February 23, 2010

Retroactive Deportation Laws Lead to De Facto Deportation of US Citizen

Karina is a seventeen year old girl who was born in the United States to a Dominican father and a US citizen mother. When she was seven years old, she experienced a de facto deportation to the Dominican Republic. As a US citizen, Karina has the right to live in the United States. She and her father wanted her to grow up in the US. However, her father’s deportation prevented that from happening. When Karina’s father was deported to the DR in 1999, Karina was in his custody.

Karina and her father, Roberto, thought they were going on vacation when they boarded a plane to the DR in 1999, but that vacation turned permanent when a retroactive deportation law rendered Roberto a deportable alien. This is their story.

Roberto grew up in a small town in Santo Domingo where his father farmed the land. Roberto decided to join the Dominican Navy after seeing a young man dressed in a naval uniform near his hometown. Once in the Navy, Roberto traveled aboard ships to other countries including the United States. After his first trip to Norfolk, Virginia, Roberto decided he’d like to live in the United States.

Roberto was impressed with the cleanliness and large modern buildings in Norfolk and vowed to return once he finished his military service. In 1985, Roberto was able to secure a visa and travel to the United States. Between 1985 and 1990, Roberto traveled back and forth from the DR to the US. Each time he went, he worked at a gas station owned by a Dominican man he knew from his work in the military.

In 1990, Roberto decided to stay in the US and not return to the DR. The reason was that he planned to marry an American woman he had met on the coast in Massachusetts. Not too long before they were married, Roberto found himself in trouble with the law. Roberto told me that as a military man from a small town in the DR, he was completely unfamiliar with illegal drugs and had never laid a hand on them. Despite this, he was arrested on drug charges in New Hampshire.

This is how he explained the situation. He and his fiancĂ© were planning to spend the weekend together. Before going to the coast, she wanted to stop at her place and pick up some clothes. However, she didn’t want her father to see Roberto, as her father was racist and didn’t like people of color. So, she left Roberto in the parking lot of a nearby apartment building while she went home.

At the time, Roberto was living in Massachusetts, and this apartment building was in New Hampshire. While Roberto was waiting outside the apartment building, a police vehicle pulled up and arrested Roberto. It turned out that one of the apartments was a drug house, and Roberto was standing near the door. At first they charged him with possession of the drugs and weapons that were inside the house as well as with a drug sale. Roberto denied all of the charges. The first two charges were dropped, but he remained a suspect in a drug sale that had happened at another location.

Roberto insisted on his innocence. The judge suggested he plead guilty, and told him there would be no time or parole were he to plead guilty. Roberto insisted he could not plead guilty, as a matter of principle. He had never had anything to do with drugs, and refused to sign. Roberto went back and forth to court for two years. Finally, one day, as he was chatting with his interpreter, his lawyer got him to sign. Roberto insists he was tricked. He said his lawyer walked by with a big stack of files, and asked Roberto to sign a paper so that she could keep going. Feeling bad because she was physically burdened with so many files, Roberto signed the paper.

In the courtroom a few minutes later, the judge told him that he was glad he finally agreed to sign. Roberto had signed a guilty plea, and that was the end of the case. Roberto felt tricked, but was glad the case was behind him, and went on with his life.

That was in 1991, and there were no immigration consequences to his plea at the time. Roberto was not yet a legal permanent resident, however, as his paperwork had not gone through yet. When it came time for Roberto to become a legal permanent resident, his application was denied. Roberto said it was denied because his wife was receiving government aid, and had a history of drug abuse. Roberto was not sure of the details, but it seems likely that their application was denied because of her financial instability.

Meanwhile, Roberto and his wife had a baby girl, Karina. Before Karina was a year old, they separated and Roberto got sole custody of his baby daughter. In January 1999, Roberto received a letter asking him to come to the immigration office. When he went to the immigration office he was told he was eligible for legalization on the basis of his US-born daughter. Roberto got his green card and almost immediately purchased a ticket back to the Dominican Republic. He was anxious to return home and wanted his family to meet his daughter. Roberto stayed in the DR for one month. When it was time for Roberto to go back and work, his sister suggested he leave Karina behind for another week.

When Roberto arrived in the US, border agents stopped him and told him he was ineligible for entry on the basis of his 1991 guilty plea for the sale of $20 of cocaine.

When Roberto pled guilt to the drug charge, there were no immigration consequences to his plea. The judge, his lawyer and his interpreter assured him that all he needed to do was to sign and the case would be behind him. He would serve no time, and would be able to get on with his life. They were right. However, in 1996, the laws changed, and this became a deportable offense.

Roberto was put into an immigration prison and deported back to the Dominican Republic. Karina has stayed in the DR with him, and has grown up in the Dominican Republic. With no family in the US, she may never return.

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