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3/29: A look at sad reality of what happens when immigration meets criminal justice (1)

A look at sad reality of what happens when immigration meets criminal justice

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

After serving time in prison, felons typically face immigration consequences, even if they’ve cleaned up their lives.

March 8, 2013 was a cold morning. It was windy and snowing hard.

At 5 a.m., it was still dark out so John Singh couldn’t see right away what was off — but he knew there was something wrong.

As he made his way to his car for an early workday at Capitol Awning, he noticed there were too many cars on the street. In that residential portion of Queens Village, where Singh lived with his wife and two small children, he thought there shouldn’t have been so many cars.

He was right.

As he went for the key fob to unlock his ride, four cars zoomed in and men hopped out, guns drawn.

Singh was a legal resident of the United States — but these were immigration agents coming to take him in and ultimately deport him back to Guyana.

He knew why he was being taken — he had a criminal history, a decade-old conviction stemming from a basketball court fight. What he didn’t know was — why now?


Basically, there are two broad categories of deportation: Immigrants can either get deported at the border or they can get deported once they’ve already entered the country.

Stopping immigrants at the border typically falls under the aegis of Customs and Border Protection. CBP stops peaked in 2000 at nearly 1.6 million, but by 2015 decreased to just 337,117, according to ICE data.

But border crossing wasn’t the issue for Singh or the hundreds of thousands of other immigrants deported for their past brushes with the criminal justice system. For those who are in the country – even legally — interior removals are conducted by ICE.

In 2015, 59% of ICE removals – around 139,000 people – were convicted criminals, a broad category that includes everyone from murderers to turnstile-jumpers.

ICE data shows that 81% of those 139,000 were Priority One, a category that includes terrorists, spies, gang members, anyone caught trying to enter the country illegally and felons. Because his conviction was a felony, Singh would likely fall into Priority One – even though he was here legally and had no recent criminal history.

The remaining 26,000 criminal removals in 2015 would have been mostly Priority 2, a category that includes misdemeanor offenses.

This focus on removing anyone with a criminal record is not new, but it’s increased in priority over the past two decades. In the 1980s, a criminal conviction did not guarantee removal; now, it generally does.

“For the most part most people (coming out of prison) are going to be deportable,” the Immigrant Defense Project’s Alisa Wellek said. While the criminal justice system sees some nuance in terms of length of sentence, maximum or minimum security classification and merit of release, the immigration system makes no such distinctions.

With few exceptions, everyone who does prison time is eligible for deportation.


Khalil Cumberbatch basically won the immigration lottery.

Born in Guyana, the 34-year-old came to America with his family when he was just a toddler. He grew up in Queens, in an area of South Jamaica heavily impacted by the crack epidemic of the 80s and 90s.

He was young and impressionable when he and three older friends robbed two women on Park Avenue in Manhattan. He was arrested at 20 and initially sentenced to 11 years in prison, even though it was a first-time offense.

Behind bars, he grew and matured and by the time he was released in 2010 he was ready to turn over a new leaf. It was only by dint of luck that he had the opportunity to do that in this country.

Typically, he could have expected immediate deportation upon his release — but Cumberbatch was lucky. He had an appeal still underway by the time he was released, so immigration didn’t take any action.

After he got out, Cumberbatch settled into a routine with his wife and kids, finished up undergrad and started working full-time — mostly at non-profits focused on criminal justice reform.

When his appeal was finally resolved, his sentence was reduced — but he was now eligible for deportation.

It was a week before he was slated to finish his graduate degree in social work that ICE swooped in and arrested him for what was, by then, a 10-year-old conviction.

He was detained for five months before a deluge of letters and phone calls finally did the trick and — miraculously — he was released. Through his criminal justice work, he’d generated a broad and impressive support network that ended up being key in securing his release.

“Basically, the government looked at everything I’d done post-release and said that’s not the type of person we want to deport,” he told the News.

In theory, ICE could change its mind at any time — or they could have. Now, Cumberbatch has some protection. In December 2014, Governor Cuomo’s office announced that Cumberbatch would be one of two men that year to receive clemency.

That’s an incredibly rare occurrence — Cuomo has issued just a handful of clemencies during his tenure, so it’s not an outcome most immigrants can hope for.

“The outcome that I received is very exceptional,” he said. “In the end the reason why it is exceptional is what makes it a crime within itself.

“Many people are just like me but they didn’t have access to the resources I did.”

Despite the five-month ICE interruption, Cumberbatch managed to finish his social work degree and today he works at Glenn Martin’s non-profit, Just Leadership USA and also lectures at Columbia University.


A critical change to immigration policy came in 1996, under the Clinton administration. At that point, the War on Drugs was in full swing and draconian criminal justice policies were a feather in the cap of any politician.

Bill Clinton oversaw the creation of a food stamp eligibility ban for nonviolent drug offenders and an end to Pell Grants for prison education. He created new mandatory minimums and funnelled billions of dollars into prison spending.

In the same vein, he oversaw the passage of two immigration bills and together they ensured that a broader range of people with criminal backgrounds would become deportable.

“Those really changed the legal landscape for folks,” Wellek said. “Previously the category of people who would face mandatory deportation for a conviction was very narrow, but those expanded it and took away the discretion on the part of immigration judges.”

Despite the new laws, the changes didn’t have a huge immediate effect, Wellek explained — because it wasn’t until after 9/11 that the infrastructure for increased deportations was put into place.

Then came Obama, a president some activists have dubbed “the deporter in chief.” There’s been some controversy about how deportation numbers are counted, but by some measures he’s soon set to hit the 2 million mark for deportations under his watch, according to The Los Angeles Times.

In a 2014 speech to the nation, Obama boasted that deportations of criminals were up 80%. He didn’t specify whether those were terrorists, potheads, robbers or turnstile-jumpers — but according to Wellek, it’s all of those.

“We’re going to keep focusing enforcement resources on actual threats to our security. Felons, not families,” he said.

“Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids.”

That might sound good in theory, but in reality, Wellek pointed out, “Felons are families.”


Johnny Perez has both a felony and a family.

Now 36, his mother brought him and his siblings here in 1980 — when Perez was 13 months old. They came from Cuba, as part of the now-famous Mariel boatlift.

He grew up in a crime-ridden neighborhood in the Bronx and fell into a bad lifestyle — until he was arrested for robbery in 2000.

Though he was in the country legally, at the time of his arrest he hadn’t followed through on getting citizenship — so he was deportable. As luck would have it, though, Cuba wouldn’t take him back.

A Department of Homeland Security spokesperson told the News that Cuba “occasionally” accepts deportees, but “the U.S. government has no control over which cases the government of Cuba agrees to accept, including criminals DHS has prioritized for removal.”

(Continue Part Two....)

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