One early morning five years ago, Calvin James walked outside the Jersey City apartment, where his girlfriend and 6-year-old son slept, to put the trash on the street for pickup.
As soon as James, then 45, walked outside, he was greeted by four people jumping out of a black SUV. Dressed in uniforms with “ICE” printed on the back, they rushed him and demanded he confirm his name, then handcuffed and pulled James into the back of the SUV.
James spent four months in immigration detention, first in New Jersey and then in Louisiana for an old conviction for selling pot. Then, he was put on a plane and deported to Jamaica, where he had not been since he was 12 years old.
ColorLines magazine went on the road tracing James’ journey from New York to Jamaica to investigate the collateral effects of deportation on immigrant communities. Harsh immigration policy, compounded by systemic racial inequities built into the criminal justice system, are not thwarting terrorists or making our country a whole lot safer. But the laws are doing a great job of breaking up another entity: families of color.
Immigrants face de facto double jeopardy. Indeed, double punishment is now all but guaranteed in the legal landscape for non-citizens. When the Illegal Immigration Reform and Individual Responsibility Act was passed in 1996, it changed immigration policy so that non-citizens—even legal residents—who were caught in the criminal justice system for the most minor crimes became vulnerable to deportation.
And the law was applied retroactively, so a conviction from decades earlier can trigger deportation today. After their criminal cases end, immigrants are subject to civil procedures of immigration courts. Deportation follows incarceration.
Earlier this month, Obama administration officials announced plans to reform immigrant detention policy, ostensibly to make improvements to the broken system. The New York Times reported on the detention framework’s serious flaws, namely that people who have committed no crime are being swept up into the system and locked away in detention.
Meanwhile President Obama is bolstering “Secure Communities,” which puts immigration agents in local jails, along with the 287(g) local enforcement program, a key component of President Bush’s immigration program, even as it comes under fire for widespread abuses.
Five years since his deportation, today, James lives alone in a two-room apartment in the mountains outside Montego Bay and works two jobs as a security guard and driver.
Back in New York, his girlfriend and son were evicted from their Jersey City apartment three years after James was deported, after she lost her job. They spent time on friends’ couches and now live in a shelter in Harlem. James’ partner, Kathy, says they definitely would not have been homeless if had he remained. They might even have a home of their own.
Even though it’s been five years since James was deported, time hasn’t seemed to ease the pain of separation.
“I sit here sometimes, and, man, I wish I could put them on the plane and get them down here,” James says, turning over a framed picture of Kathy and their son, Josh. “It’s all kind of heartbreaking, you know.”
What happened to this family is no coincidence. Unfair racial inequities in the criminal justice system including harsh sentencing laws and racial profiling mean blacks and Latinos are more likely to be incarcerated, in large part, for drug convictions. They are more likely to be deported as a result.
According to research by Tanya Golash-Boza, professor of sociology at the University of Kansas, “This disparity cannot be explained simply by higher rates of crime among Jamaican populations,” she says. “Blacks and Latinos are seen as criminals by the larger culture. Other immigrants are not.”
Meanwhile, the Schiro report commissioned by Homeland Security reveals more than half of immigrants who get detained presumably for having committed a crime in fact had no criminal convictions. Nearly two-thirds of those picked up by local police under 287(g) had committed no crime. Thus even immigrants of color with no convictions are at risk of detention and deportation as a result of harsh enforcement policies.
There is some reason to be hopeful that the Obama administration moves to reform immigration detention and local law enforcement officials choosing to drop participation in 287(g). But there are valid reasons to be concerned about whether proposed changes to the detention system will help immigrants or just mean a more streamlined transition from jail to detention to exile.
As long as immigration laws continue to criminalize non-citizens, it will be immigrants of color who bear the heaviest weight of enforcement. In the context of a criminal justice system that punishes blacks for being black, an immigration policy focused on “criminal aliens” will only mean more black parents get deported, and more families get torn apart.
A just immigration policy must do better.
Julianne Hing is co-editor of the ColorLines magazine blog, RaceWire, and assistant editor of ColorLines magazine. Seth Wessler is a writer and Research Associate with Applied Research Center. They co-authored a ColorLines magazine investigative series on families torn apart by deportation from New York to Jamaica. To read the rest of the Torn Apart article series and multimedia project, visit ColorLines.