In an exclusive interview, we speak with Jean Montrevil, an immigrant rights leader who was deported to Haiti in 2018. He returned home to New York and reunited with his family Monday on a special 90-day parole. He hopes to stay longer. Montrevil was a founding member of the New Sanctuary Coalition, which worked with Families for Freedom to engage churches in immigrant defense. ICE targeted him for his activism, using a decades-old conviction as pretext to deport him. In his first interview since landing, Montrevil tells Democracy Now! he will continue to speak out and implore the current administration to “take a second look at their policies and to stop deportations to Haiti.” His longtime lawyer Alina Das says, “We don’t believe that anyone should be targeted for deportation, to be jailed, to be taken away from their family, to be expelled from this country because they’ve chosen to speak out.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we turn to an incredible story Democracy Now! has followed for more than a decade.
As reported in headlines, activists blocked the Port of Miami Monday to protest deportations to Haiti, where people face extreme economic and political instability. Around the same time Monday, here in New York, Jean Montrevil, a prominent Haitian American immigrant rights activist, father of four U.S.-born children, returned home to New York, this after he was deported to Haiti in 2018. In a remarkable development, he was allowed to fly back, after receiving a 90-day special parole.
Like many Black immigrants, Jean faced the double punishment of deportation after he served a harsh sentence decades ago at the height of the war on drugs. When he was released from prison in 2000, he reported for years to check-ins with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, and also helped found the New Sanctuary Coalition to engage churches in immigrant defense with another group called Families for Freedom.
Jean Montrevil was first on Democracy Now! in 2010, after ICE detained, then released him, following the devastating earthquake in Haiti that year. We last spoke to Jean in Port-au-Prince, after he was deported in 2018. Well, on Monday, Jean Montrevil’s children and supporters greeted him at the airport as he returned home, and his defense committee shared this video with us.
TED DAWSON: Here, hold this.
SUPPORTER 1: We will not be deterred.
RAVI RAGBIR: You can’t deport a movement.
SUPPORTER 1: No, that’s right.
JANIAH MONTREVIL: My name is Janiah Montrevil. I’m Jean Montrevil’s daughter. Today we’re at JFK Airport at the baggage claim, waiting for my father to get off his flight. He recently got his 90-day pardon, and so he’ll be coming back from Haiti.
JAHSIAH MONTREVIL: I’m Jahsiah Montrevil. And as my last name implies, I’m his son. Feeling a lot of different things, mainly excited, still in shock that it’s happening. Like, I don’t think I’ll be able to fully process it until I actually see and hug him. For once, I’m going to take him out shopping this week.
SUPPORTER 2: Do you know if the plane arrived?
JANIAH MONTREVIL: Yes, the plane has landed. I could check. They should be unboarding now and going through ICE.
SUPPORTER 2: What do you think is happening back there?
JANIAH MONTREVIL: I honestly don’t know. I feel like, since I know he didn’t have a passport, and they just gave him, like, papers, so they might, like, have to do like an extra scan through. I don’t know. A part of me want to like run back there and see what’s going on.
JANE TREUHOLD: I’m Jane Treuhold, and I’ve been accompanying Jean on this journey since 2007. We, you know, did check-ins, but we’ve also become good friends, and he’s been to my house and with his kids. And he’s a very special person.
TED DAWSON: My name is Ted Dawson. I’m a member of Judson Memorial Church. And I’m here to celebrate Jean coming home. I’m part of a team here that began accompanying Jean to his check-ins 10, 12, 15 years ago. We became very close to him during that process. And we became much, much more involved as the process went along and we could see the injustices that were happening across the board in the immigration system, in ICE, in particular. And we just grew to love Jean and his family. And when this happened to him, it was part of us. They deported us also, because Jean was deported because of his activism.
RAVI RAGBIR: I’m Ravi Ragbir. And Jean and I go way back. They have been trying to deport us for many years. In fact, I was in Krome Detention Center with him when he was deported. We have been working as, you know, collaborators to stop our own detention, but other people’s detention, so it has been a long struggle. And I’m excited that Jean is here and that he will continue to support the end of deportation for people. And this will be — it will be able to give people the strength and the knowledge that they can — if they fight, they can win. So it will allow hope for many people who have been in the same struggle with like Jean and myself.
SUPPORTERS: Jean! Jean! Jean! Jean! Jean! Jean! Jean!
JEAN MONTREVIL: Hey, guys! Linda! Well, I’m excited. I’m excited to be with my family. It has been my whole dream. And the trip was OK. I’ve been up since 4:00 this morning. I haven’t ate nothing. I’m really happy to be with my family. This has been my whole fight, fighting to be with my kids. And I’ve always wanted to be with my kids. And now I get a second chance to be with them again. Exactly, they have — Oh my god!
SUPPORTER 3: Are you real? Are you a facsimile of yourself?
AMY GOODMAN: Jean Montrevil being greeted at the airport, with people holding signs, “Welcome home Jean!” with his face on some of those signs. Special thanks to Laura Bustillos for filming that joyous reunion of Jean with his family and supporters after returning home yesterday. He was deported in 2018, then granted a 90-day special parole, which is why he’s back, hoping to stay for much longer.
In this Democracy Now! exclusive, Jean, how does it feel — in this first interview back, how does it feel to be home?
JEAN MONTREVIL: It feels great, Amy. And thank you for having me again today. I mean, I’m very excited just to be here with my kids again. As you know, this has always been about my kids. And now I finally got a second chance and to see my kids again. I cannot tell you how excited that I am. Very excited, man. I’m so happy.
AMY GOODMAN: And I should say that we’re also joined by Alina Das, Jean Montrevil’s lawyer and co-director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at NYU School of Law. You had not been home to Haiti in, what, some 30 years. Talk about your plans now. As so many Haitians are being deported back to Haiti, you have been able to come home.
JEAN MONTREVIL: Yes. And it’s heartbreaking, man. It’s very — it hurt my heart a lot just to see people getting deported back to a country where there’s no government, a country that’s being run by gang members. And the U.S.A. know that. They know Haiti don’t have a functioning government. Everybody is afraid to go outside. Things are getting so expensive. People cannot eat. People cannot do nothing in Haiti. It’s really very heartbreaking. It broke my heart just to see that Biden government cannot take — are deporting people. Just, like, they need to take a second look at the policies. To watch people walk two months on foot, walking, crossing the Darién forests just to be here, knock on your door, and then you still deport them back with their kids. And it’s very heartbreaking. I think the Biden administration needs to take a second look and to stop the deportation to Haiti. You cannot deport people to where there’s no government. There is no government in Haiti. The country is being run by gang members. Gangs are everywhere, just like you mentioned earlier, the 400 Mawozo, the Martissant group. You know, it’s terrible. And the government know that. They know that.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask Alina Das to talk about the campaign to bring Jean back, especially the role of the pardon that Governor Northam gave to him, how that helped. And also, if you could talk about the Biden administration’s change of policy, for instance, Alex Mayorkas, the homeland security chief, basically directing that activists who are exercising their First Amendment rights should not be targeted for deportation? How extensive has that been in the past?
ALINA DAS: Well, thank you so much, and thank you for having us.
And I think all of these victories are really a signal of how important the work Jean has been doing for so long is. I mean, Jean has been organizing in the immigrant rights movement since 2005. He saw what was happening to him and his family, and he realized that this was happening to families everywhere. And he inspired a movement. And so, when his voice made him a target for deportation in 2018 and he was deported to Haiti, that movement lived on. He taught us to keep fighting. And so, with his church, with Families for Freedom, with the New Sanctuary Movement, with so many others, we didn’t give up, and we’ve fought until he’s here. I can’t believe he’s here sitting right next to me in New York. And I think that that is a victory for family unity. It’s everything that Jean has envisioned for an immigration system, one that welcomes, one that protects immigrant voices.
And we are so grateful to see a change in that policy, to see Secretary Mayorkas say that immigrants will not be targeted for engaging in First Amendment activity, for speaking out about the injustices they see. And what we want to see now is that principle be put into action. You know, Jean is here with us. He’s been given this special parole. But the fight isn’t over. We have to make sure that Jean is with us to stay and that other immigrant activists can be — rest assured that they can be here and remain with their families, to continue to speak out and to speak up and protect our rights, without fear of deportation.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Alina, explain the role of the Virginia governor, Governor Northam.
ALINA DAS: Yes. Governor Northam gave us a tremendous gift. He recognized — and this is the power of clemency — that people deserve second chances. Jean received a deportation order nearly 30 years ago because of a very old conviction that he received at the height of the war on drugs. After he served his time and lived his life, raised his family, four children, incredible community, it was only then that he faced a second punishment of deportation. And we believe in second chances. And the pardon, which is something that the governor of Virginia granted to Jean, recognizes that. It gives him an opportunity to try and reopen his case, to get his lawful permanent residency back and to be able to live here in this country, that is his home, with his family.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Jean, you’re also pursuing a federal lawsuit against immigration officials for targeting you, because, again, there’s some reports that as many as a thousand immigrant rights activists have been deported in the past, basically because of their speaking out.
JEAN MONTREVIL: Yes. This was during the Trump administration. Trump targeted immigrant right activists like myself who were speaking out against ICE, which is a terrible, terrible, terrible institution. They didn’t care about family unity. They didn’t care about what you was standing for. And because of that, I made the lawsuit Alina filed. And thanks to her. I want to say, you know, a big thank you to Alina. And she probably saved my life. And I will refer to her on the lawsuit. I really don’t know much.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Alina, could you talk about it?
ALINA DAS: Yeah, no, I think the lawsuit itself is an incredible testament to the voice that Jean gave to the movement. He spoke out. And we don’t believe that anyone should be targeted for deportation, to be jailed, to be taken away from their family, to be expelled from this country because they’ve chosen to speak out and to educate all of us about what’s really happening in the immigration system. So, that lawsuit continues to be pending, and we’re just so grateful that people are listening. They’re listening to Jean. They’re willing to stand up for those who have been targeted for their activism.
AMY GOODMAN: Jean, the old slogan for your campaign was “Bring Jean home.” Monday, as people stood at the airport, they held signs that said “Welcome home, Jean.” Today it’s “Keep Jean home.” What is next? And talk about your message for both the DHS secretary, Mayorkas, and for President Biden, and for immigrants and activists around this country.
JEAN MONTREVIL: Well, for immigrants, I will tell them: Don’t give up. Don’t give up. Don’t be afraid to fight. Fight for your kids. Fight for what’s right. We deserve to be here. America has always been a country of immigrants. And nothing has changed in the immigrants’ world. People travel to here just to find a better way to live, to support their families back home. There’s nothing changed in the immigration world. You can talk about a hundred years, from 200 years ago. It has always been the same. You move somewhere to flee your country from persecution, from poverty, to find a better way to take care of your family.
Imagine all these Haitians who walks through 11 countries, Amy, just to get to the Texas border, and then you put them back on a plane to say, “No, you cannot welcome here.” It’s racism. It’s racism. That’s all it is. Haiti has always been suffering for racism in this country.
And one other: I think it’s time for the Biden administration to take a second look. You cannot have these people suffering just to knock on your door, and then you take them back to a country where you know there’s no government. And it’s really heartbreaking. It breaks my heart. And I hope the Biden administration really thinks twice. And they need to take a second chance. And I will continue to speak out. I’m not going to give up.
AMY GOODMAN: Jean —
JEAN MONTREVIL: I will be there, probably —
AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there, but, again, welcome home, Jean. That’s Jean Montrevil, Haitian immigrant and activist, just back in New York Monday, and Alina Das, Jean’s lawyer and co-director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at NYU School of Law. Special thanks to Renée Feltz. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.