Monday, January 25, 2010
Freedom is a Beautiful Thing
Me, Jean Montrevil and TD (Photo by Clover Vail)
Some of our friends know some of this story. At our great church Judson Memorial on Washington Square Park we became friends with Jean Montrevil, a good and happy man, and his wife and four children. Jean is an immigrant from Haiti and was a legal resident in these United States at age 21 when he was convicted of a drug crime in 1990 for which he went to jail for eleven years. After that, on a blind date, he met his wife Janay, a Brooklyn native. They were married and had three children and Jean had a van driving business.
But. A law was passed under which it became possible to deport noncitizens who have a criminal conviction and so Jean has been dogged with this sword over his head ever since. With the constant threat of deportation, he was required to check in regularly with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, called ICE – how is that for an acronym. He had to wear an ankle bracelet for awhile. For three years Judson members accompanied Jean on his weekly check-ins. And all these many years later, on December 30th, one day before New Year's Eve, ICE decided to deport Jean at his check-in, and he was taken away.
He was transferred to a detention center in York, Pennsylvania, and the church got very active on his behalf, writing and emailing officials, contacting the press, and holding rallies downtown at the immigration office. Because, honestly, how much sense does it make to deport a valued member of society and permanently separate a man from his wife and children? And surely our government has better ways to spend our tax dollars besides harassing people. We've all made mistakes in life; you pay for your mistakes and move on.
We found out later that Jean was to be deported quite quickly after he was detained. A flight was arranged to carry him and others to Haiti. Jean was very concerned about one other detainee who was sick. He said to the nurse, "You can't take him to Haiti now because he will not get any medical attention there." The nurse took the man's temperature at Jean's insistence. He was too sick to travel and the flight to Haiti was canceled.
Then, the earthquake in Haiti. If Jean had been deported as planned he probably would have died there as the jail in Port-au-Prince was destroyed.
Weeks passed as he detained in Pennsylvania, unlawfully it seemed to us. The government announced it would not deport anyone to Haiti due to the disaster there. Now what? One day Jean was told he would be freed, and to wait in a special area. He waited for seven hours. Then he was told the transport FORGOT to come pick him up. Then he was put in REGULAR JAIL which was even worse. At this point we felt he was being punished for the work that we were doing on his behalf because we were getting the story out.
Last week two friends drove three hours to York, Pennsylvania to visit Jean. Only one could see him. Why? Because the other friend was not on his list of eight visitors, and he could only change his list of visitors ONCE EVERY FOURTEEN DAYS, not including weekends and holidays.
Last we heard, he could be in jail for 90 days.
Then, this: this Saturday, after being imprisoned for 25 days, Jean was put, still handcuffed, into a car, and driven to New York City with no explanation. They dropped him off on Varick Street and told him he was freed. He had no coat because he had given it to another detainee, and he had to stop someone on the street to ask to use their cellphone so he could call his wife. Then he walked over to the church to find the minister.
This is not how we should be treating human beings in this country.
The good news is that Jean is free for now and joyfully reunited with his family. And it was a kind of a miracle because 26 Haitians remain in the York County Prison who were not released. Jean still has to report for check-ins and who knows what will happen? Will he be taken away again? There are thousands of other people in the same situation. The laws need to change. I have to say, this story has been an eye-popping experience for me on racism in this country, and it has stunned me at every turn. I'm sure if I was an immigrant from Ireland, as my great grandfather Dan O'Donnell was, and I made a mistake like Jean did, I would not be dogged like this for all these years.
Jean said there are more people being deported now under Obama than before.
It's not right.