When Sharon McKnight arrived home this summer after a year of visiting relatives in Jamaica, she anticipated warm embraces from her mother and sister.
Instead, immigration agents at John F. Kennedy International Airport accused her of using a fake passport, shackled her hand and foot, detained her overnight and deported her to Jamaica the next day.
McKnight, who is 35 and mentally handicapped, unable to read or write, could not persuade the agent at the window that the passport picture was hers and that she was a U.S. citizen.
“He said, ‘Lady, this not you,’ ” McKnight recalls, “and I said, ‘It’s me.’ ”
More agents questioned her, but none believed her pleas.
McKnight’s deportation was like that of thousands who are nabbed by immigration agents at U.S. airports each month. But in this case, she was right and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service was wrong.
Now she and her family are suing federal officials for $8 million. Their attorney, Mitchell Zwaik, says the 1996 law that allowed her deportation ended up splitting a family and humiliating a U.S. citizen who only wanted to go home.
A provision of the law, known as “expedited removal,” allows agents to quickly deport people whom they determine are trying to enter the country fraudulently, without allowing them an appeal before judges.
“The law has to be changed,” Zwaik says. “You have immigration people making snap decisions at local airports.”
With the help of Zwaik and U.S. Rep. Michael Forbes (D-N.Y.), the woman’s family eventually convinced immigration authorities that McKnight was a citizen, and she returned home to Amityville, in New York’s suburban Long Island, on June 18, seven days after she was deported.
INS spokesman Russ Bergeron said the quick deportation process is used only when there is “clear evidence” someone is trying to enter the country fraudulently. He declined to speak specifically about McKnight’s case because of the pending lawsuit.
Previously, however, INS officials have asserted that McKnight told agents the passport was not hers, said she had been born in Jamaica and that she gave the name of a cousin from Jamaica rather than her own.
McKnight disagrees with their account but acknowledges she was confused by the rapid questioning. Born on Long Island but reared much of her childhood in Jamaica, her mother’s homeland, McKnight speaks with a Jamaican accent.
Led into an airport room for further questioning, McKnight recalls the agent asking her, “Where did you get this passport?”
“And I said, ‘My cousin. My mother left it with my cousin to give to me when I’m coming up.’ And they said I’m lying.”
McKnight’s mother, Eunice Benloss-Harris, confirmed later that she had given the passport to her niece, Hilda Brown, for safekeeping until McKnight’s return to New York.
McKnight says the agents repeatedly asked her name, and she told them she was Sharon Rose McKnight.
“They said, ‘That’s not your name,”’ McKnight recalls. “I said, ‘How are you telling me it’s not my name? And I know my own name.’ ”
The agents were convinced she wasn’t the person pictured in the passport, so they took her to a room full of other detainees. She was shackled at her ankles and wrists, with both sets of restraints chained to a leather belt. She sat hunched over for hours, shivering in the over-air-conditioned room.
“I spent the night there, nothing to eat,” she says. She said she was refused permission to use a restroom. “I peed right on myself,” she says.
Elsewhere in the airport, meanwhile, family members who had come to meet McKnight were frantically calling the INS from a pay phone, trying to convince officials the woman they were holding was indeed Sharon McKnight.
Her mother and sister arrived around midnight with a birth certificate, but agents deemed it a fake. The family was not allowed to see McKnight.
The following morning, June 11, two agents led McKnight, still handcuffed, to a plane. She landed in Kingston without money or food.
An airport skycap who recognized McKnight gave her the equivalent of $12 and put her on a bus to downtown Kingston, where she could catch another bus to Manchester, the small town where her cousin lives. She arrived that night minus her two bags, apparently stolen along the way.
Five days later, McKnight’s mother and sister arrived in Kingston. McKnight was waiting for them.
“When I saw her, I was in tears,” her mother says. A photographer from the Long Island newspaper Newsday, alerted by Zwaik to the woman’s plight, captured their embrace. Forbes contacted U.S. authorities in Jamaica to help clear up the misunderstanding and got Air Jamaica to cover return airfare.
When McKnight got off the plane in New York and spotted two uniformed immigration officers at the doorway, she turned to her mother and said, “Don’t let them take me again.”
An immigration official apologized to the family, but they decided to sue. They are seeking compensatory damages of $7.5 million and $500,000 in punitive damages, which are limited against federal agencies. Among other criticisms, the lawsuit alleges inadequate training of immigration agents.
McKnight says she has nightmares of being handcuffed again.
“It was mean and nasty. They treated me like an animal,” she says. “I won’t forget about this. It’s still in me.”
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