October 25, 2009

After 28 years in the US, deported for “smoking a joint”

I met “Diallo” in the cafeteria of the Call Center where he works, right after he got off of work. Diallo is in his late thirties, is light brown skin, has almond-shaped eyes, and curly short hair. He spoke with a strong Boston accent.

Diallo moved to the US when he was eight, in 1980. He is not sure exactly why his family moved, but it was related to the fact that his stepfather worked for Interpol and was killed. His mother owned several restaurants in Guatemala City, and had begun receiving threats. Shortly after they left, armed gunmen came to one of her restaurants, demanding to speak with the owner. Fortunately, they were already in Boston.

In Boston, Diallo enrolled in the third grade. He lived in a primarily white suburb, and grew up with a racially mixed group of friends. The worst trouble Diallo got into in school was for skipping classes. He graduated from Walton Vocational high school, and went to work with his uncle. He told me he didn’t go to college because he was making good money working with his uncle in shipping and construction.

Shortly after graduating from high school, Diallo was arrested for driving under the influence. He was given one year probation. In addition, the police found a few seeds of marijuana in his car, and he had to pay a $50 fine for marijuana possession. After that, Diallo stayed out of trouble for nearly a decade. But, he developed a drinking problem, and in 2000 was arrested for driving under the influence. This time, the police found a marijuana joint in the car, and he had to pay a $50 fine for that. For the DUI charge, Diallo had to serve six months in prison. When he was released, he was still dealing with alcoholism, and, in 2004, was arrested for driving while intoxicated. This time, he was given a 300 day sentence.

Diallo had been a legal permanent resident (LPR) of the United States for nearly two decades. He knew that, as an LPR, a sentence of over one year would result in him being deported from the United States. For this reason, when his lawyer was able to arrange a plea bargain for 300 days, he accepted the guilty plea for the DWI charge. For this last charge, Diallo was not actually found driving the car. He had parked it on the side of the road and had gone go to get gas for the car. This was in a primarily white neighborhood, and Diallo was with a black man, at night. Someone called the police to report suspicious activity – a black and a Latino man walking down the highway. When the police arrived, they found Diallo intoxicated and charged him for DWI. This is a charge he may have been able to beat had he gone to court, as it is not clear that he was intoxicated while he was actually driving. However, he accepted the 300 day plea bargain, as he understood that would not lead to his deportation. He was not willing to take the risk of going to trial, as any sentence over one year would result in him being deported. With no family ties in Guatemala, Diallo did not want to take that risk.

When Diallo finished his sentence, instead of being released, he was sent on a plane to Louisiana, to an immigration detention facility. Immigration had placed him in deportation proceedings, not based on his DUI and DWI charges, but based on his two marijuana possession charges. Convinced that he was being wrongfully deported, Diallo spent two and a half years in immigration detention, fighting his case. His voice broke and his eyes teared up as he told me that he spent more time behind bars fighting his immigration case than his original sentence. Two and a half years in the prime of his life. Eventually, Diallo gave up and signed his deportation order.

In 2008, Diallo landed in Guatemala, a land he barely remembered. In the US, he left his ailing mother, who had developed diabetes, and his twelve-year old daughter. Diallo has had custody of his daughter since she was six months old; she has always lived with him and his mother. Since he got in trouble, when she was eight, his daughter has lived with his mother. Diallo told me how much it hurts him not to be able to help out his mother and to help raise his daughter. Both his mother and his daughter are US citizens. Diallo, unfortunately, never applied for citizenship, even though he qualified years before he was deported.

In Guatemala, Diallo knew no one, except for his aunt who lives in Boca del Monte. He is fortunate that she lives in a relatively peaceful part of the city, where he does not have to deal with urban crime and violence to the same extent as other deportees.

His mother is still in Boston. They have spent over $15,000 in legal fees trying to get his deportation rescinded. Currently, they are in the process of appealing one of his marijuana charges. If they are successful, his deportation order could be reversed. However, it is hard at this point for his mother to pay all of the legal costs, in addition to the financial burden of raising his daughter and keeping up her house. For now, the legal proceedings are at a standstill until they can come up with the money to proceed with the appeal.

I told Diallo that there might be lawyers willing to work on his case pro bono, as it seems he may have been wrongfully deported. He said he would think about it. After fighting this case for four years, Diallo realizes that he cannot be at peace with himself until he accepts what has happened to him. Fighting the case only torments him further. Diallo has become deeply religious as a result of his experiences. He no longer drinks, and attends church regularly to keep his mind off of all he has lost, really of the life in America he lost, for smoking a joint.

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