Endless Retribution

Endless Retribution

Richard Nixon showed that there really are second (and third) acts in American life, but Congress didn’t get the memo, and so Jean Montrevil may be denied his own American Dream.

A Haitian citizen who came to the United States legally at age seventeen, Montrevil had a green card when he was arrested on drug charges in 1988 at age nineteen. He served eleven years of a thirty-three-year sentence and was released early for good behavior. But a law passed after he went to prison requires that non-citizens convicted of felonies be returned to their country of origin after completing their sentence. “Prison saved my life,” says Montrevil, who believes he would have died in the drug trade had he not gone to jail. He’s been fighting the extradition for fifteen years, during which time he has run one business, sold it, and started another; married an American citizen; and become the father of U.S.-citizen children. Unfortunately, the law gives the court no discretion to consider whether the person is a threat or benefit to society.

And automatic deportation of ex-felons who are legal residents gives the lie to one of America’s most enduring myths, that of the fresh start, the new frontier, the reinvention of self.

I met Jean one Sunday when he sought help from my church, which belongs to the New Sanctuary Movement, a loose federation of faith communities that champion individual cases to bring the larger issues of immigration reform to an increasingly fearful public. We had to vote on taking on his cause, and as one member muttered, a large black man with a felony conviction was sure no Rosa Parks. But the lessons of high school civics classes had stayed with us. He’d “paid his debt to society.” Why shouldn’t the slate be wiped clean? Why, indeed?

Either they don’t teach it in school anymore or there’s a collective amnesia when it comes to people who arrived later than our own forebears. The United States not only has the highest incarceration rate in the world, it has one of the highest recidivism rates. Jean beat the odds, but the system wouldn’t let him go.

“Well, we can’t let everyone in,” one of my friends said. “There have to be some lines.” I thought of convicted felons like Michael Milken, Chuck Colson, Martha Stewart. In May of 2008 the governor of New York pardoned a hip-hop artist who had served six years for attempted murder and was in danger of deportation to the United Kingdom. How rich, white, or well connected do you have to be for redemption to trump retribution?

On December 30, 2009, at a routine check-in at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office, Jean was led away in handcuffs and shunted to a private prison in Pennsylvania, ready for deportation and certain imprisonment in Haiti. We wrote letters, signed online petitions, organized rallies, blocked the street leading into the Manhattan detention center, visited politicians. ICE didn’t budg...

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