The Long Goodbye

Attention, immigrants: Report to the Office of Detention and Removal

Immigration foes have reason to rejoice: ICE, the aptly acronymed Immigration and Customs Enforcement arm of the Department of Homeland Security, seems to have finally found its stride. Funding for crackdowns and border security has tripled since 2001, and Homeland Security is now, more than ever before, hunting down and kicking out legions of immigrants with criminal records—many of whom have been hiding in plain sight in prisons and jails.

Yes, much to the sorrow of people like Haitian immigrant Jean Montrevil, ICE is now surprisingly efficient. New York's ICE office has rounded up immigrants with criminal pasts who have been here undisturbed for decades without so much as a peep from its predecessor, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Montrevil, at least, has apparently led a clean life for almost two decades.

Just last year, the agency identified for deportation 164,296 people who were incarcerated in federal, state, and local prisons and jails. In New York alone, Immigration officers snagged 700 convicted sex offenders, 205 violent foreign-born gang members, and even the head of a Chinese organized-crime ring. Many were caught simply through better screening of inmates at Rikers and of parolees.

Jean Montrevil at his family's religious-goods store, which he sold in preparation for deportation
Willie Davis/Veras
Jean Montrevil at his family's religious-goods store, which he sold in preparation for deportation

"Their ability to screen people is a lot better than it was years ago," says Bryan Lonegan, a Seton Hall University professor and former Legal Aid lawyer who worked with immigrant detainees. "When I first started, they weren't good at it, but now it seems close to certain that they would find you."

Montrevil is not a violent offender, and his case may be typical. He came to the U.S. legally when he was a teenager but was convicted of selling cocaine 19 years ago and was ordered deported in 1994. INS, however, never followed through, and since that order, Montrevil has fathered four children (all are U.S. citizens), married a Brooklyn teacher, and started his own business.

The much more efficient ICE, however, has caught up with him. His deportation is imminent, and in Haiti, criminal deportees usually end up behind bars once again.

On a recent day, Jean Montrevil arrives at 26 Federal Plaza with bloodshot eyes and a headache. He wrings his hands as he approaches, walking stiffly through a courtyard that seems strangely out of sync with the work going on inside; whimsical lime-green benches and intricate ironwork surround the massive building.

Montrevil worries that today is the day he will be exiled from the U.S. forever. Since 2005, when ICE decided to make good on its long-ago promise to deport him, he has been called back, again and again, to a crowded, windowless room on the building's ninth floor. It is the coldly named Office of Detention and Removal, where New York City's 2,233 immigrants on supervised release—a kind of immigration parole—are required to check in with ICE officials regularly. They all have deportation orders against them, but for various reasons—incomplete paperwork, pending appeals, just plain bureaucracy—they have not been deported. Yet.

This is not the depository of the hardcore thugs who wind up on ICE's press releases. The people in this room may not be wide-eyed innocents, but neither are they gangsters, rapists, or career criminals. Most people here have long, complicated stories peppered with their own bad decisions, the government's bureaucratic mistakes, arbitrary rules, lost opportunities, and bad luck. Most have been in the U.S. for years, if not decades, and have family members who are U.S. citizens.

Montrevil came legally to the U.S. in 1986, but he was dealing drugs by 1989. On his third or fourth trip running drugs from Virginia, he was pulled over on the New Jersey Turnpike and busted for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. After more than a decade behind bars, Montrevil says, he wasn't exactly looking forward to his release. He knew that he would promptly be sent back to Haiti and imprisoned again there; the Haitian government routinely sends criminal deportees straight to harsh prisons. But because of the backlog of cases, or simply lost paperwork, that never happened to him. Instead, Montrevil was released onto the streets of Queens with $60 in his pocket. "I was shocked," he says. "They even called Immigration on me, and Immigration never came." He says he took it as a miracle, a second chance he never expected. And so he started his life over.

To hear him tell it, Montrevil reacquainted himself with a son born while he was in prison, threw himself into his father's religious-goods business, and started a van service helping people move and shuttling church groups around town. A blind date with Jani, a down-to-earth young woman from East New York, blossomed into what is now a six-year relationship.

Then, out of the blue, Montrevil's deportation order finally caught up with him. In 2005, on his final visit with his parole officer, an Immigration officer cuffed Montrevil and sent him to jail. "I had two children at that time—children who needed me," Montrevil says. "I had, at that time, a business in my name. I owned properties in my name. I was working. I was having a normal life, you know?"

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