PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- imagine waking up one morning and finding yourself in prison in a country you've never even visited. You know no one, don't speak the language and learn that you may never be allowed to return to your family.
This nightmare is a reality for Robert, an 18-year-old raised in Boston. "Every day I think about killing myself," he says. "At least then I wouldn't be in this damn country anymore. Sure, I messed up, but I don't know that what I did deserves a punishment like this."
In early 1996, Robert, then 17 and living in Boston, got into a fist fight during a high school basketball game. The fight escalated and Robert pulled out a knife. He was arrested and charged with possessing a weapon on school grounds. After spending several weeks in juvenile hall (his first time there), a public defender convinced him to plead guilty in exchange for a six-month sentence.
What neither Robert nor his attorney considered was the Immigration and Naturalization Service's crackdown on immigrants -- even those who are legally "permanent residents" -- who commit crimes. Along with 50,000 "criminal aliens," Robert was deported to his "native country" -- in his case, a poverty-stricken island he had never set foot on.
Robert has lived in the United States most of his life, but he was born in the Bahamas, the child of Haitian laborers. The Bahamas expressly prohibits the children of Haitians from becoming citizens, so when Robert came to New York at the age of 7 months, he was, officially, a citizen of the Republic of Haiti -- a country he had never seen.
While Robert was in juvenile hall in Massachusetts, he studied for and passed his Graduate Equivalency Degree test, and completed a training program in computers. Then, just a few days before his release date, he was suddenly transferred to an adult facility. The next morning he was brought to a hearing where the INS asked for and received permission to deport him.
"The next thing I knew," Robert recalls, "without my family being told about it or anything, I was on a plane to Haiti." He spent two weeks in jail in Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital city, and was then released to live with a distant relative. He has had trouble finding a job, learning Creole, getting along with his Haitian relatives and coping with a very different way of life.
"I miss the food," Robert says in an interview at his new home in Port-au-Prince. "Not just McDonald's, but stuff like milk and apples. The milk here comes in boxes and it tastes all funky, Apples are too expensive. I miss living in the city, kicking it with my friends. I miss my mama." For a long time, Robert was bitter and angry. Now, he says, he's just "bummed."
"I feel like what I did was wrong," but it wasn't wrong enough to warrant sending me here. I feel like I paid my price already, and now I just want to go home. But I can't."
Michelle Karshan, an American who works as the foreign press spokesperson for Haitian President Reni Prival, volunteers with the young deportees. She says she has seen dozens of people in Robert's situation. "They are depressed. They are remorseful. They have mothers and fathers and siblings, and houses with bedrooms which they will never see again."
According to INS press officer Karen Karushaar, 167 people were deported from the U.S. to Haiti in the first nine months of this year. This number includes juveniles who have committed "aggravated felonies, robbery, drugs," says Karushaar. "I think we can be glad that we're trying to get them out, we do not want them in our country," she adds.
Joseph, now 20, was deported from the U.S. almost two years ago. He had been charged selling drugs, and his attorney, like Robert's, told him to plead guilty in exchange for a suspended sentence, not realizing it would put him at risk of being deported.
"When the plane landed," recalls Joseph, "I thought, 'This is it. It's all over for me now. I don't know anybody in this country. I don't speak their language.' I didn't know what I was gonna do."
After a week in a Haitian jail for "processing," Joseph was released to a family friend contacted by his family, after they learned about his deportation. The friend taught Joseph Creole, and helped him find part-time work. But nothing can make up for the loss of his family and friends. "I sold 40 bucks worth of pot and now I'm never gonna see my family again."
"I think about my neighborhood," says Joseph. "I remember every street, every crack in the sidewalk. Maybe I'm Haitian by birth, but America raised me. I belong there. That's my home."