June 3, 2010

Three types of Jamaican Deportees

Since the passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA), over a million non-citizens have been deported from the United States after being convicted of criminal charges.

Jamaica is a top receiving country for criminal deportees. In my research with Jamaican deportees, I found that nearly all Jamaicans who are deported are deported because of encounters with the criminal justice system. Unlike, for example, Guatemalans, who are usually deported after an encounter with immigration agents, Jamaicans seem to nearly always be first picked up by police officers, and then passed over to immigration agents. This alone is indicative of the criminalization of Jamaicans in the United States.

My research with deportees in Jamaica indicates that there are three primary ways that Jamaicans get involved in the criminal justice system. One of the most common ways involves Jamaican boys who grow up in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, or Harlem and find themselves lured to the streets as youngsters. Many are raised by single mothers who keep long working hours and have little time to supervise their sons. Jamaicans who get into trouble as youth are nearly always males and seem to live almost exclusively in New York City.

Another common way for Jamaicans to get into trouble in the United States is as adults. These Jamaican men live for decades in the United States without ever getting into trouble. However, one mistake or one case of bad judgment leads to their arrest, conviction, sentencing, and deportation. Unlike the youth, these men rarely lead a life of crime in general. Instead, they are law-abiding people whose lives suddenly change after an encounter with the criminal justice system.

The third way that Jamaicans end up getting into trouble is one that includes both men and women. These men and women tend to be law-abiding citizens in Jamaica. However, they decide, usually for financial reasons, to get involved in the drug trade in the United States. For the women, this usually involves carrying drugs. For men, this often involves street-level selling. Once caught and convicted, they are deported.

These three kinds of deportees are very different. The first set has a lot in common with African-American youth who grow up in the inner city. The second set often face harsh sentences because of an unforgiving justice system combined with stereotypes about black men in the United States. The third set involves opportunists who see a way to make money off of the illegal drug trade, yet whose plans are foiled once they are caught.

The legal system in the United States, however, makes few distinctions between these three sorts of cases. Once convicted of certain charges, a non-citizen is deported. If the charges are classified as an “aggravated felony,” non-citizens have no opportunity to explain that they have been law-abiding citizens for the past thirty years, or that they came to the United States as infants, or that they have few or no ties to their country of birth. It makes little sense for the law to fail to distinguish between non-citizens who come to the United States to participate in criminal activities, non-citizens who come to the US as infants, and non-citizens who lead law-abiding lives for decades and have one unfortunate encounter with the law.

Unfortunately, the deterministic nature of IIRAIRA often prevents judges from taking individual factors into accounts and Jamaicans are often summarily deported from the United States after living there for decades.


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