By Onz Chery
Regret. It hits him the worst when J.B. talks on the phone with his 5-year-old son.
‘Daddy, I want to see you. Where are you?’ The child’s voice echoes in J.B’s head long after the phone calls end. But it’s one more thing he has to live with, letting his son believe that he had gone on vacation — one year ago.
“I knew I wasn’t on the right path, so I had to accept it,” said J.B., 40. “I made those choices, so now I’m not in [America] anymore.”
J.B., who asked that his full name not be used because of the stigma of deportation, was sent back to Haiti in 2019. He was one of the 690 Haitians removed from the United States that year, a number indicative of the rise in deportations under the Obama and Trump administrations.
Between 2009 and 2019, more than 3.4 million immigrants were removed from the U.S. Most occurred under President Barack Obama, according to ABC News. Whereas the Obama deportations focused on immigrants with a criminal record, officials under Trump heavily target non-criminals to deport.
Even in May, at the height of the global coronavirus pandemic, deportation flights to Haiti continued flying to Haiti, filled with both criminals and non-criminals. And with many of them testing positive for COVID-19 once they disembarked in Port-au-Prince.
In J.B.’s case, he was deported after being caught with an illegal firearm for the second time. And now, from his home in Delmas, Port-au-Prince, he lives with constant regret.
“If I listened to my aunt, if I didn’t have those friends, I could’ve been far in life right now. I wouldn’t be here [in Haiti] today,” J.B. said.
Falling into trouble
J.B. moved to Brooklyn, New York at age 16 with his aunt, settling in Flatbush. He had left behind his mother, father and two younger siblings in Saint-Marc.
When he arrived in 1996, his aunt advised him to go to school, but he only took ESL classes at night for five months. J.B. stopped attending the course because he was more interested in earning money to take care of himself and to help his aunt and uncle with the bills.
“I had to survive so I found a job,” he said. “It was good for me and for my aunt and uncle.”
At first, J.B. worked at a 99-cents discount goods store, then as a food delivery person. During his free time, he played basketball at Nostrand Playground, where he befriended several fellow Haitians. At the time, gang activity was rampant across Brooklyn. As he settled into his new life, J.B. grew closer to members of the Haitian Mafia Crips (HMC) gang who lived in the neighborhood.
He never intended to join HMC – and never officially joined them, J.B. said. But when his HMC friends got into fights with The Bloods while he was hanging out with them, he fought too.
“When you see your friends fighting, you’re not going to stand there and let them get hit,” J.B. said. “I’m not soft. When my friends were in trouble, I stood with them.”
Getting caught up
Eventually, J.B. acquired a gun he felt he needed for protection. In 2005, J.B. was on Eastern Parkway when he got caught up in a stop-and-frisk operation. Police arrested him on charges of possession of an illegal firearm. He was incarcerated for 11 months.
On another day, with another judge, it could’ve been a different ending, experts said.
“There are a lot of gray areas in immigration laws,” Florida based immigration attorney Patricia Elizee said. “Two people may have the exact same case but two different outcomes, depending on the judge, the immigration officer and what’s going on.”
In 2017, J. B. was caught with an illegal firearm again, when police pulled over a friend he was riding with in a vehicle. J.B. also had possession of illegal drugs from 2002 and 2003 and a fake I.D. on his record.
As he waited for his trial in 2017, J.B. made the decision to leave his criminal lifestyle. But it was already too late.
After he was convicted, J.B. was sentenced to 22 months in prison and removal from the U.S. The last part because he was not an American citizen, though he was a permanent resident, and he had wracked up prior arrests.
Some observers watching the outcome for people like J.B. are sympathetic.
“There’s some stuff you do in the streets, it just happens in the moment, that doesn’t mean that’s the real you,” said Walking Saint-Jean, a former gang member for five years. “And you don’t really think you might actually get deported. When it happens to you that’s when it hits you.”
Saint-Jean, 31, said seven of his friends have been deported in recent years. However, they had all gotten caught up in gang activities, what he now views as foolishness.
One reason he wasn’t one of them is that he listened to his mother’s warnings, Saint-Jean said. With more guidance from people like her, Saint-Jean said, more young Haitians who fall into a criminal lifestyle would change.
“It’s sad to see that people I grew up with, that’s how things ended up for them,” Saint-Jean said.
Deportation and dejection
J.B. served 22 months at Rikers Island Correctional Center, the New York City prison about 25 miles from Flatbush. None of the HMC members visited him.
“They weren’t my friends, they were just using me because I was brave,” J.B. said. “Now look who’s paying the consequences — me. Out of most of my friends, I’m the one who’s in Haiti. I take full responsibility for my actions. Nobody put a gun to my head and told me to carry a weapon.”
After serving his sentence, J.B. went immediately into deportation proceedings. The waiting time before a deportee can ask for reentry to the U.S. is between five to 20 years.
As J.B. looked down at Haiti from the plane, more regrets crammed his mind.
When he stepped foot in Haiti, he and all the deportees — criminals and non-criminals — were dropped off at the judicial police center in Port-au-Prince, with chains around their hands and feet.
Looking about, J.B. accepted his fate, saying, “My choices put me there.”
Someone had to come to sign a form for him to be released. If no one came, he would be sent to the National Penitentiary. Fortunately for J.B., a cousin came for him.
When they stepped outside, J.B. saw a different Haiti. It was dustier, there were more piles of trash in the streets. The traffic was unbearable. Motorcycles streamed through every opening they could find in the streets.
On a positive note, he started to bond with his cousin. When they reached his parents’ house in Delmas, Port-au-Prince, J.B. received a warm welcome since they hadn’t seen him in 29 years.
Still, he could tell how dejected they were by the look on their faces and the sound of their voices.
J.B. now lives with them. The more time he spends in Haiti, the more he realizes in almost every way possible, his home country is in decline. His neighborhood has spent days without electricity and when it does come, the power is only for a couple of hours.
Almost everyone he meets sounds beaten down by life because of the struggle to pay for basic necessities, like food. Recently, the city has turned into a war zone with gang shootings, violent protests and kidnappings.
“When you left heaven to go to hell, you’re not going to feel good,” J.B. said. “I’m in hell. Now I’m seeing all this suffering. All the bad stuff, I’m living them now.”
Having made the stern decision not to return to a criminal lifestyle, J.B. mostly stays at home.
But at home, he has to deal with the remorse.
J.B. tried to talk to some of the friends he had in Haiti as a teen, but there was a wall between him and them. He’s certain that they talk behind his back about him being a deportee.
Now, after more than a year living in Haiti, J.B. is feeling comfortable enough to plan to open a beauty salon next year. Mentally, he’s feeling better too.
And yet, there’s still one wound that remains as fresh as when he first arrived. That of leaving his son behind.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again to give him a hug,” J.B. said, struggling to utter the words. “I know I hurt him.”