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.
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The second is finding a country to take 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 him travel papers for his return.
Without a country to send him to, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was forced to free Jacques. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2001 Zadvydas v. Davis decision bars the government from detaining a person for more than six months.
There are special circumstances that allow for continued detention, including if the detainee poses a threat to national security or suffers from a mental illness that makes a future violent act likely. But ICE determined that Jacques didn’t meet any of the exceptions.
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 monitor thosereleased.
The fact is, it’s unfair (and illegal )to keep people behind bars beyond the terms of their sentences, regardless of their citizenship. It’s reasonable to deport those who are deemed ineligible to be in the country, but to hold them indefinitely 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.
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 China, Afghanistan, Somalia and Cuba — for now.
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.
This editorial first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.