Do the Crime, Pay the Time, … and then, You Get Deported?

On the beach the other day in Negril, I met a young man, Horatio. My husband, who was chatting with him, introduced us and told me that Horatio had been deported from the United States. Horatio, a tall man in his early twenties with a deep scar on his forehead, explained to me that he moved to the United States when he was eleven years old. When he was 18, he was caught with drugs and deported.

Deported for an aggravated felony – possession of crack cocaine – Horatio will never be able to return to the United States. Horatio has no immediate family in Jamaica. His grandparents, his parents, his brothers and sisters and his three children all live in the United States. I know there are many people who have no sympathy for Horatio. As an immigrant, he is a guest of the United States. He broke the law, and there are plenty of other, law-abiding people who would like the opportunity to live in the United States.

As I listened to his story, however, I became increasingly convinced that Horatio’s deportation was unjust. Many of the circumstances that led to his deportation were beyond his control. His decision to sell drugs was only one of many other factors that got him deported.

Horatio was born in Jamaica. When he was born, his grandparents lived in the United States. When he was one year old, his mother traveled to the United States as a legal permanent resident to join her parents, leaving him behind. Had Horatio’s mother gotten her green card one year earlier, Horatio likely would have been born in the United States, and would have been a U.S. citizen like his younger brothers and sisters.

When she arrived in the United States, Horatio’s mother intended to bring her Horatio and his brother to the United States as soon as possible. However, she began to have trouble with her husband. He verbally and physically abused her and made it difficult for her to file the paperwork for Horatio and his brother to travel to the United States. For these reasons, Horatio was not able to travel until he was eleven years old.

Horatio’s mother qualified for citizenship in the United States when Horatio was five years old. She did not, however, ever go and apply for citizenship. Had she done so, Horatio and his siblings would have become citizens automatically and Horatio would not have been deported.

Horatio qualified for citizenship on his own account when he was 16 years old. He never went to apply. Horatio had no idea that he could be deported for a drug conviction. He thought he was a legal permanent resident, and did not know that deportation was possible.

Horatio was caught with crack cocaine when he was 18 years old – his first criminal charge. Had this happened a few months before, when he was 17, he may have been able to avoid deportation because of his juvenile status.

When faced with drug charges, Horatio’s lawyer advised him that he plead guilty. The judge offered him less than a year in jail, and it seemed like a good deal. No one told Horatio that a guilty plea would not only get him a few months in jail, but also deportation. He was not fully aware of the consequences of this plea. His lawyer, a public defender, did not inform him of the immigration consequences of his plea.

When Horatio was arrested, he was 18 years old. He grew up in public housing on the South Side of Chicago. In these circumstances, the likelihood of Horatio not ever getting a criminal conviction was very low. Had his mother known how likely it was that he would end up in trouble and that any conviction could lead to his deportation, perhaps she would have applied for citizenship.

For me, Horatio’s deportation is an undeserved punishment for making bad decisions as a teenager. I will be the first to admit that I succumbed to peer pressure and did stupid things as a teenager. Lucky for me, I am no longer paying for those youthful indiscretions. In addition, I know personally many people who sold drugs as teenagers, yet who have moved on and are now valuable members of their communities. You see, I don’t think you should have to pay for the rest of your life for a crime you committed when you were 18. I also don’t think that children should have to suffer because of the decisions of their parents. For whatever reason, Horatio’s mother decided not to become a citizen. Now, Horatio has to pay for that decision.

Not only does Horatio have to pay, but, so does his family. His mother lost a son who could have helped her to move out of poverty. His three children will grow up without a father present. His younger siblings will lose the benefit of his guidance as they struggle to grow up in the inner city of Chicago. The losers are clear. The winners, much less so.

Tanya Golash-Boza is on the faculty at the University of Kansas. Read other articles by Tanya, or visit Tanya's website.