After more than a decade without visiting family in the Dominican Republic, Mickel Mesa thought the year-end holidays would be a good opportunity to share Christmas with his loved ones. It was. Until he arrived back in the U.S.
Mesa took the trip to the Caribbean nation with his sister in December, 2013. According to him, it was a week of “great food” and “fun” shared with people he had not seen since his teen years. They returned after five days.
When Mesa arrived at Newark Liberty International Airport on Dec. 29, 2013, he did what any green card holder would have done: he walked to U.S. Customs and Border Protection and applied for readmission to the United States showing his green card and passport. Mesa was 28 years old.
But federal authorities detained and arrested him. Mesa had pleaded guilty to possession of marijuana with intent to distribute in 2006, a felony under New Jersey law. He had been sentenced to do community service and to five years of probation. He completed both before the 2013 trip.
Nevertheless, he was arrested under the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act. The bill, passed in 1996 and signed by former President Bill Clinton, expanded deportation groups to include a broad range of minor offenses.
Paromita Shah, associate director at the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, says many green card holders do not know that even if they serve their time for felony offenses committed, they can still receive a second punishment in immigration court.
“Our laws deport green card holders in many instances for facts that occurred many years ago,” she says.
Mesa was held in the Essex County Correctional Facility for about a year and deported to the Dominican Republic in January 2015.
Mickel Mesa, 10, with his sister Genesis, 4, in Passaic Park, New Jersey, the first city the family lived after moving from the Dominican Republic in April 1994.
“I had finished my probation. I had finished everything... I did many things as far as community services… I was never told back in 2006 [that] I would be deported out the country,” Mesa told VOA via social media.
Mesa moved to the U.S. with his family when he was eight years old. Like many immigrants, his parents had wanted to provide a better life for both him and his younger sister, Genesis.
“I never asked to be taken [to the U.S.]; I never knew. We just picked up and left. … But my parents were ignorant. Until this day, my mother hasn’t become a citizen,” he says.
To apply for citizenship, an eligible green card holder must pay $680 upfront to cover the cost of naturalization forms and biometrics, says U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Officials, however, have proposed raising the fee to $725 to cover costs.
Mesa says he always thought he could not get deported for “whatever stupid reason. All I knew was I had a permanent resident card. I was living my life [in the U.S.]. I was legal. So what would immigration ever had anything to do with me?” he says. “Anybody that has a green card, automatically thinks that nothing like that can ever happen to you.”
Brittany Young, immigration attorney at Catholic Charities West Virginia, says it is a mistake many green card holders make.
“People make bad choices. Unfortunately, immigration law can very harsh for these bad choices especially in the context that someone has been a permanent resident for a long time, sometimes, they don’t really quite understand the severity of their actions,” Young says.
“This is why honestly I encourage people to become U.S. citizens as soon as they can,” she added.
According to the American Immigration Council, 10 percent of all people deported each year are legal permanent residents, and 68 percent of them are deported for committing minor and nonviolent crimes.
In 2015, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reported close to 300,000 people were deported under the category noncriminal removals - the category Mesa was deported under. An ICE official said, the agency does not differentiates who had a green card and who did not when apprehended.
Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Dominican Republican are the countries with the most removed individuals.
Since Mesa’s arrest, his younger sister, Genesis, has been writing to the Board of Immigration Appeals and Department of Homeland Security, filing motions to reopen the case due to new evidence including a decision from the Superior Court of New Jersey that vacated Mesa’s felony conviction. The decision could have helped Mesa, if only it had not come after he was deported from the U.S.
According to court documents, immigration officials have declined these motions because they were not filed in a timely manner, and because in addition to the felony, Mesa also had misdemeanors for possession of marijuana.
“All for personal use,” Genesis says.
The big story here, according to Shah, is civil and immigrant rights. She says the 1996 laws created a system that pushes people towards incarceration and deportation – and creates considerable hardship, often separating families.
“We don’t have a system with checks and balances. We don’t have a system with due process. … If we really want to fix and help the families who were being hurt, we need to start by appealing or at the very least amending the 1996 laws,” Shah says.
Genesis says her brother is not a criminal.
“He was just stupid… I’ve been trying to fight his case because we lived in the United States for 20 years. We were raised in New Jersey. He spent his whole young child, adolescence and adult life in New Jersey,” she says.
Genesis added their father suffers from diabetes, had to get an amputation, and now has a prosthetic leg along with other health problems. Her brother was their father’s sole caretaker.
Life in the Dominican Republic
After a year in the Dominican Republic, Mesa said life is beginning to make sense. At first, it was a “culture shocking.”
Mesa said the only immediate opportunity he found was to work in call centers for American companies providing customer service.
“Right now, where I’m working at I’m making less than $3 an hour working for American companies,” he said.
“I would like to go back. I feel like it was unfair what was done to me. Not just me, many people,” Mesa says.
As far as getting a lawyer to help his case, Mesa said the family simply cannot afford the cost.
“Basically the only person I have to count on is my younger sister. We’ve done the best we can on our own,” he says.
Experts say the family could challenge the decision in the federal courts of appeal. His sister, Genesis plans to continue to fight his case.
“I am my brother’s keeper,” she said.