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MIGRATION: Caribbean Swamped With U.S. Deportees

Bert Wilkinson

GEORGETOWN, Guyana, Jul 31 2007 (IPS) - In 1999, a Jamaican convict was deported to Guyana from the U.S. State of Texas after assuming the identity of a Guyanese mechanic who had lost his residency card on the streets far away in New York months earlier.

But the fact that he had impersonated a Guyanese and ended up on a continent 1,000 miles from home was not the issue that angered Caribbean governments. Rather, it was that the U.S. Immigration and Naturalisation Service (INS) had exerted so much pressure on the Guyanese embassy that it finally issued James Dean Collins – who claimed to be Edgar Garfield Gibbons of Guyana – with travel papers that left him stranded in police detention for more than a year before his true identity was confirmed and marshals escorted him back to a U.S. jail.

Though the debacle has since subsided, governments point to that and other notorious cases as they plead with the George W. Bush administration to devise a better way to deal with the deportation of Caribbean nationals in the U.S.

“We want to know when they are coming, who they are and would like them to have access to financial and other resources before they are sent back destitute,” said Caribbean trade bloc spokesman Leonard Robertson. “Our governments have been asking for this for years.”

The issue of ad hoc deportation of Caribbean nationals from the U.S. has been on the front burner for both the Bush administration and regional governments in recent months.

Just last week, the Western Hemisphere subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives held special hearings on the deportation question following meetings between regional leaders and President Bush in Washington in late June. Chaired by New York Democrat Eliot Engels, the hearings were a direct result of the Jun. 20 summit on Capitol Hill.

Caribbean leaders pointed to a study by Jamaican academic Annmarie Barnes showing that three of the 15 Caricom nations – Jamaica, Trinidad and Guyana – had absorbed a staggering 30,000 deportees between 1990 and 2005.

The presence of returned killers, drug dealers, armed robbers and rapists, among others, has contributed significantly to rising crime in the Caribbean, forcing some governments to hire British law enforcement experts to help beat back the scourge, authorities say.

Of the 30,000, 17,000 have been convicted for drug trafficking, 600 for murder and 1,800 for illegal gun possession. “The United States is responsible for more than 75 percent of all criminal deportations to the region,” according to Barnes’ study.

However, not all deportees have committed violent, or even serious crimes.

The committee also heard testimony from rights groups and legislators like Charlie Rangel of New York, who was a special guest at the early July summit of Caribbean leaders in Barbados.

Calling on the U.S. to “have a heart”, Alison Parker of Human Rights Watch deemed the U.S. policy of deporting aliens after serving time for felonies and even misdemeanors as being “far out of step” with international standards.

“Human rights law recognises that the privilege of living in any country as a non-citizen may be conditional upon obeying that country’s laws. However, a country like the United States cannot withdraw that privilege without protecting the human rights of the immigrants it previously allowed to enter,” she argued.

She wants Congress to reinstate rules allowing judges discretion in cases where crimes are minor and family connections strong.

“Families have been torn apart because of a single, even minor, misstep such as shoplifting or drug possession,” Parker said.

Officials from all sides say that the hearings, the summit and other meetings with U.S. officials indicate that strides have been made in recent months to tackle what leaders say is one of the most vexing policy issues with the U.S.

Officials are considering replicating a deportee pilot programme now in place in Haiti, in which returnees are assisted financially with resettlement and helped to start micro-enterprises rather than falling under the sway of drug traffickers and other criminal gangs.

“They are looking to see if that can be applied in the region,” said trade bloc spokesman Robertson.

In calculating the proportionate effect of deportation, Barnes reasoned that with a combined population of less than five million people in Guyana, Trinidad and Jamaica, the impact of “this relocation of criminal offenders would be roughly equivalent to the influx, into the United States, of more than one million convicted drug offenders, and close to 40,000 convicted murderers.”

Trinidad Cabinet Minister Conrad Enill says better communication with U.S. authorities is key to a successful programme.

“What we ask is, if you’re sending them back, we need to know beforehand so we could track them and know where they are. If deportees are coming, we need to be able to welcome them properly,” he stressed.

Jamaican government spokesman Carlton Davis says there is little doubt deportees contribute to serious crime.

“When they come they are free, and a study shows that there is a strong correlation between deportation and violent crime. We need serious discussion as to the systems that enable us to manage this inflow of people who, I am told, have no family. They probably become ‘technical advisers’ (to other criminals). I am not saying that they are the cause of our problems, but it is a factor,” he said.

Jamaica absorbed 530 convicted murderers in 2005 alone, a figure officials say is too much for any small country to bear.

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