November 29, 2009

No Statute of Limitations for Immigration Crimes

I met Rene, an activist who works with deportees, at the Puerta del Conde on Saturday afternoon, and he took me to the house of a friend of his, “Walter,” in the Colonial City. This was my first interview with a deportee here in Santo Domingo.

Walter is tall, brown-skinned, in his early thirties, and has a shy smile that seems out of place on a man with such an imposing physical presence. Although he smiled a lot , the pain in his eyes was clear when he recounted to me how he had been deported from the United States, leaving his two children behind.

Walter lives with his mother, his brother, and his two sisters in a large second floor apartment in an old building in the Colonial City. The house was nicely furnished, with a new sofa and chairs in the living room, and a large wooden dining room table, covered with a lace tablecloth. Most of the other rooms in the house were bedrooms, all tidy, yet small, with just enough room for a bed in each. Walter’s sisters were mopping the floors while we were there. Walter told me that his mother had fourteen children, and he was the last.

Walter played basketball as a youth, for the school and the local teams. When he finished high school, he won a basketball scholarship to attend a private university in Santiago. He went to college for two years, and majored in business administration. However, in 1994, he decided to take his chances and leave for the United States. Two of his brothers were already there, and they promised to help him get to the US. Walter got a visa to go to Mexico, and crossed the border illegally into the US.

Shortly after arriving in the US, he met and married a US citizen, and was able to get his green card. In 1996, their first child was born, and in 2002, they had another child. Things were going well for Walter – he worked at the same hotel for five years before getting a better job at JFK Airport in New York. He and his wife divorced, and Walter won custody of the children. He left the children with a babysitter in the building he lived in when he went to work each day. Walter and his children lived in the Bronx, and his ex-wife lived close by.

Walter was involved with the local church. He especially enjoyed activities designed to help children. With his own children, they spent the weekends going out to parks or restaurants whenever they could. Walter never had any trouble with the law, and thought that he had it made in the US. He had permanent residency, two US citizen children, and a stable job.

However, in 2004, an old mistake came back to haunt him. In 1990, when Walter was 13 years old, he had taken a boat to Puerto Rico illegally. He was found in Puerto Rico, and deported back to the Dominican Republic. When Walter applied for legal permanent residency in 1998, he did not mention this previous deportation. That amounts to immigration fraud, and rendered Walter eligible for deportation on criminal grounds. Walter did not know that this investigation was possible, and was unaware that he had been discovered. This investigation took place after he was granted legal permanent residency.

In 2004, Walter was driving down the street in Manhattan, and was pulled over by the police. When he showed his license, it came up that he had an immigration warrant, and Walter was taken into custody. At the time, he had custody of his three year old daughter as well as his eight year old daughter. His wife was able to take the children back and to care for them, although she had to rely on public aid to do so.

Walter spent four years fighting his case. He spent the first two years fighting his case from inside immigration detention. Eventually, he was released, and continued to go to court to appeal the deportation order. However, even though Walter was only 13 when he entered illegally, fourteen years had passed since he had lied on immigration reforms, he had no trouble with the law, and had two US citizen children, the immigration judge ordered Walter deported. In July 2008, he was sent back to the Dominican Republic.

Walter’s case shows very clearly how immigration courts deny the right to due process and judicial review to immigrants. First of all, Walter was only 13 when he entered illegally. The fact that he was a minor does not change the nature of his “crime.” Secondly, for most other crimes, the statute of limitations would apply – he committed the immigration fraud in 1994, yet was tried in 2004. Finally, the judge could not take into consideration the fact that he has two US citizen children. None of these grounds were sufficient to reverse the deportation order.

Walter was sent back to the Dominican Republic, where he works in the parking lot his brother owns. He has applied for other positions, but has not had any luck. For many Dominicans, he is a criminal deportee, making it difficult for him to get ahead in this country.

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