Saturday, March 26, 2011

A Rising American Export: Criminal Deportees

A deportee speaks to WCSU students on Brava, Cape Verde in 2009

Since placing all deportations to Haiti on hold due the devastating earthquake in 2010, the US is once again sending illegal immigrants home, including 700 former criminals deported after serving out their sentences in American jails. Returnees to Haiti arrive in a country still recovering from disaster, steeped in poverty and disease, including a recent cholera outbreak. Many of these deportees left Haiti in their youth; they are unable to speak Creole or French, unskilled in the local labor market, without friends and often without family. They are stigmatized, treated with derision and shame, seen as having wasted a chance for a better life in America.

Under the 1996 Immigration Act, illegal immigrants sentenced to a year or more in prison, even if the sentence is suspended, face deportation. According to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, between October, 2009 and September, 2010 a record 392,862 immigrants were deported and half of those had  criminal records. Most of the crimes were drug related, but burglary, assault and murder were also included. According to the web site Three Strikes , 160 countries receive deportees, but approximately 80% are returned to Latin America and the Caribbean.  These countries have high rates of poverty and unemployment making it easy for deportees to fall victim to gangs and other forms of illegal activity in order to fit in and survive. Many foreign government officials insist, though it is difficult to substantiate, that criminal deportees have contributed to a rise in the number of crimes committed, including murder and armed robbery. They are believed to have added to the repertoire of criminal acts with hijackings and drive-by shootings. Some officials report that these new arrivals are better, more sophisticated criminals than those who are native born.

In 2009, as an adjunct professor of anthropology and as their advisor, I traveled with 25 students from Western Connecticut State University's Humanitarian Travel Club to Brava and Fogo, part of a group of islands located west of Senegal comprising the nation of Cape Verde. The nine distinct dialects spoken on these islands divided into two branches. Brava and Fogo are part of the Sotavento Creole group. We visited schools across the islands, donating school backpacks filled with supplies, toothbrushes and dental floss. One of our students, an aspiring dentist, gave demonstrations on dental hygiene. They also participated in meetings with criminal deportees who were mainly from Cape Verdean immigrant communities  in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

On the fishing boat-ferry from Fogo to Brava.

We first visited Brava, a small, rocky, volcanic island with 6,000 inhabitants. It is rustic, mountainous and beautiful. Wild donkeys roam the steep hillsides. Rising seemingly straight from the ocean, there are no sandy beaches, but there is a protected inlet with a pool nesting among rock formations, a beautiful spot for swimming. The island is very poor with limited modern amenities. In the past, American whaling ships would stop on Brava to pick up supplies and personnel. In this way, many Cape Verdeans first made their way to America. Today, Brava receives few foreign visitors and its population decreases annually.

After a flight from the capital, Praia, to Fogo, the trip to Brava took one-hour on a 25 person fishing-boat-cum-ferry. The waters were turbulent, many people got sea- sick, and several dreaded the journey back on the rough seas (they held a 'sisters of the sea' vigil for a safe return the night before we left Fogo). This experience highlighted the social and geographical isolation later expressed by the deportees we met.

Students walking to a village on Brava.

On Brava, not only was there no work, there were no fast food restaurants, no regular transportation, chain stores or cinemas. Movies are shown out of doors on a screen set-up on weekends in the main plaza. Household sundries and clothing could be purchased at the tiny "Chinese store," s small shop selling household goods and clothing. We were guests of the mayor and stayed in houses maintained by the local government for visitors as there was no hotel that could accommodate a group of our size.

We met the deportees right away as they tended to congregate in the center of the main town, Nova Sintra, unemployed with nothing to do. Considered outcasts, the deportees on Brava did not speak the local dialect. They evoked fear in the locals and had virtually no chance of employment. They survived mostly on money sent from home. Meetings with them were organized by Ines Silva of Cape Verde Care. Ms. Silva's organization hopes to bring aid and awareness to this situation. Each deportee (they were mainly men in their 20s and 30s and a few women) told stories of drug and alcohol abuse and violence. Some had trouble walking and talking. Others shouted in frustration, pleaded to be heard. They were angry, sad, inebriated, in many cases in need of psychological and addiction counseling. As they stood in the center of the meeting hall, I remember being struck by the limping bodies and halting, hoarse voices, revealing histories filled with addiction and abuse. The students listened with compassion and set up impromptu AA meetings on street corners and in restaurants. They brainstormed for ways to raise awareness in the US.

On Fogo, the story was the same. However, this island, accessible by plane, is physically larger and has a population of 40,000. It has beautiful black volcanic beaches and a landscape dominated by the volcano Pico do Fogo which rises to almost 3,000 meters. The deportees here gathered in the capital  Sao Filipe in a small sparsely furnished bar that might be described as ‘seedy.’ It depicted an urban hip-hop ‘vibe,’ and seemed frozen in the late 90s, the year the owner, a deportee himself, had been returned Fogo. While some work was available in construction and in other odd jobs, these displaced "Americans" too were for the most part ostracized and feared, unemployed, bored and in limbo regarding their futures. These deportees appeared slightly less vulnerable, slightly more skeptical. They had seen well-intentioned researchers, humanitarians and government officials pass through before and were still waiting for whatever assistance these groups had promised.

Students visit the Tattoo Bar on Fogo. It is a meeting place for deportees

As I observed the American students interact with the deportees on both islands I thought it was just like watching any group of young adults laugh, listen to music, dance, make jokes and enjoy themselves while learning about each other. One student was brought to tears as deportees told her of loss and loneliness, of missing their parents, girlfriends and children. After a night out, one male student commented, “These guys are really nice! Back home, I would probably never meet up with people like this and get to know them.” He seemed struck by their friendliness and 'normality.' I told him he was probably right: how often does a clean-cut, middle-class college senior have a night ‘on the town’ with convicted felons?

Most of these Cape Verdean deportees came to the US with their parents as small children. Hoping for better opportunities, some families ended up with low wage jobs in poor, urban centers with high levels of crime. 

On Cape Verde, a 2007 study of urban crime by the UNHCR showed that a third of criminal deportees had been deported for assault and that one in five had committed drug related crimes. In 2008, Katherine McInerney posted an article in New England Ethnic News entitled, "Cape Verdean Deportees Bring US Problems to the Homeland.”  She reported on a meeting between Massachusetts state representative Marie St. Fleur, a delegation of ex-patriot Cape Verdeans, also from that state, and government officials in Cape Verde regarding the struggles of criminal deportees. The delegates recalled anecdotes of deportees still without money, food, friends and family after 10 or 15 years in the country. There were stories of desperation and of deportees committing suicide.

Deportee (center) and WCSU student in conversation, Brava

Paulo De Barros, president of St. Peter’s Teen Center in Massachusetts said that many deportees suffered from psychological problems that Cape Verde officials were unable to address. He further stated that, “The kids are coming from a violent community, they’re traumatized and the trauma goes with them. They go back and try to get used to a place they haven’t been since they were five, six, seven years old. It’s a whole new process and they still have America as their home because that’s all they know." 

Victor Borges, Cape Verde's Minister of Foreign Affairs, said, "When I was a young boy there was always the verb, 'to be': to be something. Now we speak to our children using much more the verb 'to have.' To have things, to have money . . . but before we have all this we must be something." One could make the argument that the deportees developed cultural identities and honed their criminal skills in America out of need and desperation. Now, we are exporting them and these survival skills abroad.

Deportee tells his story, Brava

A concern I have regarding repatriated criminal deportees is not whether or not they should be sent back to their countries of birth, but the process by which the US evicts these individuals from the very country that has shaped their norms and behaviors, values and world-view.  Spend time speaking to deportees and one finds that everything about them - their music, style of dress, sense of humor and slang - is American but their citizenship. They are returned, often fresh from jail or even the hospital, to Haiti, Cape Verde and elsewhere, often to circumstances even poorer than the ones they left behind, with little or no chance of rehabilitation. In fact, those living on Fogo and Brava told of being shunned as failures. Islanders said, "You were in America, you had a chance, and you didn't succeed." 

Certainly responsibility falls upon the families of the deportees who for whatever reasons failed or were unable to obtain citizenship for their children. Circumstances vary and many may have lacked legal, economic or social support. However, these families on reflection may have considered the consequences of keeping their children in the US illegally, especially if they had knowledge that their children were engaging in illegal drug use or other kinds of criminal activities. It's a difficult and complex issue. It is not just about immigration and crime. It is about poverty, access to education and health, about opportunity.  At this point, I hope that legal and humanitarian efforts can be made by both the US and receiving countries to assist criminal deportees, to help find ways to survive besides engaging in illegitimate opportunities, something that harms them, their communities and their families. 

All photos courtesy of Adam Schwarz.

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