Concern rises over Dominican deportees

Criminals sent back to the Dominican Republic are blamed for a rise in crime.

If Freddy Muñoz could go back to New York City for just one day, he would hit up the little Chinese food place on Amsterdam and 169th. He would take his two sons, the youngest of whom he barely knows, to see any movie they wanted over at the Loews Cinema - and buy them each large Cokes. And in the evening he would go and hang out with Lino down at the car park in the village where, Mr. Muñoz thinks, his best friend still works.

But he doesn't have that one day.

Caught dealing heroin four years ago, Muñoz, like hundreds of thousands of other noncitizens in the US, soon found that jail was not the only punishment in store for him. According to legislation passed in 1996 and enforced with increased vigilance since 9/11, all noncitizens who commit crimes in the US - even those with permanent legal resident status - are supposed to be automatically deported back to their country of origin.

According to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) statistics, between 70,000 and 90,000 noncitizen criminals have been deported every year since 1996. This number does not include illegal immigrants who can be deported simply for being in the US.

Of the Caribbean countries, citizens of the Dominican Republic (DR) make up the largest group of criminal deportees. In 2004, there were 2,514 Dominicans deported to a society many of them don't really know, where opportunities are few and stigmatization runs deep. The deportees are increasingly blamed for a steep rise in the frequency and sophistication of crime in this island nation.

There are, according to the 2004 census, more than 1 million Dominican-Americans living in the US, the vast majority of them in the New York area. In addition, it is estimated that there are at least 695,000 more Dominicans living in the US holding resident status.

Many of the criminal deportees, says Nancy Morawetz, a law professor at New York University, lack counsel to challenge their deportations while in the US, and have no way to do so later. After five years out of the country, these deportees have the right to request a visa to return - but are usually turned down. "There is no room in the law for recognizing that people make mistakes and deserve a second chance," says Morawetz.

In many cases, those deported never considered themselves anything other than Americans. Muñoz, born in Santo Domingo, moved to New York with his parents when he was 8 years old.

He went to PS 128, scalped tickets at Yankee stadium, and had a job working in the laundry room of a health club. After leaving as a child, he only visited the Dominican Republic once before being deported. But, while his mother, his wife, and his children all secured US citizenship, Muñoz never did the paperwork.

"I did not realize I could be expelled. The jail time I could handle, it's just not being able to go back that bothers me most," he says, from a stoop in San Carlos, a rundown neighborhood in the capital of Santo Domingo, where he whiles away the days shooting the breeze, in English, with a group of other former New Yorkers, all deported for dealing heroin. "You find yourself in a country you don't know. This is not my town."

After serving four years of his sentence in Comstock, a maximum-security prison in upstate New York, Muñoz was released to immigration, who soon bundled him on a commercial American Airlines flight, his handcuffed hands tucked beneath a sweater, and dropped him off in Santo Domingo.

The department of deportees booked him, and entered his information in a widely accessible national criminal database, making it harder for him to commit crimes, but also to get a job. His aunt gave him a couch to sleep on.

"We are not liked here. And no matter how we try, we can't get jobs," says Muñoz. "I hustle here, hustle there ... sometimes I do a paint job. Sometimes my aunt helps me out. Mainly, I have nothing."

While the crimes of those deported range from rape and homicide to jumping a turnstile or writing a bad check: Often all are tarred with the same brush. With reports of violent crime in the DR increasing, much of the focus of the anger has been on "outsiders" be they Haitian migrant workers or these deportees, who are sometimes called "Dominican-Yorks."

Dominican Attorney General Francisco Dominguez Brito has on several occasions publicly blamed deportees for orchestrating sophisticated kidnappings and assaults - crimes that were almost unheard of a decade ago. "They are bringing in skills we don't want," he says.

The Attorney General's office said in a statement this month that in the past six years, the number of violent deaths from robbery, assaults, drug trafficking, and shootings has doubled. By 2005, there was an average of about 200 cases of violent death per month.

"We do not have statistics directly linking the increased crime to the deportees," says Police Chief Bernardo Santana Paez, "... but what we know is that there is some connection."

Bernardo Vega, who served as the Dominican Republic's ambassador to the US directly after the 1996 legislation was passed, says Latin American ambassadors at the time "did everything [they] could," to pressure the US to change these laws. "If the US does not decrease the sentences of its own citizens because they know those people will go back to the streets to commit crimes, why are they releasing them to our streets?" he asks, referring to the clause in the legislation that allows these noncitizens to negotiate shorter sentences in return for not opposing their deportations.

Raquel Batista, director of the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights in New York, says there is "no proven link" between deportees and crime in the Dominican Republic. "But what there is anecdotal proof of, is that back here, families are being broken up by the deportations - and this is causing emotional and psychological damage to families - and eventually leading to more crime."

Omar Martinez, deported from New York nine years ago for dealing heroin, has been getting by in Santo Domingo, he admits, by working for scam operations. His two most recent jobs have been as a telephone operator - first on a psychic line and then a love line.

If he could have one day back in New York, he would go by and see his mom at her jewelry store on Broadway and 187th, he would check in with his eight brothers and sisters, grab lunch at the greasy spoon over by City College, and then head to his favorite spot in the city - Strawberry Fields in Central Park.

"I miss that city," he says. "I wish I had another chance. I would do it better."

Ms. Harman is Latin America correspondent for the Monitor and USA Today.

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