U.S. Criminal Deportations-Story of Sylvester Owino


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People are surprised when they come around Families for Freedom and learn that immigrants even with green cards, can be convicted, finish a sentence in the criminal legal system and be deported or incarcerated indefinitely for not having citizenship status. Some are jailed immediately, while other times Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) comes knocking 20 years later. Yes, it is double jeopardy. And according to the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI), Black immigrants are detained and deported at five times the rate of other populations of undocumented people. As Black noncitizens, many of us experience the policy of criminal deportation as another manifestation of racist policies and state violence in the United States. Just like incarceration and felonies strip Black people in the US of basic human rights — Black non-citizens are further criminalized and stripped of human rights via the U.S. deportation system.

The birth of this nation was rooted in portraying Black people as potential threats to white supremacy, often accomplished through the process of criminalization. In fact, portraying immigrant non-white foreigners, as criminals and instituting criminalizing policies is a venerable American tradition. But this trend exploded in the 1990s amid rising racial nativism that linked immigration to the War on Drugs, international gangs, and terrorism. Key to the explosion has been the transforming of criminal convictions (particularly drug offenses) into “aggravated felonies.”

As defined in our Justice Detained report, an aggravated felony “is a federal immigration category that includes more than 50 classes of offenses, some of which are neither ‘aggravated’ nor a ‘felony’ (for example, misdemeanor shoplifting with a one-year sentence, even if suspended). This category is one of the government’s most powerful tools for deportation because it strips an immigrant of most choices in the deportation process. An immigrant – including a lawful permanent resident — who is convicted of an offense categorized as an “aggravated felony” is subject to no bond (mandatory and indefinite detention) and no possibility of relief (mandatory deportation). This term was first created during the War on Drugs by the 1988 Anti- Drug Abuse Act, but Congress expanded this term numerous times over the years, and most extensively in 1996.” During 1993 and 2002, criminal deportations of Black immigrants ranged between 57-75 percent, reaching the peak of 75 percent in 1996. A significant proportion of criminal deportations are due to drug-related convictions. Therefore, the “war on drugs,” which is a war against Black communities, is also a war on Black immigrants.

The most earth-shattering policies that criminalized Black immigrants passed in the Clinton years. In 1996, following the first World Trade Center attack and Oklahoma City bombing, President Clinton signed the Antiterrorism and Executive Death Penalty Act and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. These laws made deportation of noncitizen legal residents much faster and more frequent by classifying increasingly minor crimes as automatically deportable offenses. For immigrants, perhaps the most disturbing effect of the 1996 legislation was its vast restriction on judicial review. Not only are noncitizens vulnerable to old convictions — including minor crimes like shoplifting committed decades earlier — but these convictions trigger an irreversible chain reaction that ends in indefinite imprisonment and permanent banishment without a chance to protest.

One of the most heartbreaking unjust stories we have come across is that of Sylvester Owino, a Kenyan national who cannot return to Kenya because he would be persecuted for his political beliefs. Mr. Owino served a three year sentence for a crime in which no was injured. His conviction resulted from substance abuse that he acquired to deal with the trauma of torture he experienced in Kenya. After he served his sentence, Mr. Owino was placed in immigration detention in 2005 where he has languished for nearly a decade for a civil violation, three times longer than his criminal sentence. Since then he has committed to rehabilitation and officials at his former detention facility have written letters of support attesting to his good character, current positive attitude and willingness to comply. Sylvester’s story is just one example of how the deportation system is actually an extension of the violent systems that target and control Black bodies by domestic policies of policing, convicting and mass imprisonment.

Overall, the racial trends of criminal deportations raise some important questions for the future of black migrants. First, we may ask why citizenship (and not human rights) has become the ultimate goal of the mainstream immigrant rights battle when Black US citizens are constantly stripped of due process and basic rights. Second, we may question why is it that there exists a false distinction between criminal justice reform movement, racial justice and immigrant rights despite that many of us suffer injustices through our lived experiences as Black bodies. The domestic and global systems of oppression do not entertain such distinctions and neither should we.

We must work and fight side by side for the racial justice and human rights we will one day enjoy together, globally. As a black Diaspora, I hope we can embrace a modern understanding that Black people around the world have the right to live free from state violence and the freedom to move and be with our loved ones just as much as our white counterparts who by and large already enjoy those freedoms. As the novelists Willie Gibson said “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.”

We’ll know all black lives matter when all black lives matter.


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