One Man's Struggle Against America's Broken Immigration System
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Can people change?
This question is at the heart of a fight between Homeland Security and Jean Montrevil. The answer has major implications for the reforms that lawmakers propose when they take up immigration reform after health care.
The feds charge that Montrevil is a hardened criminal alien. Montrevil claims he’s paid for past mistakes. He has a colorful rap sheet for crimes he committed 20 years ago. He’s now a community leader and the father of four American-born children, ages 2, 6, 11 and 19.
At a routine visit to Homeland Security on Dec. 30, 2009, Montrevil was arrested, pending deportation to Haiti. By New Year’s Day, a hundred gathered at his church to call for his release. U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler and other politicians rang Homeland Security round-the-clock with the same demand. Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania’s York County jail, Montrevil began a hunger strike.
Four days later, awaiting the government’s response, eight clergy were arrested by NYPD in a non-violent civil disobedience. Upping the ante, they demanded reform of the federal laws that put Montrevil into deportation in the first place. More actions are being planned.
Here’s the full story.
Jean Montrevil came to the United States legally with a green card. He and 12 siblings arrived from Haiti in 1986, after his U.S. citizen dad sponsored them. "We came to America to make it big," Montrevil says. "Along the way, I got stupid."
He stumbled into the taxi business. A fellow cabbie opened the door to drugs. "I started selling marijuana to passengers. From there, I took off."
Montrevil didn’t get very far. In 1989, at age 20, he was arrested in New Jersey, driving down I-95. "No one told me it was a corridor," Montrevil recalls. "Police stopped black guys driving nice cars all the time, looking for people like me." Just months into selling, he was busted for cocaine.
Out on bail, he made another drug run to Virginia. A federal agent and deputy sheriff found an ounce of crack hidden in his car’s gas tank. Montrevil would’ve gotten five years under mandatory federal sentencing guidelines. But prosecuted in Virginia state court, he got 27 years. Inside, he caught an assault conviction for fighting with another inmate.
"1989 was a rough year," Montrevil says. "Prison saved my life." Released early for good behavior, he opened a store selling candles and religious supplies in Brooklyn in 2000. He believes that the 11 years he served kept him from getting killed in the underground drug trade.
Nationwide, of the 2.3 million deported from 1997 to 2007, 37 percent have criminal records. Homeland Security spokesman Mike Gilhooly explains in an email, "One of ICE’s primary missions is to remove foreign national criminals from the United States." ICE, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, is the federal government’s deportation unit.
Montrevil charges that this mission is double jeopardy. "Why do I have to keep paying for crimes I already served time for? I feel marked for life."
By chance, the feds didn’t deport Montrevil directly from prison. They got him in a sweep of New York parole offices in 2005. He’s been in deportation proceedings since then, reporting to Homeland Security offices when asked, and banking on legal appeals and political pressure to stay here. Haiti’s refusal to take U.S. deportees bought him time at different moments.
On Dec. 30, 2009, his luck ran out. He was detained during a routine check in. Haiti was taking people back, and he had no appeals left. But the holiday grab surprised his supporters. Months earlier they’d requested a meeting with the feds to discuss Montrevil’s case.
The agency can defer action on any deportation order. Montrevil’s attorney Joshua Bardavid explains, "My client is eligible for deferred action. ICE has not yet refused or granted it." According to Montrevil’s minister, Reverend Dr. Donna Schaper of Judson Memorial Church, "Jean’s spirit is not junk. We just want one face-to-face meeting to explain how we know that."
According to Gilhooly, "Jean Murat Montrevil is an aggravated felon with a significant criminal record who has a final order of removal from an immigration judge. Montrevil has exhausted all of his appeals and ICE will enforce the immigration judge’s order." Homeland Security declined to comment on their policy for exercising discretion.
Nadler jumped on the phone New Year’s Eve, as soon as he heard about Montrevil’s detention. But Nadler hasn’t been able to convince Homeland Security to budge.
Nadler connects Montrevil’s case to the call for immigration reform. "The practice of deporting people for minor crimes committed many years in the past when they have been law-abiding ever since makes no sense and is blatantly unfair," Nadler says.
U.S. Rep. Nydia Velasquez, chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, echoed the sentiment in a letter to Homeland Security in 2008.
Prior to Montrevil’s detention, these supporters were hopeful. The feds had removed an electronic monitor from his ankle, thereby reducing his risk-level. His regular visits to Behavioral Interventions, a private security firm subcontracted by Homeland Security, were uneventful. "I complied with whatever they asked of me," Montrevil says. "Why lock me up during my kids’ Christmas holidays?"
"I was still nursing our son when they took Jean in 2005," says his wife Janay Montrevil. an African-American school teacher from Brooklyn. Janay, 31, met her husband on a blind date. She says, "When I fell in love, I didn’t know Jean could be taken from me."
Montrevil told her he was locked up for crimes. But neither expected his deportation. The couple got married, each bringing a child from a prior relationship into their union. "I can’t believe President Obama would turn me into another single mother," she says.
Montrevil is the family cook. "I tried making my kids oatmeal the morning after they took him," Janay recalls. "But I don’t know how to do all that stuff with the milk and fruits. I just boil water. When I gave it to my kids, they looked horrified, like, ‘are we gonna starve now that dad’s gone?’" Montrevil just began a hunger strike to protest the deportation system.
Six-year-old Jahsiah seems the hardest hit by his father’s absence. An asthmatic who’s legally disabled, he’s wetting his bed and leaving voicemails on Montrevil’s cell phone.
Montrevil’s mom died in Haiti when he was Jahsiah’s age. He doesn’t think much of his own father, now deceased. "He beat us and ran around with other women. I promised myself I’d be a good father to my kids. What’ll happen to them without me?"
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.”
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."