September 17, 2009

Father of Three U.S. Citizen Children Deported to Jamaica after 38 Years in the US

I met Chris, a wiry man with an unusual accent, in downtown Kingston for our interview. I couldn’t quite place his accent. He told me he was married to a Honduran woman, so maybe that has something to do with the way he speaks.

Chris grew up in inner-city Kingston in the 1950s, in Hannah Town. He described his neighborhood as calm and co-operative, the kind of place where you could leave the doors open all night long. He told me it is no longer like that; he barely recognized the neighborhood when he was deported two years ago.

Growing up, Chris lived with his aunt, as his mother traveled constantly back and forth to the countryside to buy fruits to sell in Kingston’s market. His aunt eventually decided to migrate to the US, and he followed her a couple of years later. Chris moved to the United States in 1969, when he was 16 years old. Eventually, his grandparents moved to the States as well.

Chris went to high school in Brooklyn. He spoke well of the high school, saying he got along well with the other students. He went there for three years, and graduated with a high school diploma. During high school, Chris had worked in a series of odd jobs, and he continued working in similar jobs after graduation.

Barely out of high school, Chris got married and began to have children. He and his wife had three children who are all grown up now – the youngest was over thirty when we spoke. Chris’s wife worked nights at an insurance company when the children were small; so, he was responsible for the kids during the days.

Chris was still living with his wife in Brooklyn when he got into trouble with the law in 2006. One of his neighbors, a crack addict, stole some goods from his apartment. Chris confronted him about the theft, and they got into an altercation. The addict pulled out a knife. Chris wrestled the knife from him, and stabbed him. Chris was convicted of assault, and was sentenced to one year in jail. Since Chris had been convicted of a violent crime that carried a sentence of one year, he faced deportation; had he been sentenced to 364 days, he wouldn’t have been deported. He served eight months of his sentence, and was released from Riker’s Island, only to be taken directly to immigration detention. He spent five months in a detention facility in Texas and was deported.

This was Chris’s first time in jail. He had been charged with marijuana possession before, and had been on probation for that, but he was not on probation at the time of the fight. Chris had arrived in the US at age 16, had gone to high school in New York City, and had worked a series of low-skill jobs since finishing high school. When he was deported, Chris had been in the United States for 38 years, was married to a US citizen, and had three US-born children.

Chris had not been back to visit Jamaica the entire time he was in the US. He did not maintain ties with anyone. His mother lives in Jamaica, but Chris had been raised by his aunt and grandparents who live in the US, and had rarely been in touch with his mother.

Chris’s mother lives in the countryside in Jamaica, and he went there when he first came back. Used to working every day, and living in New York City, it was hard for him to adjust to life in a small village, with no work and nothing to do. He recently moved back to Kingston, where he found a room to share with an old friend in the inner-city neighborhood where he grew up. At 57-years old, with few job skills, Chris has not been able to find work, and depends on the benevolence of others for his survival.

Back in the US, his wife has to struggle to pay the bills with the loss of her husband’s income. Chris was a legal permanent resident in the U.S., and had been eligible for citizenship for decades. Had he sought citizenship, he would not have been deported. Had his sentence been one day shorter, he would not have been deported. Were the laws less stringent, his wife would have her husband by her side, and his children would have their father close by.

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