When Calvin James stepped off the plane in Kingston, Jamaica, in 2004, it was late. In the dark, he could not make out any of the landmarks he remembered growing up with before he immigrated to the United States as a young boy.
Weeks later, he’d recognize his old school buildings and back alley playgrounds on those Kingston streets. But that first night, he recognized nothing. He never expected to return to Jamaica this way, on a charter flight with other men who, like him, were being kicked out of the U.S.
Deportees exist in an in-between land; they are not tourists, and yet they cannot go back home to the States. That night, James and the other deportees were taken to the central police station for questioning.
It is standard policy for Jamaican police to detain and question upon arrival the several thousand deportees who come every year—“Do you have family you will be contacting? What address will you be staying at? What are your local relatives’ names?”
But James had no one to call.
Like most deportees, he knew of distant relatives in the country, but he had no phone number or address for them. He gave what answers he could to the police and was let go into the streets of the notoriously dangerous Kingston.
“I landed in Spanish Town, in like a battle zone,” James recalled. “And that’s where they leave you. A foreigner don’t make it past a night on those streets.”
Even though he was born in Jamaica, James considered himself a foreigner. He had not been back since leaving for the U.S. when he was 12. He had grown up considering New York his home. After all, it was where his 6-year-old son, Josh, and his long-time partner, Kathy McArdle, were. He spoke very American English, having lost much of his Jamaican patois. Now here he was, 45 years old and exiled to Kingston.
Luckily, James had befriended another man who was on the same charter flight; he ended up staying with his friend for a week after confessing to him he had nowhere to go.
“When I first arrived in Jamaica, I could think about nothing else but, basically, survival,” James said. And yet, every day he missed his family in the U.S.
The same year James was deported from the U.S., Jamaica received 4,118 deportees from various countries, an all-time high. That year, 1,845 were deported from the U.S. alone, according to numbers provided by the Jamaican Ministry of National Security. The rest came mainly from the United Kingdom and Canada.
While the majority of people deported from the U.S. are kicked out for not having papers, another group of immigrants is deported because they have committed crimes like selling drugs or driving under the influence of alcohol. These people are very often legal residents, people who migrated with their families as children and were raised, educated and socialized in the U.S. They have owned businesses, bought homes and raised families of their own in the U.S.
Last year, 360,000 of these “criminal aliens,” as the immigration system calls them, were deported from the U.S.
It wasn’t always like this. But changes in immigration law in 1996 and policy decisions after Sept. 11 made any non-citizen who was ever found guilty of a broad set of crimes automatically deportable. Today, the criminal justice and immigration systems leave no room for the possibility of someone like James, who served time for selling drugs but had since become a respected worker whose life centered on his family, to stay in the country.
And because Blacks and Latinos are arrested, incarcerated and convicted at higher rates than other people, they are the ones at most risk of being deported. Systemic injustices built into the criminal justice system mean that immigration laws impact people of color disproportionately.
Deportees are separated from their families and lose forever their chance to rebuild their lives. Indeed, several Jamaican deportees interviewed for this article described deportation as a “life sentence,” a “death sentence,” an experience akin to “ripping up a flower from its roots and letting the buds fall where they will.”
James and other deportees describe an experience that’s defined by the struggle to make basic ends meet, by a forced social isolation and the desperate longing for family left behind in the U.S. These men and women end up paying with their entire lives for convictions—mostly nonviolent drug crimes—that they only want to leave behind.
Advocates are hopeful the Child Citizen Protection Act, proposed by Congressman Jose Serrano of New York, might curb the number of families who deal with the trauma of this forced separation. The bill would give immigration judges more discretion to consider the effect a parent’s removal from the country would have on a U.S.-citizen child before ordering deportation.
“While the bill is not reform,” admitted Manisha Vaze, an organizer with Families for Freedom, an immigrant defense network based in New York, “it’s definitely a first step to just immigration reform. Because it looks at the immigration system from the eyes of families, and comes from families, not in a top-down, exclusionary process.”
While most Americans think of Jamaica as a tropical paradise, for many deportees, being dropped off in Jamaica is no vacation. People’s departure dates are often kept secret; many are shuttled out of the country without ever being able to say goodbye to family in the U.S. or to let anyone in Jamaica know they’ll be arriving.
Policy varies by detention center, but most deportees arrive in Jamaica with nothing but the clothes they are wearing. Where they spend their first night in the country is entirely up to them to figure out. For those who are able to connect with relatives, the reunion is not necessarily a smooth one.
James did find an aunt, a distant relative living in the countryside town of Rosemount, on the northwestern coast of Jamaica. He went to live with her but immediately found it difficult. James was used to taking things like running water and electricity for granted, but here there was none of that. Instead, James walked half a mile up and down the mountain his aunt lived on to bring water to the two-room home. Figuring out the local currency again was confusing and frustrating.
James and his aunt, who did not expect to live out her days accommodating a nephew who was kicked out of the U.S., were practically strangers to each other. On top of that, James had no immediate job prospects or a source of income.
Ultimately, James and his aunt could not live together, and he moved out after only a few months.
A lot of deported people find that staying with family is an untenable, short-term situation. Many end up homeless.
“Most deportees are men in their early 40s, we do have men in their 50s and 60s,” said Marleen Brown, a coordinator with FURI Jamaica, a resettlement group that works to connect deportees with family, jobs and housing. According to Brown, most left Jamaica as children. She provides newly arrived deportees with advice to ease their adjustment.
“You have to unlearn to relearn. Let go of your past,” Brown said she tells them. “You have to work with what you have, as limited as it is.” It is hard-won wisdom; Brown was herself deported in 2006. Since then, her oldest son graduated from West Point, and her younger son graduated from high school. She missed both ceremonies.
“Deportees arrive, and they are homeless, effectively stateless, and without family,” said Dr. Wendel Abel, a professor of psychiatry at the University of the West Indies in Mona who has treated deportees who suffer with mental illness.
“I would say all the deportees come back here with adjustment disorder,” said Dr. Myo Oo, a psychiatrist in Jamaica who works in the mental health system. “You don’t know what to eat; you don’t know where to sleep. I could almost say 100 percent of deportees deal with depression and anxiety.”
Deported people are culturally disconnected from Jamaica after often 20 and 30 years abroad. “For deportees, the social integration and adjustment process alone is a big problem,” said Oo. “Deportees feel marginalized, because nobody is here for them. Often everyone in their family is abroad.”
Calvin James’s experience mirrored this trauma. He hadn’t been in the country in 30 years. James got into dealing drugs as a youngster and eventually dropped out of high school. After talking his way out of several misdemeanor drug charges, he eventually did time in both New Jersey and New York for selling marijuana and cocaine. But after the birth of Josh, his son with McArdle, he struggled with wanting to be a good father and partner and the lure of quick money for his family.
Deported people arrive in Jamaica with very few work options. When deportees apply for jobs, they risk having their convictions and status exposed with background checks, which almost always disqualifies them for the job. Often, the only work available to them in Jamaica, as in the U.S., is low-wage work.
As it is, there are few jobs to be had in the small island country, and trade work requires job-specific certification by a local Caribbean body, which takes years of study and testing, according to Abel. Deportees become ineligible for jobs that might provide some stability. Many are forced into the informal economy to scrape together a living as street vendors or handymen.
James was able to get work relatively quickly, though. He found a job as a nighttime security guard at a restaurant in Montego Bay and picked up another job as a driver transporting inventory for a wholesaler on the western side of the island. He does pickups and deliveries around the island, not unlike his days in New York, when he worked two jobs as a bike messenger.
James’s initial idea was to make enough to save and send for his partner and their son someday. But working 16 hours a day on Jamaican wages—with a take-home pay averaging $75 a week—does not yield nearly as much as his family would need to make the move.
A harsh stigma follows deportees wherever they go in Jamaica. Knowledge of a person’s deportee status can cut off job opportunities and close doors to housing. The Jamaican public, which looks down on deportees, is unsympathetic.
Deportees exist in an in-between land; they are not tourists, and yet they cannot go back home to the States.
“You were supposed to go abroad and send home remittances, but now you come back here a worthless deportee,” said Bernard Headley, a professor of criminology at the University of the West Indies, summarizing the popular sentiment.
According to Headley, 85 percent of people deported to Jamaica had only one conviction. And yet deportees as a class are blamed for much of Jamaica’s preexisting crime problems.
“It is a perception that has no evidential basis at all,” argued Nancy Anderson, the director of the Independent Jamaican Council of Human Rights. “You have to try and fight it, but it’s a prejudice people have. The word ‘deportee’ is a bad word. Even used cars that break down on the road, you say, ‘It’s a deportee.’”
A connection between deportees and Jamaican crime remains undocumented, yet it functions as more than cultural myth.
The Jamaica Gleaner, the country’s daily paper, reports infractions committed by deportees with enthusiastic furor on its front pages. And politicians who are hard-pressed to respond to public pressure over violent crime in Jamaica have taken to blaming the deportees.
“Jamaica has the highest rates of murder and violent crime in the world. And we also have a constant flow of deported persons back to Jamaica,” said Dr. Peter Phillips, Jamaica’s former Minister of National Security in an interview.
The connection was implied rather than stated directly. He pointed to new, sophisticated crime methods like identity theft and kidnapping that he was certain had origins elsewhere. “The removal of persons from a more to less secure environment leaves the potential for recidivism,” Phillips continued, noting that Jamaica will always accept its citizens. “It is an illusion to think that having removed the person, you remove the problem.”
Headley called such political scapegoating on the part of government officials irresponsible but also laid the blame on changes in U.S. immigration law that created a whole class of deportable crimes.
“Check forging had not been considered a felony before , but it was now made a felony,” he said. “It’s criminalization. It’s creating criminals out of whole cloth. Class A misdemeanors are now felonies? And it’s a felony because what we really want to do is extricate people.”
The separation from family is a kind of mourning experience. There is disappointment, and the missing, and shame and embarrassment, and it can be hard for love to find a way through all of these hurts. The phone calls go from every day, to once a week, and then once a month—soon, long stretches of silence pass, and people call just for birthdays and Christmas.
Christopher Bryan, who makes a living selling cigarettes and orange juice from the front yard of his Kingston home after he was deported nine years ago, talked only about his daughter, Jamilah Bryan. He hasn’t seen her in 10 years. She lives in Cleveland, Ohio, with her mother, and Bryan speaks with her when he can.
He said his daughter dreams of becoming a doctor. “I just want to be a father for my daughter, and I think she deserves it,” said Bryan in a plaintive, measured tone. “She’s my only child, and she deserves it, and she wants to be a doctor, and I can’t do it from here because of the economy. But maybe if I can get back there, I can do something for the betterment of my child.”
James, another father whose heart is with his far-away child, is adamant that he won’t lose touch with Josh and McArdle. Photos of Josh, all smiles and curly hair jutting out of a graduation cap, rest on a credenza in James’s apartment that also holds his small television set. James and his family speak on the phone every day, and he stays up-to-date about Josh’s school projects and skateboarding adventures. He also steps in to scold Josh when his mother says he’s stepped out of line.
In 2006, before McArdle was forced onto welfare, she and Josh visited James in Montego Bay for several weeks. They went swimming at the beach, James cooked the coconut rice and chicken his son loves so much, and his parents embarrassed Josh with their open affection around town. But visiting is not how a family stays strong together.
Today, James lives in a two-room apartment in the mountains just outside of Montego Bay. His home sits atop a steep drop into a valley below. All around, the brilliant green of Jamaica’s famed jungle forests stuns the eye, but inside, his dark, cramped apartment is filled with mismatched furniture and cycling paraphernalia.
James spends most of his days by himself. Like many of the other deportees, his is a solitary existence. James’s life is marked by the never-ending shifts at work and the long bike rides he takes for exercise. Often, usually at night, James is struck by pangs of loneliness.
“When I feel that way, I get on the phone. Kathy, she knows, because I’ll get on the phone, and we’ll be on the phone for hours.” They talk about their days, their worries, their son. Like any other family.
It’s been five years since James was deported,
and the days still stretch on endlessly. “It’s kind
of heartbreaking. Right now, the period that we’re going through, away from each other, I mark every day and week,” said James. “I think to myself, like, ‘This is time that I have to make up when we do get back together.’”
This story is part of “Torn Apart by Deportation,” a series investigating the impacts of deportation on families of color.
Julianne Ong Hing is the coeditor of the ColorLines blog, RaceWire.org.