The Long Goodbye
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.
"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?"
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.
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.
In its quest for efficiency, ICE has contracted out the program to Behavioral Interventions, Inc., a private firm that makes more than $10 million a year strapping ankle bracelets around immigrants across the country. New York's ISAP program was started last November, in what ICE reported to be a "breakout year" for the agency, producing an "unparalleled record of success." ISAP is a bittersweet pill for immigrants—so far, 424 New Yorkers have been placed in the program. It's better than being behind bars, immigrant advocates say, but it's punitive and too harsh.
In Montrevil's case, his new electronic tether may be his last official link to the U.S.—until officials hand him his passport and force him to use it.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.