What happens when the wrong people get deported

Peter Bregman

Special to AC360°

When 11 Christian clergy get arrested in New York City for a non violent protest, it may be worth, at the very least, raising an eyebrow. But when 1,300 petitioners and 50 organizations, including theNew Sanctuary Movement and Families for Freedom, join in supporting their cause, well, it deserves more attention than an eyebrow. What is it that’s making all these peaceful people and organizations so upset?

To understand that, you need to meet Jean Montrevil, a green card holding resident of the U.S. since 1986. Only you can’t meet him. He’s being detained for deportation to Haiti.

Ah, you may be thinking, good. Maybe that’ll help protect our country from terrorism. After all, look at Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab the Nigerian citizen who was charged with trying to blow up a transcontinental airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day. Perhaps we should be glad that immigration officials are finally being a little more on top of things.

Only they’re not. Because Jean, like many others deported recently, is the wrong person. I’ve met Jean a few times and he’s a good guy. He’s married to a U.S. citizen and they have four children who are U.S. citizens. He runs a small business which employs others. He pays his taxes, supports his family, and is active in his church, Judson Memorial Church, which my wife also attends.

So why are they bothering with him? Because more than 20 years ago Jean was convicted on a drug charge in Virginia.

Oh, you might conclude, so he’s a criminal. Good thing we’re being protected from him. Actually, for that crime, Jean already served an incredible 11 years in prison. And beating the odds, after completing his sentence he didn’t emerge angry. He emerged productive. He’s been a valuable member of our society ever since, with a sparkling clean record.

Which should be the happy end of the story. But it’s not.

In 1996, as part of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, a law was passed that is tearing families apart: the Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. There’s a retroactive provision in the law which allows the government to deport any non-US citizen (including people here legally, like Jean) who committed crimes even decades earlier.

So on December 30th, 2009 when Jean showed up for a routine check-in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an agent whisked him off to Pennsylvania’s York County Prison, where he awaits deportation to Haiti as a “serious violent offender.” If this happens as planned in the next few days, Jean will be prohibited from coming back into this country, where his entire family lives, for the next 20 years.

So I have a simple question: Who is making decisions at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency?

They let Mr. AbdulMutallab a man whose name was on the terrorist watch list and whose own father warned us about him, retain his Visa to come into this country (with explosives as we later found out).

And now, a few days later, they are trying to deport Jean – whose name is nowhere near a terrorist watch list – for a crime he committed 24 years ago. Hello? Is there anyone out there?

So I went to the ICE website, to see. There I saw their annual reports where they boast year over year increases in the number of deportations they made in an attempt to justify their $5.7 billion budget. The latestavailable data from the Justice Department shows an estimated 14 percent increase in new immigration prosecutions between 2008 and 2009. That’s an increase of 139 percent from five years ago.

And if you think about it, Jean is an easy way to increase their numbers. After all, he shows up at ICE offices for regular check-ins, as requested. But why pick him up now? Why not at any of his previous check-ins? Perhaps he’s a pretty easy catch to make their numbers at the end of the year. Some operations shouldn’t be run like businesses.

ICE is focused on the wrong goal. Protecting our nation is not a numbers game.The real question is not how many people get deported. It’s who gets deported.

Maybe the biggest problem with our terrorist watch list is that we’re not watching it. Because we’re too busy watching people like Jean, who pose no threat at all.

Something is wrong with our system. And we won’t be able to fix it until real leaders – maybe President Obama, maybe Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) John Morton, maybe those 11 clergy who were arrested to bring Jean’s case to light, or maybe you or me – force sensible change.

Until that happens, we’re all at risk.

As I was finishing this piece I mentioned it to one of my employees, a woman born in the Dominican Republic who has had a green card for 38 years. Her husband has had one for 33 years. She gasped when she heard about Jean and then told me that a few months ago her husband received a letter in the mail from ICE telling him they were starting the deportation process for him, citing a crime he committed, and served time for, 28 years ago. They have children and grandchildren who are US citizens. Their son served in the US Navy.

Who will be next? As the German Pastor Martin Niemoller said in a famous speech right after World War II ended:

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out for me.