Jamaican migrants in the United States are often hailed as a “model minority” – black immigrants who are able to succeed against the odds. It is remarkable that blacks can succeed in a society where being black is criminalized. Yet, the truth is that many Jamaicans do not succeed. Many Jamaican men, it turns out, fall prey to the lure of the streets and end up deported.
Many Jamaican deportees I have met through my research were left with relatives in Jamaica while their parents traveled abroad to earn money and establish themselves. Their parents sent for them when they were teenagers. Arriving in New York City in the 1970s, these Jamaican boys, raised by their grandmothers, did not fit in. They spoke the wrong way, wore the wrong clothes, and didn’t know the code of the streets. They often had misunderstandings with their parents, as their years of separation had created distance between them. Their parents worked long hours and often did not provide the emotional support they needed and expected. Many of them dropped out of high school.
After dropping out of high school, some were able to find menial jobs. But, like their parents’ jobs, these jobs paid little, and didn’t allow them to attain the glitz and glamour they saw all around them. They found solace hanging out with other young Caribbean men, on the streets of New York.
As teenagers, living the street life of New York in the 1970s, they weren’t angels. But, a couple of years in the United States had not turned them into hard-core criminals either. Many Jamaican deportees I met found themselves in a situation where they were in a car or a house and the police came and found drugs and/or guns. Each of them did hard time for this.
One man, Samuel, explained to me that he had been raised by his grandmother in Jamaica. At age 14, he went to the US to live with his parents, who had obtained legal permanent residency. Samuel went to high school in Brooklyn for a couple of years. Eventually, he couldn’t take the teasing and taunting about his accent and his clothes anymore. When he dropped out, his tenuous relationship with his parents soured and they kicked him out of the house. He went to live with some friends, and slowly got pulled more and more into the street life. One afternoon, he was riding down the street with some buddies, and the cops pulled them over.
Samuel told me he had no idea the car was stolen. When he realized what was going on, he ran. The cops cornered him in a back yard and arrested him. When it was time for him to stand trial, the police officer said that, in the back yard, Samuel had pointed a gun at him, and Samuel was charged with attempted murder of a police officer. At age 19, his first conviction turned into a fifteen year sentence in prison. Turns out he served twenty-six years, as the parole board did not release him. He said that was in part because he would never admit guilt and in part because the board was particularly harsh on violent crimes when his turn came up.
The story of the devastation of black communities because of the loss of black men to the prison system is well-known. The incarceration of Jamaicans in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s adds another dimension to this. Upon release, these men are deported to Jamaica, a land many of them left as teenagers. Many of them have nearly all of their family members in the United States, and few or none in Jamaica.
Samuel spent five years on the streets of New York, and then spent twenty-six years in the penitentiary. In 2005, he was deported to Jamaica. He was 45 years old, and had not been in Jamaica since he was 14 years old. No prison release program, no orientation to Jamaica, and all of his family in the United States. Moreover, his father was too embarrassed of him to help him find family members in Jamaica. Eventually, he found a cousin who lets him stay with her for a couple of months.
When Samuel applies for jobs, they ask him about his work history. If it becomes evident that he spent over two decades in prison, no one wants to hire him. Samuel fights back tears as he tells me his story. He never lets one drop. “Everyone in prison says they are innocent,” he says. I look into his eyes and see a life wasted.
Samuel is calm, intelligent, articulate, poised. He has to sacrifice his dignity every day to get a plate of food and a warm bed to sleep on. He is currently staying with a childhood friend who is willing to hide Samuel’s past from others.
For these men, the American dream turned into a nightmare, and no one believes them. Jamaicans look at them and see that they had the opportunity to go to where the streets are paved with gold. They went to America, and came back with nothing.