WITHER THE DREAM
The hell of living with deportation.
Written story by Marcus Yam
See pictures here.
The sound of glass shatters the cold silence of winter. Faint laughs fade into the looming night. Eyes open. He sits up abruptly, rubs his face, and slouches over to the front window. The amber glow of street lights carve through the shadows and reflect in his dark brown eyes. He wields a stick, expecting to defend his new home.
It is the darkest hour of the night and he peers out the window. He scans the street corner for anything unlikely. Disgruntled, he breaths relief. Jean Montrevil is not afraid anymore.
He drags his feet as he makes his way to the back of the house, where the master bedroom is. He warns me of unscrupulous behavior that is suspect in this neighborhood. “It’s not the best neighborhood to be living in. We’re here for a short time, then we’re moving somewhere else.”
His timetable: 18 months until his deportation order is due. “The American dream is dead,” he says. This is his third deportation order. In time, everything will come to an end, again.
His narrative has been woven into the fabric of the two wars that has plagued our home front. “The war on drugs and the war on immigrants,” he tells me, “When I first arrived in America, everybody respected immigrants, even if you had an accent. Today, it's different. They hate us.”
He remembers standing in line, in the gymnasium of a detention center, waiting to be shuttled to his deportation flight. After all these years, he could not believe it. Finally at the end of the line he thought to himself, “This is it. Haiti, here I come.”
He had friends waiting to receive him on the other side: Port Au Prince. There was no undoing it this time. He was minutes away from a new and uncertain fate, returning to a past that he had left behind to build a new dream. He was returning to the old world.
In a farewell letter to his church he wrote, “I love life; even though life has not been easy for me, I will continue loving it. At birth we call babies miracles, bundles of joy, we make promises to be there for them, to protect them and to cherish them. I will not be able to do that for my babies, their future is now bleak and very fragile. It is important for the world to know that although I did break the law many years ago, I am not getting deported because of that, I am getting deported because of unjust laws, just like the ones before, which no longer exist and I know one day this same law that just destroyed my family will no longer exist.”
He was crushed. He was leaving behind his children that could not follow him. “Jahsiah and Jamya are very young. They are very attached to me. It’s hard when I hear Jamya on the phone say, ‘Daddy, come home now, when are you coming home?’”, he said. “I am their sanctuary.”
As they walked the plank toward deportation, someone in his group fell sick with fever. The departure was cancelled abruptly. Deportation protocols prohibit the removal of individuals who aren’t deemed healthy for humanitarian reasons.
Almost a week later, an unimaginable earthquake tore Haiti apart. All there was to return to were shattered fragments of an impoverished country. He was now a non-deportable. His hope to live out a dream in the United States pulsed momentarily.
He remained in detention, as the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also known by its colder acronym – I.C.E., ponder the next course of action. Members of his church, family and friends rallied for his release, arguing that he was now held unjustly.
Elected officials were calling for his release and even Mayor Michael Bloomberg mentioned his plight in the call for, “more meaningful changes toward immigration reform,” in his inaugural speech.
He is their symbol of hope in an antiquated immigration system that has fallen in disrepair; where over 32,000 immigrants are detained on any given day – according to the Detention Watch Network and 1 in 10 families in the United States is of mixed-citizenship status.
The ante was upped when New York Police Department arrested eight clergy members for non-violent civil disobedience during a rally for his return.
On January 23, 2010, he was released. His wife, Janay, received him with a long embrace. It was a conditional release, in part, to temper the political storm brought on by the earthquake in Haiti before they were ready to deport him again.
What he returned to were; an unmanaged business, pile of debt from unpaid bills, a new home in disrepair, as well as the frenzy of everyday life. “Getting thrown in deportation, getting locked up can do serious damage to a man’s life,” he says.
His credit score dropped a couple of notches during this round of detention. “It is hard because you lose a sense of income, an economic momentum,” he says. “I’m wasting so much time with I.C.E.”
He still remembers the night before he left Haiti to come the United States. He was 17 and recalls, “having the best feelings in the world.” He was going to live with his father and stepmother whom he barely knew. “This is it, total freedom. Finally, happiness is coming to me,” he thought. He had been living in Haiti on own, since his biological mother passed away when he was only his son’s age, 6.
“I am finally going to be with my family. I am going to a country where one day I can be rich. In Haiti, when someone leaves for the United States, they always come back successful, a somebody,” he says. He has 14 siblings in the United States, either as permanent residents or naturalized citizens.
That night he did not pack anything. He traveled without luggage. All he had to hold on to was an envelope, sealed with his future intact. He wore a suit, tailored specially for the journey. He was looking forward to meeting his family and starting a new life. He barely slept. When he arrived, he handed over the envelope containing his immigration papers to officials and he became a permanent resident of the United States.
“Somewhere along the way, I got stupid."
When he was 20, he was caught between the anvil and the hammer coming down in the war on drugs. He was charged with possession of drugs and sent to prison. He served 11 years in prison until his release in 2000.
Life in prison changed many things for him. “I learned that I was not as smart as I thought I was,” he says, “It was a humbling experience.” He obtained his GED in prison, polished his English, devoured books and even learned the name of our galaxy, The Milky Way. The study of planetary science left him astonished with the vastness of our universe. He became convinced that there is life out there.
Then there were lessons about people, friendships and the danger of drugs. It wasn’t until he started reading that he realized there was so much more out there than just selling drugs to make a living. “Prison has made me a better person. I found patience, which is why I talk slow, move slow. I want to show concern and care because it is important in life to do so.”
In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed a bill that stripped away immigration judges’ ability to consider the welfare and well-being of U.S. citizen family members before deporting individuals and conduct judicial reviews of crime-related removal orders. The laws were retroactively applied to Jean’s past convictions even though they occurred before the passage of the bill.
After he got out of prison, he went into business for himself and met his wife on a blind date. When she fell in love with him, she didn’t know that he could be taken away from her. I asked him about his marriage in light of a looming deportation and he shrugs. He doesn’t believe in fairy tales, he tells me. “Who knows what’s going to happen in the future. Everything is uncertain. What matters is now,” he says. “I just can’t afford to be separated from my kids. I love them very much.”
When they married, they both brought a child from a previous relationship. They had two of their own; Jamya, 3, and Jahsiah, 6. The oldest of the four is living on his own and has been out of the picture. Jahniah, 11, is now the oldest of the siblings. “They’re too young to understand what is going on with their father. Jahniah understands and even though she’s my stepdaughter, I treat her like my own. There are no exceptions,” he says.
“Jahsiah, do you know what you will find in your mouth?” He clenches his fist. His son names it. “That’s right, you will get my fist in your mouth and it will break all your teeth,” he joked. Jahsiah retired to silence, not understanding the joke, as he succumbed to fear of testing his father's temper. Jamya, the clumsy three year-old, giggles at the conversation and leans over. She hits her brother in the head and they avalanche back into the rumble of sibling commotion. Jean sighs. He had hoped for a more peaceful night.
The couple leaves the children at Janay’s grandparents’ home for the evening to spend dinner alone together. They walk into Sally’s, a West Indian restaurant, to celebrate the fact that they are almost moved into their new home in Far Rockaway. They treat themselves to fresh fish, oxtail soup and an assortment of different West Indian dishes. “Are you going to eat that all?” he asks, as he eyes my steaming fish. “Jean, leave the poor boy alone. He’s trying to eat,” his wife berates him.
The conversation continues into how they are going to stay afloat financially. Their van transportation business is on a sinking decline, unmanaged because of his recent detention.
Being an entrepreneur, all he has ever wanted to do is run a profitable business and to keep up with the changing pace of the economy. “At the end of the day, I just want to be financially secure and leave something behind for the kids.”
His biggest plan now is to start a Caribbean sports bar. A place for sports aficionados, like him – to simply put it – “to hang out.” He gets excited about this dream, but his wife tells him he has to settle for something more reasonable because so much of their lives already swing on a trapeze. He points out to his wife that there is very little competition in the local food scene in his new neighborhood and asks her if she thinks it would be a good idea to start a food cart, “to sell good food at a cheap price.”
They then move on to talk about his legality in the country. He is now confident that he has a fighting chance – that individuals like him, who are fundamentally productive, rehabilitated and positive for communities, will get due process. He still believes in the bedrock of ideals that has made this country a promised land.
When she pushes the issue of mortgage and how they are going to afford it, he replies by suggesting a number of business ideas to her. “We’ve been struggling financially because we’re living in limbo,” he says. “All I have been doing these days is spending money; on the children, on the house, and on living, without any income.”
Janay leans over to him and starts rubbing the back of his neck. Her hand moves around, and he closes his eyes to savor the gesture. As her fingers slowly caress the top of his head, he inhales and holds his breath. “This ordeal has taken away our passion for each other,” he laments. “I feel robbed.” He vowed to renew his relationship with his wife.
“I was always joking, talking and laughing. I feel dead now, I don’t do any of that anymore.”
They return to her grandparent’s home to pick up the children. High-pitched squeals and gibberish noise syncopate with the beating of a plastic toy on a window. It is nearly 8 p.m. and they have to get the kids home for bedtime. They do not have shoes on and will not stop moving around. He struggles to put their winter coats on. Janay raises her voice to imply authority, “Come put your hat on or you’ll get the pow pow.”
The experimental music continues. He rubs his bald head. His children mean the world to him. “If it weren’t for them, I would gladly be deported back to Haiti or I would find my way there now to help out with the earthquake recovery,” he says.
His first deportation order came in 1994 while he was still in prison. He appealed the order but did not have the economic means to bring it to the federal court system where he might have had a chance. He lost his appeal but had to carry out the rest of the sentence before he was removed. He had made his peace with leaving his life in the United States behind. When he was released in 2000, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents never came for him. He was never deported.
What transpired was that the State of New York relocated him from the State of Virginia, as he was finishing up his sentence, for prior convictions before I.C.E. could snag him. It was the loophole in the system that allowed the judge to release him after having finished his sentence in New York, overlooking his deportation order.
In 2005, he was at the end of his parole. One more meeting stood in the way of putting the past behind him. That day he woke up early, dropped Jahsiah off at day-care school, ran his errands and showed up early to the meeting with his parole officer. When he stepped in, I.C.E. agents were waiting for him with a second deportation order. The past had caught up with him. “They asked me, ‘Mr. Montrevil, do you have any sharp objects or weapons in your pockets?’ before they arrested me.” He was detained and processed at the Varick Street Detention Center in Manhattan the same day.
Still they could not deport him. Haiti was going through its own political turmoil and was not receiving deportees at that time. He was released after six months in detention. He returned to his family, found his religious candle business in disrepair, sold it, and resumed life. He sighs, as he tells me this.
I ask him how he feels about being lucky. “I have given up on the fight a long time ago,” he replies. He did after all, live through three deportation orders.
As much as he is home, he is never completely home. The conditions of his release mandate monthly ‘check-in’ meetings and travel restrictions. He now carries an issued work permit that expires when his next deportation order is due. At one point there was an ankle bracelet involved, a global positioning tracker that allowed law enforcement agencies to track his whereabouts. He struggled wearing it, not knowing how to explain to his children why he was wearing it.
“Remember to collect the laundry from the Laundromat this afternoon,” his wife reminds him. He nods and as the hour strikes three, he walks out the door of his new home. A few blocks away, we enter the establishment. He moves over the washers, looks around for colors that he might recognize. He spots his daughter’s pink jacket pressing against the circular window. A warm smile breaks his expressionless face.
Clothes swirl in dark voids of the array of washing machines lining up behind him. The drumming of the mechanical hum drowns out a nearby television. He says to me, “You’ll never see me doing laundry. Never. Janay takes care of all that. You better take a picture of this.” Au contraire to his comment, his gentle hands run carefully as he pulls out the clothes and airs them out to avoid wrinkles. The laundry gently falls into the trolley cart standing right next to him. He moves over to a nearby table and starts neatly folding the clothes.
A quiet disconnect separates him from all the humming washers in the background as he pauses from moment to moment, looking at the clothes. He seems to be lost in thought. A father and son walk into the Laundromat with a big sack of clothes. They eye us for a few seconds, suspicious of our activity. I ask if he feels confident about his chances to refute his most recent deportation order. He says that it’s a slim chance and at the end of the day, he knows it’s a fighting chance because he has done nothing wrong. He is just trying to be a father and breadwinner for his family.
He makes his way out of the Laundromat and heads toward his new home. The contractors are putting the finishing touches to a new window at the front. The interior smells of fresh paint and the wooden floor is scattered with debris, newspaper and his children.
Jamya and Jahniah are lying on their backs, as Jahsiah sits in the corner. The girls lift their legs up in the air with mermaid-like grace, as Jahniah balances a circular plastic board on her feet. The sisters do a careful dance in the air as the boy tilts his head upward in awe.
The walls around them flaunt a lipstick-red color mixed with a tinge of orange, in contrast with the exterior, coated beige and cream. It overwhelms and invites. It was Janay’s idea. She had it custom made to her preference of red. It is definitely not his first choice of color, but he has grown fond of it. It reminds him of Janay and the fact that it cost him $33 a can.
They have been looking to own a house for the past five years. They kids are growing up, and are quickly outgrowing their old two bedroom apartment. The kids want a house to play, pace and round around in.
The dream had been to buy a home in a racially diverse neighborhood, where he feels most comfortable for his children. “This is not a dream house. We’re still in the same situation as we were before. The neighborhood is a problem. It is not diverse enough. It’s an all black neighborhood.” For now they have to settle for something affordable in case he gets deported.
Then there is the driving. “Far Rockaway is very, very, very, far away,” he tells me. “There is a reason why it is called what it is. I’m just burning money on gas with the commute,” he says. He uses half a tank of gas a day, just to and fro.
I ask him how he feels about the house. He replies, “Ask me again in 5 years and I will be able to know what this all means. I’m just living it right now. Maybe in the summer I will change my mind when I visit the beach with my family. The water changes your mood. So does the warm weather.”
He plans to stay the night, “to keep watch of my new house.” A deportation order still looms and yet he says it with such pride. He motions to an empty wall in the living room, “Here’s where I’m going to put the flat screen TVs. I might have a few more in the basement too so that I can watch football.” He has specific instructions from his wife to finish painting the empty walls in their new home but he chooses to procrastinate with ideas of his perfect home.
Lately he has many doubts. He contemplates mixed feelings on being American. “It is a privilege to have freedom. I’m not happy with the direction of where the country is going. I don’t feel welcomed anymore.” He no longer considers himself middle-class.
“Everything was good. I had the religious candle store, I was living the good life. I was happy, I had money in the pocket, I was making a lot more, and I had kids on the way,” he laments.
The dream is no more. “I’m living a nightmare.”