October 5, 2009

Deportee Profile: Elmer - Surviving in Kingston after 36 Years in the US

I met Elmer in downtown Kingston. He had a gentle, round face and was wearing jeans and a white button-up shirt. He was soft-spoken and had a very gentle demeanor; it was hard to believe he had done hard time.

Elmer told me of his humble background. His father was a baker, and his mother was a higgler – meaning she bought and sold in the market for a living. When Elmer was 20 years old, his parents moved to the US. He went four years later – in 1969.

Before moving to Jamaica, Elmer was working for the bauxite company in Kingston. With his earnings, he was able to build an addition to his parents’ house – a room for himself. He was doing well for himself, but he saw a better future in the US. In addition, his parents were in the US and his nine brothers and sisters all planned to go as well.

When Elmer first got to the US, he found it depressing. He didn’t know anyone there other than his parents and siblings. Once he started going to trade school to learn to be an electrician, however, things got better, as he made new friends, and met people to socialize with.

Eventually, Elmer finished trade school and became an electrician. He had three children in the US. When I spoke with him in July 2009, they were 26, 20, and 17 years old. Elmer had only seen the 17 year old from behind bars. He had spent 15 years in prison.

Elmer earned decent money as an electrician. But, in the mid 1980s, Elmer began to have trouble finding work. There was a recession going on, and work began to dry up. He knew some Jamaicans in Brooklyn who sold weed, and decided to get in on the business. Not too long after he started, the police raided a house where Elmer was. They found 200 pounds of marijuana in the basement. Each of the four men in the house was charged with the full quantity, and Elmer was sentenced to fifteen years in prison on drug charges. When he was released from prison in 2004, he spent six months in immigration detention, and was deported to Jamaica, the country he had left 36 years before.

Back in Jamaica, Elmer returned to the family’s house in Kingston. His mother and his oldest daughter gave him some money to get settled. He was fortunate that they still had the family house; his mother had been sending money to Jamaica to maintain the house. His cousin was living there at the time, taking care of the place, and Elmer had a place to stay.

Having been away for so long, there was no one in Jamaica to help Elmer. As a deportee, it is very difficult for him to find work. To have money to live on, Elmer rents two of the rooms in his parents’ house. That provides him with money to pay the utilities on the house and to have food to eat. He pointed out that he is better off than many deportees, as he has a roof over his head and food to eat. If he gets sick, however, he often doesn’t have money to go to the doctor.

In addition to struggling financially, in Jamaica, Elmer is far away from all of the people important to him – his parents, his children, and his friends. When his father died in the States, Elmer was not able to attend the funeral.

Elmer has resigned himself to the fact that he has to remake his life in Jamaica, and hopes to find a way to get together some money to start a business. As a self-employed man, he will not have to worry as much about the stigma attached to being a deportee.

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