Each day, about 1,000 people are deported from the US. Nearly all are people of color. This means that the devastating effects of deportations are felt more strongly in communities where people of color predominate. Many people who are deported have committed fairly minor crimes, and the punishment of permanent separation from their loved ones is overly severe.
Deportation is not considered punishment in US law, yet it often amounts to banishment from the only country people have known, for relatively minor legal infractions. Xuan Wilson, for example, came to the US when she was four years old. In 1989, she was convicted of writing a forged check for $19.83. Since this minor offense was considered a crime of moral turpitude, she was ordered deported in 2003. Mary Anne Gehris came to the US from Germany as an infant. In 1988, she was involved in an altercation in which she pulled the hair of another woman. She was charged and convicted of battery and received a one-year suspended sentence–she did not have to serve any time. However, since she is a non-citizen, she faced mandatory deportation, without any judicial review. Mary Anne Gehris was fortunate to have found advocates for her cause. She was granted a pardon from the governor of Georgia, which meant that she was not deported to a country she barely knew for a relatively minor offense.
Not only are deportees affected by their exclusion; their families suffer greatly as well. In 1997, Jesus Collado, a 43-year old restaurant manager and legal resident of the US went to the Dominican Republic for a two week vacation with his wife and children. When he returned, the inspector checked the INS records and found that Collado had been convicted of a criminal offense in 1974. Collado had been convicted of statutory rape for having consensual sex with his 15-year old girlfriend when he was nineteen. Because of the retroactive nature of the 1996 laws, Collado faced mandatory detention and deportation without judicial review. His family faced losing their father, husband, and provider.
Sometimes, the consequences for family members left behind can be devastating. Gerardo Mosquera, a native of Colombia, was deported for a $10 marijuana sale in 1989, although he had been a legal resident for 29 years. He left behind his US citizen wife and children. His 17-year old son committed suicide after his father left, in part because of his depression over losing his father. In Jamaica, I met a man, Elias, who left twelve children in the US when he was deported. Elias was walking past a barber shop in Brooklyn when a friend asked him to take a bag of baby wipes and diapers to his baby’s mother across town. Elias agreed to do it and hopped into a cab. Shortly thereafter, a police car turned on its siren and pulled the cab over. Elias looked into the bag and saw that the bag didn’t have baby wipes in it – it had fourteen rocks of crack cocaine. Elias was arrested and sentenced to eighteen months in prison. Once released, he was ordered deported. Elias spent eleven months in detention trying to get his charge overturned, until he finally gave up while the appeal was still underway. He had been in the US since he was six years old, and had no ties to Jamaica. He didn’t want his twelve children to grow up without a father present. But, he was tired of being locked up and agreed to be deported.
In many cases, “criminal aliens” have no idea that they have committed crimes that render them deportable. Emma Mendez de Hays faced deportation for translating a conversation for her Spanish-speaking cousin in 1990. Mendez de Hays answered the phone in her home, and the caller asked for her cousin. Her cousin, who did not speak English well, told her to tell him she would help him the next day. Mendez de Hays relayed the message and hung up. It turned out the caller was an undercover narcotics officer, and Mendez de Hays was found guilty of using a communication device to facilitate the distribution of cocaine. She did not serve any time for this “offense” and thought the whole incident was behind her when, in 1996, she returned from a visit to Italy with her fiancé. INS officials immediately detained her and placed her in deportation proceedings for her 1990 guilty plea. She spent two years in INS detention while she fought her case. She finally won when a US Supreme Court decision invalidated some retroactive deportation orders.
Catherine Caza came to the US when she was three years old. She was ordered deported at the age of 40 in 1997, for a crime she had committed seventeen years prior. In 1980, Caza was taking amphetamine pills prescribed by her doctor. Her boyfriend convinced her to sell him 21 of them. He turned out to be an undercover police officer. In court, she pled guilty, and was placed on probation for five years. The 1996 laws rendered her ineligible for a waiver for deportation, and, despite the nature of her offense, the 37 years she had spent in the US, and her seven-year-old US citizen daughter, the judge had no choice but to order her to be deported.
The deportation of people for relatively minor crimes – shoplifting, small drug sales, and forged checks – is appalling. The disproportionate severity of the consequence of deportation is exacerbated by the fact that many of these people have spent nearly all of their lives here. Many learned to shoplift or resorted to selling drugs because of their environment in the US. When a child born in Thailand and adopted by US parents is convicted of forging checks and stealing a car, we cannot blame his country of origin for his criminal activity. John Gaul, the adopted child of US citizen parents was deported to Thailand at age 19, after having served time for these felonies. What is the logic behind this exile? As the 1953 Presidential Commission charged with reviewing deportation orders pointed out, “Each of the aliens is a product of our society. Their formative years were spent in the United States, which is the only home they have ever known. The countries of origin which they left … certainly are not responsible for their criminal ways.”
~ Tanya Golash-Boza is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and American Studies at the University of Kansas and blogs at http://tanyagolashboza.blogspot.com.