Protest, and a Hunger Strike, Over Haitian Immigrant Deported 24 Years Later

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Jani Montrevil, wife of Jean, at yesterday's protest. Photo: AP

In 1989, three years after arriving in the U.S. from Haiti, Jean Montrevil was arrested. He was 19. Convicted of selling cocaine, he served ten years in prison — then completed probation and kept out of trouble. In the years he's been out of prison, friends say he started a van service, worked as an immigrants' rights activist with the New Sanctuary Coalition and Families for Freedom, married an American-born woman, and became a devoted father of four (the eldest from his wife's previous marriage).

But 24 years later, Montrevil, now 41, is about to be sent back to Haiti. Under retroactive immigration laws enacted in 1996, any immigrant convicted of a felony faces deportation. Montrevil is currently sitting in a Pennsylvania jail. Supporters say he is on a hunger strike, refusing food until the immigration service reconsiders the deportation practice that he says “destroys families.” Yesterday, friends and supporters rallied outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in lower Manhattan, demanding his release — and in some cases, being arrested.

Montrevil himself was arrested, by ICE, last Wednesday, when he made his regular check-in — as he's done every month since being freed from prison, as part of a supervised release program for deportable immigrants. His wife and lawyer said they don't know why he was arrested this one time, and ICE won't say. He joins 30,000 other immigrants who are kept in prisonlike detention until they are deported. “When you are young you do stupid things,” said Gina Montrevil, Jean’s sister, who came to yesterday’s frigid rally with six children. “It's not supposed to follow you around forever. He's a good man.”

Montrevil's wife, Jani, spoke to a crowd of 50 shivering supporters: “This makes no sense. The government doesn't want me on public assistance, but how can they take away our family's breadwinner? How can they judge him on something he's already been punished for?” Jani said her husband is a good-natured and thoughtful dad, that she was initially attracted to him precisely because he was so dedicated to family. “I keep telling the kids, ‘Daddy's coming back.’ But they ask when,” she said. (Hear more from Jani in this Democracy Now interview.)

Carrying placards that said “Stop tearing families apart,” protesters called for deportation cases to be reviewed with an eye toward the well-being of American children the detainees help care for. Eight friends and supporters blocked traffic on West Houston Street, hoping to prevent ICE from bringing any more detainees to the facility. They were arrested.

Reverend Donna Schaper, pastor of Judson Memorial Church, said she was blocking traffic — aware that she would be arrested — because all the appeals and procedures on Montrevil's behalf had failed, and because Montrevil is a close friend and warm leader. “I am being arrested because it is a moral outrage that our government would do this to such a great man and father. These immigration laws that destroy families contradict the values we should uphold as a society. They need to change now,” she said as she was standing, arms linked with others, in the street.

Montrevil's cause is supported by U.S. Representative Jose Serrano (D-Bronx), who sent a staffer to the rally; Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan and Brooklyn), who called ICE to advocate for Montrevil after his arrest; and State Senator Tom Duane, who spoke at the event. Serrano and Nadler are co-sponsors of federal legislation that would give immigration judges discretion to consider family welfare in deportation cases.

ICE spokesman Michael Gilhooly said the agency was prepared to enforce the deportation order: “Jean Murat Montrevil is an aggravated felon with a significant criminal record who has a final order of removal from an immigration judge.”