Jean Jacques, a 17-year-old Haitian, fled his country in 1992 and was picked up at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard. Granted permission to remain in the United States, he wound up in Connecticut where, in 1996, he was involved in a shooting that led to a 15-year prison term for attempted murder. While he was incarcerated, immigration officials obtained an order for his deportation. Yet when Jacques was released from prison, he wasn’t deported. Instead, he was out on the streets last June in Norwich, Conn., where he stabbed a 25-year-old woman to death in an apparent drug dispute.
That Jacques was never deported sounds like one of those “somebody messed up” stories with tragic consequences. The reality, however, is that Jacques remained in the U.S. not through error or incompetence but through the confluence of domestic laws and international agreements that include a troubling, but hard to close, loophole. It seems that getting a deportation order is only the first step in ejecting someone from the country. The second step is finding a country to accept the deportee. Usually, of course, that is the person’s homeland. But Jacques arrived in the U.S. without a passport or other documents, and Haiti rejected three requests that it issue travel papers to allow Jacques to return, claiming there was insufficient documentation of his background.
A recent inspector general’s report found that ICE officials could have tried more avenues to establish Jacques’ Haitian citizenship, but also concluded that further efforts were unlikely to have satisfied the Haitian government. And it found that the agency is too overwhelmed to properly monitor those it has released. The inspector general is also continuing to look at whether the Department of Homeland Security has effective policies and procedures in place to deport immigrants who have committed “aggravated felonies.” That’s a sound next step.
The fact is, it’s unfair (and illegal) to keep someone behind bars beyond the terms of their sentence, regardless of their citizenship. It’s reasonable to deport people who are deemed ineligible to be in the country because they have committed serious crimes, but it’s also inhumane to detain them forever simply because no country will take them. To hold them indefinitely as a preventive measure against crimes they might commit sometime in the future is un-American and immoral.
And this situation is not as uncommon as one might think. Many immigrants living legally in the U.S. lack passports because they were born stateless — Palestinians in refugee camps, for example, or citizens of countries that no longer exist. (Consider the former Soviet Union). Then there are nations that simply refuse repatriation, despite international accords to which most have agreed. According to ICE, 8,275 people against whom it had obtained removal orders for criminal convictions were allowed out of detention from 2012 to 2015 because there was no country that would agree to take them.
In May, Thomas Homan, a top official with ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations, testified before a Senate committee that the U.S. lists 23 countries that are uncooperative as a matter of policy, including Afghanistan, Somalia and Cuba (though that could change under the recent resumption of diplomatic relations). China also refuses to cooperate. Another 62 other countries often — but not always — balk at accepting U.S. deportees.
U.S. immigration law generally denies foreign nationals the right to reside in the country if they’ve been convicted of certain crimes. The government needs to work harder to persuade other nations to accept citizens who are being deported.