face whenever she heard he was getting into trouble.

One evening, O’Ryan was hanging out, after spending the whole day inside with his girlfriend. A friend called to ask him to come pick him up, as his car had broken down in Hudson. O’Ryan went to pick him up. On the highway, they came upon a road block. At that point, his friend told him, “Yo, I’m dirty,” meaning that he had drugs with him and hadn’t told O’Ryan. The police found the drugs. No one claimed it was theirs, so O’Ryan was sentenced to three to nine years for drug trafficking. He chose to do boot camp, so he only spent 18 months in jail.

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 was expecting to go home with them and start over. But, immigration agents were waiting for him, and told him he was going to be deported.

O’Ryan had been in the country for nearly twenty years, and had no family he knew in Jamaica. O’Ryan qualified for citizenship, and, in fact, had applied when his green card expired in 1996. His mother and cousin applied at the same time. His mother’s citizenship went through, and then his cousin’s. So, he went to check on his citizenship. The citizenship office told him he needed to redo his fingerprints. He finally received the letter saying he should go to the swearing in ceremony in 2001, five years later.

Unfortunately, O’Ryan had been arrested a few weeks earlier, and was in jail when his letter arrived. So, at the age of 25, O’Ryan was deported to a country he barely knew.

His grandmother’s sister agreed to take him in, so he went to her house to live. Back in Jamaica, it was very hard to find work. He has found work occasionally, but never a permanent position. He also has trouble making friends in the small town his aunt lives. He feels like he really has no one here, except for his great-aunt.

Today, he is 32 years old. He has been in Jamaica for seven years. Still, for him, New York is his life. He talks to his neighbors, his cousins, his mother, and his daughter, now 7, every day. He showed me his cell phone. All of the calls he has made recently were to New York.

New York continues to be a lifeline for O’Ryan, both emotional and financial. O’Ryan has had his current job for two months now. He earns US $50 a week, which is barely enough to pay for his food and transportation. His mother sends him money when she can, and comes to visit every year.

O’Ryan says he understands he made mistakes, but finds it difficult to see it as fair that he should pay the rest of his life for those mistakes. He doesn’t see a future for himself in Jamaica, where he feels like a foreigner.

It is hard for O’Ryan not to dwell on the “what ifs.” What if his citizenship application had been processed just a few months earlier? What if he didn’t get into an argument with his boss? What if he didn’t answer his phone that day to go pick up his friend? What if there wasn’t a road block on that evening? What if his mother didn’t choose to move to Brooklyn when they migrated to Jamaica?

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