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One Man's Struggle Against America's Broken Immigration System

Meet Jean Montrevil: A Haitian immigrant whose troubled past may be enough to get him kicked out of the U.S.

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The Montrevils made their case into a campaign to change the laws. Whether you think the border wall is too high or too porous, everyone agrees the immigration system is broken. Today, pro-immigration activists are lobbying President Obama to pass legalization right after health care.

But that fix wouldn’t help Montrevil. He came here as a legal permanent resident. Homeland Security wants to de-legalize him. "Families like mine have to change the deportation system," he says.

In 1996, under President Bill Clinton, the United States passed sweeping immigration laws that made detention and deportation mandatory for most immigrants with any brush with the law. Although Montrevil’s crimes occurred before their passage, they’ve been applied to him retroactively.

In 2006, Montrevil donated a passenger van from his small transportation business to Families for Freedom. The New York non-profit was shuttling families like his to Washington, D.C. Montrevil led one delegation to talk directly with lawmakers. "I’d never been in Congress before," he recalls. "I was so excited."

In response to these efforts, U.S. Rep. José Serrano introduced a bill. "Jean Montrevil's case is precisely why we need to see the provisions of the Child Citizen Protection Act passed into law," says Serrano. "We cannot continue to allow inflexible deportation guidelines to separate families with U.S. citizen children."

Currently, immigration judges can’t consider the well-being of American children before deporting a parent. Serrano’s proposal, now part of a larger House immigration reform bill, would untie judges’ hands. New York advocates are asking U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer to include the proposal in the Senate. Montrevil could be put on a plane to Haiti before the bill he inspired is considered.


While Homeland Security takes Montrevil’s time in prison as proof of his criminality, his supporters take it as a measure of his redemption. "Eleven years is a long time to be locked up," says Reverend Bob Coleman. "Jean represents a restored life. Who benefits by stripping him of his legal status?"

Rev. Coleman is the minister of the historic Riverside Church, a spiritual home to the political elite. Montrevil has spoken from the church’s pulpit on several occasions. Shuttling through the city’s houses of worship, bearing witness three or four days a week, he moved them and others to join New York’s New Sanctuary Coalition.

Montrevil co-founded this faith-based group for immigration reform in 2007, along with his minister. Schaper says, “Everyone has a soul. Jean has it more deeply than others, because of all he’s suffered.”

from delivering detainees into Homeland Security’s Lower Manhattan jail.


Before his detention, Schaper claimed without hesitation, "If we have to take him into the church, to keep him with his family, then we’ll do that." Harboring a person in a church when the law says they must be deported is a federal crime.

On Tuesday, Schaper got arrested for a state misdemeanor. She was one of eight clergy and two supporters who formed a human chain to block prisoner vans from entering Homeland Security’s jail in Lower Manhattan.

"We’ve been forced into civil disobedience," Schaper says minutes before two New York Police Department officers put white plastic handcuffs on her. "Jean is a person who changed. He’s being forced to pay over and over again for his sin, so we must show how wrong the law is."

Beside her was Lulu Fogarty, the Montrevil children’s Sunday school teacher. She had a simpler reason for breaking the law. "I couldn’t look the kids in the eye if I didn’t do anything to bring their dad back."

Aarti Shahani is a Public Service Fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

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