A Corporal and A Detainee
Philippe Louis-Jean is a 25-year-old Brooklyn native and U.S. Marine. He spent two years in Iraq and Kuwait and then 10months in immigrant detention, awaiting deportation for a single incident of oral sex with a willing partner who, he found out later, was under 18.
At five years old, Louis-Jean came to the U.S. from Haiti with his parents and younger brother. He quickly learned English, and by high school Louis-Jean only knew America as his home. He attended James Madison High School in Brooklyn as his parents (both American citizens) had three more children. Somehow in the struggle of raising five children in Brooklyn and dealing with political instability back home in Haiti, Louis-Jean's parents never got around to naturalizing him. He and his younger brother were non-citizens in a family of U.S. citizens.
At James Madison High School, Louis-Jean often saw the military recruiters. The idea of being a Marine and serving his country appealed to him. At age 19, he enlisted. Green card in hand, Louis-Jean left Brooklyn and moved to Camp Pendleton, San Diego, where he began his Marine training. Two years later he married. He and his wife separated a short while later.
By all reports, Louis-Jean was a star recruit. He finished his training and rose exceptionally quickly though the Marine ranks. Within two years, Louis-Jean had been promoted from Private to Private First Class to Lance Corporal to Corporal.
In 2002, Louis-Jean had what he describes as an "unfortunate" liaison with a girl who turned out to be well-known on the base. She also turned out to be under 18. Louis-Jean engaged in consensual oral sex with this young woman, saying he had "no idea and no reason to believe" she was under age. A few days later the Naval Criminal Investigative Service arrested him. All of a sudden, a star recruit was facing up to 160 years time for a single case of underage oral sex.
In this case, the type of sex Louis-Jean engaged in matters. Because military law, under which Louis-Jean was about to be tried, states the only legal sexual act is in the missionary position with the man on top of the woman. Anything else is sodomy. Because Louis-Jean had not formally divorced his wife, he was also looking at charges of adultery.
Louis-Jean copped a guily plea and in August 2002 he received a sentence of 37 days in military prison.
In January 2003, after serving his 37 day term, he was stripped of his military rank, retrained as a mortarman, and deployed to Kuwait. In May 2003, Louis-Jean was among the first U.S. troops to invade Iraq. He says that while all the marines would at some point ask themselves why they were at war in Iraq, for the most part, the Iraqis he met were happy that America was ridding them of Saddam. "That felt good."
On the battlefield, Louis-Jean's performance was also being noticed by his superiors and very soon his previous pattern of promotions began again. Louis-Jean's battalion's main mission was to take and secure Saddam's palace. It was this duty that saw his battalion, and his own armored personnel vehicle, come under heavy and deadly enemy fire. Louis-Jean survived and by the end of May his battalion was rotated out of Iraq and back to Camp Pendleton.
Excessive mortar-loading and other war duties had aggravated an old shoulder injury, so back in Camp Pendleton, Louis-Jean underwent surgery. He was not able to redeploy with his unit and on his recovery he was transferred to another.
In this new unit, Louis-Jean was accused of lying about his rank. When his previous superior confirmed that Louis-Jean was indeed due the rank of corporal, his new superiors grudgingly accorded him the rank, but did so inside an office rather than publicly in front of the troops as is usual practice.
Four days later Louis-Jean was called back to a superior's office to "fill out some paperwork." As he sat waiting outside the first sergeant's office, Louis-Jean says he overheard him talking on the telephone.
"Yes. I have Louis-Jean waiting out front. I asked him to come fill out some papers."
"Oh, I have a crew coming. A three-man crew."
'"I don't know. Tijuana?"
At this point, Louis-Jean says he got scared. Within 20 minutes, an immigration officer entered the room and told him he was under arrest for his previous crime that under immigration law was a deportable offence. Louis-Jean laughed, thinking it was a joke. "Both my parents are American citizens, I'm married to an American citizen and I just came from the war. Combat veterans can't be deported." Louis-Jean had done his time for that crime. But before he could wrap his head around what was happening, Louis-Jean was paraded through his barracks, in handcuffs, to get his passport and green card and hand them over. He was then taken to a San Diego correctional facility.
In 1996, major changes to immigration law increased the crimes for which non-citizens could be deported. Yet the practical implementation of these deportations did not really occur until after Sept. 11, when the government, discovering non-citizens were in jail or had previously served time for felony convictions, began widespread deportations.
He sat in prison for five months before a judge ordered him deported to Haiti, even though Louis-Hean had not been there since he was five years old.
"U.S. deportees are routinely jailed on arrival in Haiti" says long-time Haitian community activist Jocelyn McCalla of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights. Haitian jails are notorious for torture and maltreatment. Says McCalla, "you're lucky to make it out alive."
So Louis-Jean went to the law library every day and helped his lawyer make the best possible case for overturning his deportation order. He began writing to elected officials. Louis-Jean believed that his case would grab their attention. After all, it was all over the news that the parents of a non-citizen soldier from Mexico who had died in combat were presented with posthumous citizenship by President Bush. Surely he should merit at least expedited naturalization that other non-citizen soldiers were issued through a 2002 Bush executive order.
The military says that 30,000 non-citizens have been serving in the U.S. military since Sept. 11, and roughly 15,000 of them for less than three years. Under current immigration law, non-citizens must serve in the U.S. military for three years before they are eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship. However Bush's executive order, issued July 3, 2002, allows non-citizens on active duty to become eligible for citizenship before completing the three-year service.
But Louis-Jean has a criminal record. He falls into the grey area between civilian law and military law, and between criminal law and immigration law. Only one of the 16 politicians he wrote to while in jail even replied. Congressman Major Owens from his hometown of Brooklyn. This was a small victory for Louis-Jean, he now had one prominent supporter.
In the months that Louis-Jean remained in prison, he met another marine from his unit who was also in jail. This marine was also a non-citizen Iraq war combat veteran from Venezuela.
Ten months after being thrown into prison for a crime for which he had already served time, a ruling came back from the Board of Immigration Appeals that the case had been dismissed. The appeals judge accepted Louis-Jean's lawyer's argument that the zealous prosecutors forgot to simply certify military records of the previous conviction. This technicality rendered the case invalid.
On Jan. 28, 2005 Louis-Jean became a free man again, for now. Louis-Jean's record still shows that he is a felon and he will always be potentially deportable. The only chance he has of becoming naturalized is if the Judge Advocate General of the Navy vacates his prior case or reduces the charges. Because of his criminal record he stands virtually no chance of getting citizenship and his lawyers have advised him that when he reapplies for his green card after it expires in 2008, he will probably be denied because of his record. Military people say the chances of Louis-Jeans charges being waved are slim because the military almost never does this.
Louis-Jean is considering if there is anywhere else he can go. On meeting a reporter from Australia, he asked about getting citizenship there. Ã¢â‚¬Å“At least to be deported there would be better than Haiti,Ã¢â‚¬Â he said.
Five days after his release from prison, Louis-Jean got a call from a military recruiter wondering whether he would volunteer to go back to Iraq because the army needed bodies on deck.
Right now they are just calling him regularly to see if he will voluntarily return, but should things get tight and troop levels drop, Louis-Jean can be ordered back to serve. Says Louis-Jean, "The Marines still have control over my life and at any time they could call me and send me back to Iraq to die for America. And there is nothing I can do about it."
Louis-Jean just wants to get on with his life, he says. He succeeded in the military and he knows he will be a success at whatever he dedicates himself too. "If only," he sighs, "this country will leave me in peace."