Buju and the deportee

Buju and the deportee

Kirk Anthony James

Saturday, January 09, 2016

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lyrics of Freddie McGregor’s
Big Ship
rocked out in my head as I boarded the massive Norwegian Pearl cruise liner. It was a rainy Saturday afternoon in South Beach Miami. The lyrics were particularly fitting as I was about to embark on the second annual Jamrock Cruise — A massive reggae party lasting five days; spanning from Miami to Falmouth, then to Ocho Rios, then back to Miami.

The musical line-up was a thing of legends: Supercat, Bounty Killer, Capelton, Junior Gong (my current favourite), Stephen Marley (my fast up-and-coming favourite), Cham, Spragga Benz, Ky-Mani Marley, Third World, and many more.

The vibrations signified that it would be a trip for the ages. Kindred spirits, black, white, and everything in-between rocking to cries of "One love", "Chant down Babylon" and "Resist the system" as we traversed the Caribbean Sea.

The actor Malik Yoba (see
Empire) even took the stage to show one of the all-time legends Sir Barrington Levy some love; however, with each cry of "Free Buju" — and they came frequently— from various artistes, I couldn’t help but feel that there was a tremendous irony and lesson to be learnt.

The first time I heard the word "deportee" was at VP Records in Queens, New York. It was during a Saturday morning pilgrimage (some time in 1993) with my stepdad to buy records. I first heard the unmistakeable voice of Buju Banton singing his hit
Deportees (Things Change). Buju, clearly ahead of his time, was able to give language and meaning to a social issue that had yet to truly develop into the monster it is today.

More than two decades later, the popular perception of a deportee in Caribbean communities today still mirrors closely that of Buju’s hit song — living the high life in a foreign land, fuelled by drug money or other illegal activities; no regard for the suffering and poverty back home, then to have it all disappear when you get arrested, convicted, imprisoned, and ultimately deported, "Back together, again, mi baby fren" was the not-so-kind homecoming Buju warned for the deportee.

But what if this perception is wrong? What if most (keyword) deportees are nothing more than victims of the continued human, social and economic oppression of black and brown people in America perpetuated no less through the insidious system of mass incarceration? What if?

Sankofa is a terminology I first heard while visiting West Africa. It implies that to go forward you must sometimes go back. With that said, allow me to take you back to a not too distant past, one with significant implications for the deportee conversation in Jamaica.

The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, in 1865, is often recognised as the law ending slavery in America. It made slavery unconstitutional "except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted" (US Const. amend. XIV). Immediately after Emancipation, "black codes" were passed that essentially criminalised all facets of black life in America.

The newly freed blacks could be arrested for looking whites in the eye or simply walking on the same side of the street; they would further be arrested for homelessness, unemployment, or for having occupations outside of those involving servitude to whites (see
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander).

Once arrested, and subsequently convicted, most of these people would be leased out, aptly named "the convict leasing system", to the same plantations from which they were just freed. The brutality and workload was now even more intense as they were now convicts — lawbreakers, disposable, occupying a social position even beneath that of a chattel slave.

The black codes created a boom in the prison industry, precipitating the birth of mass incarceration in the United States. They also served as the catalyst for "neo-slavery", as the great African American historian W E B Dubois noted.

The continued racial oppression and criminalisation of blacks were furthered justified by quasi-theories such as Hoffman’s 1896 landmark publication,
Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro.

The American public consciousness — and arguably that of the world — was saturated with flawed research that negated the proximity and impact of slavery, negated its social and economic impact, negated its physical, spiritual and neurological impact, but nonetheless felt empowered to denote people of colour as inherently criminal.

The circumstances of Buju’s arrest and conviction are not an aberration. Entrapment, and other nefarious law enforcement practices are finally getting the scrutiny they deserve. America, often thought of as the land of opportunity and democracy, is actually the world’s largest prison. With less than five per cent of the world’s population, America houses 25 per cent of the world’s prisoners. Nearly one in every 30 Americans have been to prison, or are under some type of mandated community supervision (parole, probation. etc.)

The American prison population has risen from approximately 500,000 in 1980 to over two million people today. Upon reading the previous statistic, most people would assume that the increase in the prison population naturally correlates with increased crime, but the crime rate has remained relatively the same. How do you then explain?

The perpetuation of the black codes in dubious contemporary laws, like stop and frisk, mandatory minimum sentencing, three-strikes legislation, and of course the war on drugs, which in truth is nothing more than a war on coloured people. I know this information not only because I am a scholar on this issue, but because I was also a victim.

On April 13, 1994 I was arrested. I was 18 years old, a college freshman studying criminal justice at a small community college in New York City. I had no prior contact with the criminal justice system. The circumstances surrounding my arrest amounted to police entrapment; however, I would never get the chance to truly tell my story. At arraignment I was offered 40 years to life, branded a drug kingpin, and remanded to jail without bail. I would spend the next six months on Rikers Island fighting (literally) for my life.

As with most people facing criminal charges in America, my legal representation was atrocious. I would ultimately be sentenced under the Rockefeller Drug Laws to seven years to life in New York State Prison(s); meaning I would have to serve seven years in prison before I was eligible for parole (to be released under supervision), but could in theory serve out the rest of my natural life in prison if the Department of Corrections deemed appropriate.

About two years into my sentence, around the summer of 1996, I received a letter from the Immigration and Naturalisation Service (INS). It was a motion to "Show Cause" why I should not be deported. I was stunned, but not completely surprised.

I was born in Orange, a remote region of St James. At 10 years old, I migrated with my mom to the United States in search of the American dream. We had green cards through my grandmother, who had been living in the US since the 1960s. We never bothered to get citizenship as the ability to legally work and reside in the United States was afforded via a green card; never in a million years would we have foreseen the ramifications of that decision.

Upon my arrival at New York State Prison, an INS official was there to question me. "You probably don’t have to worry about being deported." He would go on to say that I didn’t have "an aggravated felony"; it was the first time I had heard the term. It was utilised to describe a class of crimes considered so serious that an individual convicted of one was automatically mandated for deportation. However, that was 1994.

The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA) of 1996 significantly changed the immigration laws of the United States. Many crimes previously not considered deportable offences were now made deportable. IIRAIRA was also made retroactive, thousands of people with convictions as petty as shoplifting, reaching as far back as the 1970s, were now at risk for deportation. But that still wasn’t the worst part.

IIRAIRA created a provision that called for mandatory deportation for individuals convicted under the now enhanced aggravated felony status. Various forms of discretionary reliefs that had historically existed and allowed for judges, prosecutors, and defendants to present compelling evidence why someone should, or should not be deported, disappeared overnight.

I was ordered deported in January 1997. The judge was stoic as I pleaded my case. "Most of my family resided in the US, including my now two-year-old daughter…" I explained. detailing the circumstances which led to my to arrest and subsequent conviction. I even cried, but nothing worked. The judge explained that he was powerless. The passage of IIRAIRA meant that I now fell into the mandatory deportation status, and was thus ineligible for any type of relief.

Fast-forward to 2001, I had been incarcerated for seven years, if and when I was released, I would most certainly be deported. The prospect of leaving my family behind was terrifying; further, I had not lived in Jamaica since I was a child. The negative stigma towards "deportees" also created a culture in Jamaica (and other Caribbean nations) that made it almost impossible for reintegration.

My fate would, however, be spared. A successful Supreme Court challenge (INS v St Cyr) negated the retroactivity of IIRAIRA for certain crimes. As my conviction occurred prior to 1996, I was allowed to petition the court for a waiver (212-C) hearing; which, if granted, would allow me to remain in the United States after my release from prison.

My waiver hearing would occur in January of 2002. The New York State Immigrant Defense Project handled my case pro bono. They would conduct numerous interviews with family and friends in an effort to show the totality of my humanity. And even though I was incarcerated, I was scheduled to earn my associate degree with honours in less than four months.

On the morning of the hearing, I saw my family and friends; allowed to testify on my behalf as to why I should remain in the United States. I was nervous, but thrilled to know that I would finally be given an opportunity to discuss in depth the circumstances that led me to prison.

The afternoon hearing is a series of emotional testimonies, but the decision is an easy one; the totality of my humanity wins the case. My deportation order is overturned! I would eventually be released on March 25, 2003 — almost nine years in prison if you were counting. A little more than 10 years post my release, May 13, 2013. I would earn a doctoral degree from the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. This accomplishment, amongst many more, would not have been possible if I were deported.

I am sure that our brother Buju will be treated to a hero’s welcome when he is finally released and in all likelihood deported from the United States. But what of the thousands of men and women that have been deported? Or what about those to come? How will they be treated?

In an effort to somehow make amends for the illegalities perpetrated through the American criminal justice system, President Barack Obama recently signed legislation to allow 6,000 men and women with drug convictions to be released from prison; however, approximately 2,000 of them will be deported. Many of them, like Buju, will be coming back home to Jamaica.

The 1996 immigration laws, coupled with the prevalence of unethical laws and police practices emblematic of mass incarceration, have created a wave of deportations from the United States like none before.

America is not the utopia many of you believe it to be. If we know this, then we must generate a new language and paradigm on how we see, react and treat deportees. If not, then know we are just as complicit in the oppression of black and brown people as the Babylonian empire that we seek to suppress.

Dr Kirk Anthony James is a social justice activist and a professor at Columbia University.

Twitter: @kirkajames



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