“Jean was targeted because he speaks out.”
Those are the words of Janay Cauthen, describing the deportation of her former husband Jean Montrevil, a prominent New York City immigrant rights activist who this month was detained and deported to Haiti, a country he hasn’t called home for more than three decades.
Montrevil’s deportation is not only a cruel blow to those who love, know and respect him, but it is an outrageous travesty of justice committed against a well-known activist who was in the midst of an appeal regarding his status that he was assured would protect him from immediate action.
But official assurances mean little in the new Trump era, especially for someone who stood up for justice.
On January 3, four Department of Homeland Security vans converged on Jean Montrevil, a prominent New York City immigrant rights activist, outside his home in Far Rockaway, Queens. He was arrested without a warrant weeks before his next scheduled check-in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
While he was cuffed in the back of the van, Montrevil still had his cell phone, unbeknownst to ICE officials. He was able to text Janay Cauthen, his former wife and the mother of his children. She immediately notified his lawyers, who rushed to Federal Plaza. But when they arrived, ICE denied any knowledge of Montrevil’s arrest.
By the time his lawyers were able to get any information about what had happened, Montrevil had been taken to Essex County Jail in New Jersey. He was transported to ICE’s Krome Detention Center in Florida within 48 hours.
Montrevil is a co-founder of the New Sanctuary Coalition, an organization that helps immigrants with deportation cases by sending volunteers to accompany them to their ICE check-ins and to assist with filing asylum applications.
He had been granted a stay of deportation under an order of supervision and had a pending case with the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) that should have protected him from arrest.
During a routine check-in with ICE last June, Cauthen said ICE’s New York City field office director Thomas Decker and assistant director Scott Mechkowski assured Montrevil that he would not be detained again as long as his appeal was open. Because of the high number of cases, it is not uncommon for this legal process to take years.
“Thomas Decker and Scott Mechkowski sabotaged the BIA’s decision,” said Cauthen. In the days before Montrevil was flown back to Haiti in shackles after being detained without food, his case mysteriously disappeared from the BIA hotline that Cauthen checked to monitor his status. She was unable to access information about Montrevil’s deportation when she called on Friday, January 12.
Based on information from other detainees at Krome, who explained to Montrevil that the plane to Haiti goes out on Tuesdays and Thursdays, his lawyers pre-emptively filed another appeal that morning.
When Cauthen called the hotline again on Monday, January 15, she received news that Montrevil’s case had been denied the previous Friday. Cauthen says that “Jean called on Monday crying, saying ‘Janay, it’s over. It’s over. Please take care of the children.'”
Montrevil was 17 years old when he emigrated from Haiti with a green card in 1986. The activist’s mother had died when he was 9 years old, and as one of 14 siblings, he withstood child abuse at the hands of his stepfather.
By age 18, Montrevil was living in the US on his own. In the early 1990s, he had finished a prison sentence for a drug possession charge. But it wasn’t until years later that Montrevil learned that he was deportable for a conviction that came while he was still a juvenile.
The 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, signed into law by Bill Clinton, overhauled immigration enforcement and laid the groundwork for the massive deportation machine that exists today.
The law broadly increased penalties on immigrants who violate US law in some way and made it harder for undocumented immigrants to obtain legal status. One particularly harsh measure in the bill’s bundle of punitive provisions is the ability to retroactively deport green-card holders convicted of certain crimes.
Cauthen, who is a US citizen, compared this to double jeopardy. “If you or I shoplift, and the sentence is 60 days,” she said, “they’re not going to come back after us after we serve the time.”
In the 30 years since his conviction, Montrevil started a business running a car service, got married, had four children and fought to make life better for other immigrants caught in an unjust system. As Cauthen said:
I can’t explain to my son why his dad is deported at age 49 for something he did when he was 18 years old. It makes no sense. The immigration laws are unjust and inhumane. They treat a murderer the same way that they treat someone who hopped a subway turnstile.
Cauthen made it clear that she will continue to fight for comprehensive immigration reform and speak out about the affects of the broken system on her family and children:
They took their dad from being a provider to being a dependent. They tell you he sold drugs, but they don’t tell you [about the] dysfunction in his upbringing. It seems like they’re try to set up his children to fall victim to the same thing.
Since his return to Haiti, Montrevil has been in regular communication with Cauthen. Because of his sanctuary activism, there was a team of supporters waiting to intercept Montrevil before authorities could jail him—a typical scenario for many people who are deported back to the country.
Since the 2010 earthquake devastated Haiti’s infrastructure, homelessness and poverty are rampant, power outages are common, and some people are still living in tents. Although Montrevil speaks Creole, the dialect is not the same as the one spoken in the area where he is now living. “There’s been a lot of adjusting,” said Cauthen.
Montrevil’s lawyers are working to challenge the deportation, but for now he has to fight his case from Haiti. To help him acquire basic necessities like toothpaste, underwear and socks to rebuild his life, Montrevil’s 14-year-old son Jahsaih started an online fundraising campaign, as well as a petition for his father’s return.
Cauthen encourages immigration activists to keep fighting: “If you talk to immigration and the Department of Homeland Security, they’ll say they’re just enforcing a law. But slavery was also a law, and that was wrong. Not every law is right.”