The Long Goodbye

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

Immigration lawyers say stories like Montrevil's are not unique.

"A lapse of years is common," says Cheryl David, chair of the New York chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "I see this on a daily basis where people renew their green cards, or return from a vacation and go through customs, and then, all of a sudden, Immigration wants them."

After Montrevil was scooped up, he remained in jail for seven months while ICE unsuccessfully tried to sort out his paperwork with the Haitian government. Now he is in what looks to be the final throes of a fight against deportation. His lawyer is making a last-ditch appeal to federal court and has asked for an emergency stay, but so far the court hasn't responded. It doesn't help him that he had an altercation with one of his sisters regarding their father's will. Each called the cops on the other. No charges were ever filed, but it raised a red flag.

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

Oddly, Montrevil will know his fate is sealed when he finally gets a passport. As soon as he has one in his hands, he could be deported at any time. As he waits in the tensely quiet Office of Detention and Removal, he worries that that day has come. After two and a half hours of waiting, a door in an adjacent office opens and an official yells: "Mr. Montrevil!" He is up in a flash and disappears inside to find out his fate.

It makes sense to deport lawful immigrants who have committed certain violent crimes, but those cases are in the minority, says Lonegan, the immigration lawyer: "I estimate that I've met close to 2,500 detainees, but I think I can count on one hand the number of murderers I met." In a March article in the NYU Review of Law and Social Change, Lonegan calls it "a two-tiered system of criminal justice, in which lawful residents are punished far more harshly than their citizen counterparts for even the most trivial offenses."

You can't blame the Bush administration for this one. Changes in immigration laws in 1996 made almost any crime that resulted in a sentence of one year or more a deportable offense. The new rules mandated deportation without regard to how long the immigrants had lived here, what age they were when they arrived, or what kind of family ties they had in the U.S.

"The '96 laws cut off any discretion whatsoever, so immigration judges can't say, 'In this case, it would be unwise or inhuman to deport an individual,' " says Josh Bardavid, Montrevil's lawyer. "That has resulted in quite literally orphaning numerous children—U.S.-citizen children." Human Rights Watch's Forced Apart report in 2007 estimated that in the period from 1997 through 2005, 1.6 million spouses and children living in the U.S. were separated from their spouses or parents.

Bronx congressman José Serrano's Child Citizen Protection Act would allow immigration judges to take into account the interests of U.S.-citizen children during deportation proceedings. Last month, the City Council passed a resolution in support after hearing testimony from New Yorkers including Betsy DeWitt, a mother of three teenagers who felt the grip of the government's ICE-cold hands. Her husband, an Italian who immigrated at age nine and lived in the U.S. for almost 40 years, was deported last year after serving time for a marijuana conviction. Because he never took the time to apply for citizenship, she says, "he wound up paying twice for his crime."

Montrevil's wife, Jani, says that after 11 years in jail and seven months as an immigrant detainee, her husband has paid his time for the long-ago crime of dealing drugs. Also in his corner is the New Sanctuary Movement, an interfaith coalition that protests current immigration practices. New Sanctuary churches, mosques, and synagogues around the city have gathered petitions and letters in support of Montrevil, asking ICE to allow him to stay in the U.S. New Sanctuary members have accompanied Montrevil to most of his regular check-ins at the ICE office.

The support aside, Jani Montrevil says her family's life is already unraveling. Her husband's business paid her way through college, but her plans for graduate school are now off the table. Just last month, Montrevil sold his store and laid off six people in preparation for his possible deportation. As a substitute teacher with three little kids at home, Jani Montrevil would likely have to go on welfare if her husband is deported. "It's really scary," she says. "Everybody makes mistakes, but they keep punishing him, punishing him, punishing him."

Jean Montrevil emerges from the ICE office—with an Immigration officer—after about 15 minutes behind closed doors. He shakes his head mournfully as he sits back down, then briefly sobs.

He is being placed in the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program, or ISAP, a new electronic-monitoring program operating in 12 cities that is meant to keep immigrants from disappearing while awaiting deportation. Officially, he is being watched more closely because of the altercation with his sister.

Fitted with an ankle bracelet, Montrevil now has to check in with ICE three times a week, instead of once a month. He has a curfew of 7 p.m. and has been told that officers will come by his home unannounced to check on him. If he screws up, he'll go to jail. ICE calls this a "voluntary" program.

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