A New York immigration judge on Tuesday ruled that Jean Montrevil, a Haitian immigrant and longtime activist, will no longer face deportation, after a decade of being targeted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement for his activism. Montrevil was deported to Haiti in 2018 under the Trump administration but got a second chance in 2021, when Virginia Governor Ralph Northam granted him a pardon for two drug convictions from three decades earlier, which ICE had used as a pretext to deport him. Montrevil sought to regain his legal immigration status and was allowed to return to the United States on a 90-day special parole, but the threat of deportation continued to hang over his head — until Tuesday, when the decades-long saga came to a close. “It was huge for me,” says Montrevil in his first interview following the ruling. We also speak with Alina Das, part of Montrevil’s legal team and co-director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at NYU School of Law, who says Black people face much harsher treatment under immigration law than others.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
In a Democracy Now! broadcast exclusive, we turn now to a rare victory in immigration court that unfolded here in New York yesterday in a case we have followed for more than a decade. On Tuesday, an immigration judge ruled that Jean Montrevil, a Haitian immigrant, longtime activist, will no longer face deportation, after he had been targeted for his activism for years by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Under President Trump, Jean was deported to Haiti in 2018. He was given a second chance in 2021, when Virginia Governor Ralph Northam granted him a pardon for two drug convictions that were 30 years old, which ICE had used as a pretext to deport him. This gave Jean the opportunity to seek to reopen his case and regain his legal immigration status. In a rare move, he was allowed to return to the United States on a 90-day special parole, but the threat of deportation continued to hang over his head — until yesterday, when the decades-long saga came to a close. In a courtroom packed with supporters, the judge told Jean, “I want you to know I see the good in you, too.”
For more, Jean Montrevil joins us himself, alongside Alina Das, part of his legal team and co-director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at NYU School of Law.
We welcome you both back to Democracy Now! Jean, we spoke to you in Port-au-Prince when you were deported to Haiti. Now, as you sit in a New York studio, can you describe what this victory feels like, what it meant to you yesterday, and what actually happened in that courtroom?
JEAN MONTREVIL: Amy Goodman, thank you for having us again.
And it was huge for me. It was amazing. I was so happy, the feeling of knowing that I no longer face deportation, and now have an opportunity to sit here with my children. This case has always been me staying with my kids. I love my kids. My kids love me.
I think yesterday also the judge sent a message to the government: You can’t silence someone just because they’re speaking against the government.
And I’m so happy. We were so happy yesterday. And my team at NYU, they did an excellent job. My kids were there, the people from my church, Judson Memorial Church, all my supporters. We were so happy. I mean, unbelievable feeling.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Jean, could you talk about how important it was for the people to be there in the courtroom to show your support, to demonstrate that to the judge, how this is part of the strategy of groups like Families for Freedom and your work in the past with the New Sanctuary Coalition?
JEAN MONTREVIL: Yes, I mean, it was extremely important. The judge even mentioned that in his decision, how much supporters that I had in the courtroom. He even called out one of my biggest supporters, Jane Treuhold. She was in the courtroom, and the judge explained that the letter that she wrote to him moved the judge about me. Families for Freedom were there; the director, Janay Cauthen, my ex-wife, was there; my kids. I had people from other churches that were there. Juan Carlos was there. And the support from the community was largely important. We had two rooms full with people. And I think the judge recognized that, how important it was for me to have all these people who love me and who has been supporting me for the past 20 years. I mean, it was a huge victory. I’d like to thank my legal team from NYU, Ms. Alina Das and her staff. I mean, they did an excellent job, and I’m so grateful.
AMY GOODMAN: Jean, let me ask Alina Das — I think we last had you on when you were pregnant, Alina. You were about to give birth, but you were right there standing with Jean. So, in 2021, Jean is allowed back into the United States. He had sued for being banished, basically, deported for his immigrant rights activism under Trump. There’s a couple of threads of legal cases here involving Jean. Can you lay out these cases? It’s also just amazing that it’s your students who argued the case yesterday.
ALINA DAS: Oh, absolutely. Thank you, Amy. And certainly, I know I speak for the entire NYU immigrants rights team, including Yulanda Lui and Gabriela MacPherson, who represented Jean at the hearing yesterday, we are just so honored to be standing in solidarity with him and his incredible family in Judson Memorial Church. But you’re right, there has been so much that has been poured into Jean’s case. We have been inspired by his incredible voice, his leadership through Families for Freedom and the New Sanctuary Movement in New York City. It has really helped thousands of immigrants. So it was really an honor for us to step in where we could.
When Jean was deported in 2018, it was part of a widespread pattern of retaliation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement against immigrant rights activists. They were targeted. They were silenced through their detention. And some, like Jean, were deported. We knew this was wrong, and so we joined Jean and his church and family and community to file a lawsuit to sue the government, to say that it’s simply not right. It’s against his First Amendment rights and due process rights under the Constitution to silence him for his activism through a retaliatory deportation. And we litigated that for many, many months.
And thankfully, after President Biden came into office, ICE was willing to settle the case, returning Jean to the United States, trying to right this one of many, many wrongs that we’ve seen under — across different administrations. So it was thrilling for us to be able to see that after this 30-year fight that Jean has led, that he’s been just searching for this one fair day in court, that we were finally able to be there. But we know, because Jean has taught us this, that there are many more people who have also faced retaliation, who face retaliation to this day, and that we hope that this is the first of many such victories.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk about, Alina, the role of the drug war in several administrations now, using the criminal legal system as a tool to deport people from the United States, especially Black immigrants and people from the Caribbean?
ALINA DAS: Absolutely. Anti-Blackness is a core part of the foundations of immigration law. There is a very specific reason that immigration law uses the criminal legal system to funnel people into deportation. It basically doubles the unfairness of both systems. And so, the war on drugs in the 1980s, in particular, was where we saw people who were facing the harshest penalties, like Jean, for involvement in drug offenses, also then facing the harshest penalties of mandatory detention, mandatory deportation, without even being able to explain your case. You know, Jean really tried to present all of his factors, all of the reasons why he should be able to stay in this country with his family, but it took 30 years for him to get that hearing, and a tremendous amount of community mobilization. It was the community that really made sure that this happened. And that is part of the legacy of the war on drugs.
I think Jean’s son, who testified at the hearing yesterday, Jahsiah Montrevil, said it best, when he said that this is a double punishment. It is inherently unfair for Mr. Montrevil to have suffered this much, for his family to suffer this much, because of the war on drugs, after he had already been harshly punished under that system.
AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about the role, Alina, of the Virginia Governor Ralph Northam in pardoning Jean, the significance of that?
ALINA DAS: Yes. Well, Jean and I talked about this yesterday at the hearing. Jean was in Haiti when Governor Northam gave him the pardon, and it was an incredible moment for Jean. I think it is a recognition of the importance of second chances, the importance of redemption. It’s a value that our justice system has often forgotten. And that was a rare moment of victory. It was something that Jean, Janay Cauthen and the entire team at Judson Memorial Church fought for for many, many years.
And it’s important to recognize that people at all levels of government have a responsibility to exercise their power to make sure that we can find justice for people like Jean who have been through so many years of injustice. There is so much that people can do, if they’re willing to exercise that power for good.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Jean, now that you’ve finally gotten this 30-year saga behind you, what are your expectations or hopes for what you expect to do in the future?
JEAN MONTREVIL: Well, I’m 54 years old, about to start a new life. And my family, my sons — I mean, just to be able to be with my kids. My son, Jahsiah, he’s actually right now in college. My daughter, as you know, has been — has graduated. I still have a 16-year-old sophomore in high school. I want to see my kids’ progress, and I want to be there alongside of them, you know, take them to school, make sure they stay out of trouble and be responsible human — and be responsible human beings, you know?
It’s so hard. This case has always been about the separations of families. I didn’t like the fact that, years ago, the government used to just break those down and separate families. I think now my kids and myself, we do have a bright future ahead of us. I’m planning to, you know, work with them still, really, and continue to support them.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you see citizenship on the horizon, Jean?
JEAN MONTREVIL: And they need that support. I’m sorry, Amy. I didn’t hear you.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you see citizenship on the horizon?
JEAN MONTREVIL: Well, I think so. You know, and last night I got home. I was thinking about it, because there’s this question that’s been in my mind for so many years: Jean, why are you fighting to stay in this country, knowing the racial bias and all they have done to me? And now you want to become a citizen? Last night I thought about it.
But, you know, I like — I do like the Biden administration. As you know, Haiti right now is in turmoil. Haiti has gotten 10 times worse since I left Haiti just over a year ago. The whole country is run by gang members. And just on January 6, Joe Biden finally recognized that and gave the Haitians an opportunity to come over here without having a visa. If you have someone here that can apply for you, to support you financially, then they’re approved to come over here and apply for political asylum.
I think me, myself, to answer your question, Amy, I would really like to settle myself in this country. I have been here for almost 40 years. This is the only country that I know. I don’t want to think about going back to Haiti, so I probably will have my citizenship one day. But, as you know, I have to apply for it. Hopefully, I will receive it.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jean Montrevil, longtime Haitian immigrant activist, welcome home. And, Alina Das, part of the legal team for Jean and co-director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at NYU School of Law, thanks so much for being with us.
Coming up, we’ll look at the growing controversy around Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Stay with us.