Why Deport Formerly Incarcerated Immigrants? Is the System Broken?

By Seth Freed Wessler Jun 15, 2009

ColorLines magazine is in Jamaica this week investigating the devastating effect of American deportation policies on families. Check back for more updates soon. Christopher Johnson, 38, was deported from Washington, DC to Jamaica six weeks ago, after he finished a 15-year sentence for a violent crime. To many in the United States, it makes sense to deport non-citizens who have committed crimes, especially in cases like that of Christopher, who shot another person. It is, they say, at the core of the concept of national sovereignty that a country may deport any non-citizen it wishes. However, the devastation that the practice of mandatory deportation creates is hard to reconcile with any logic or political calculus. Christopher did his time, as the cliché goes, and he describes himself as changed, reformed and ready for a new beginning. But he will not have that opportunity and may soon find himself in desperate circumstances, joining the thousands of deported people in Jamaica who struggle to make ends meet, stay housed, avoid the venomous bite of social stigma attached to deportation and negotiate a country of which they have no firsthand knowledge. When we met Christopher, he was wearing a pair of orange prison issue shorts. He talked about how ready he had been to start anew, about the room his mother had set up for him to move into, and the hopes he had to get training and an education. Instead, he waits all day in a house with three other men, one woman and her two children – all deported from the US, UK and Canada – in a country he left when he was 10 years old, to which he is only nominally connected. He wonders in his clearly American accent why he never applied for citizenship. He mourns that he will not get another chance to see his mother, who has stood by him. Christopher believes his uncle, his mother’s brother, will soon come to pick him up, take him in, help him to figure out how he will survive in this strange place. But it has been weeks since Christopher arrived, since an NGO dropped him off at a temporary shelter in Kingston, and months since he was thrust into immigration detention and deported just as he thought he’d be released. His uncle has not come and it seems unlikely that Christopher’s little family who remain in Jamaica – people he’s never once met – will be coming for him at all. When we walked into the building – a house in a residential neighborhood – his eyes fixed, intensely, almost intimidatingly, and stayed pinned on me. He told us he wasn’t going to talk to us. It took 20 minutes for him to start sharing and intermittently let his guard down enough to tell us pieces of his story. After 15 years in a federal penitentiary, Christopher is scarred. The deep stare he moves in and out of shows signs of detachment, mistrust, perhaps mental illness. He is entirely lost and has no sense that he may be wholly, permanently, abandoned and cast out. The vast majority of people deported from the United States because of criminal offenses are convicted of minor drug crimes, as was the case for one 60-year-old man deported for something as little as smoking a joint in a car in a Boston suburb, and for them we can easily argue that the punishment of exile is far too harsh. In rare instances like Christopher’s – cases that have become the archetype, the legitimating tool to support punitive immigration policies in the US – the argument can seem tougher to make. But the truth is simple. This man and tens of thousands of others are torn from everything they know, uprooted, separated from their families, their support and their ladders to better futures. As long as our immigration and criminal justice systems are woven together, more and more people will be hit with the same.