Ten years after being illegally banished from his country, U.S. citizen Johann Francis was reunited with his mother and two sisters in an Atlanta airport early Sunday morning. (For background, please go here.)
On Monday he spent the day figuring out new gadgets, including the shower, and catching up with his family and life in America: "I've been away so long. Readjusting is really something. It's like if you haven't eaten salt in ten years and someone gives you a chimichanga."
When Mark Lyttle returned to the Atlanta airport last spring after he was illegally deported he was held for two days and the government prepared to deport him again, despite a freshly minted US passport. Johann's response to hearing about Mark's experience of being told his passport was fraudulently obtained was, "How stupid do they look? You can just lie and get a passport? Do you know how many people are trying to get into the United States and they're saying you can get one if you just lie?"
In the event, Johann entered the US at the Fort Lauderdale airport Saturday evening with no significant delay. Barbara Gonzalez, an ICE public affairs officer, had transmitted information about his return in advance to the Customs and Border Protection office that had presumably updated his records. Johann also had a sealed letter from the US Consulate in Jamaica and produced this after the agent at the checkpoint was "staring with a confused look at the computer, like he didn't know what to do."
The agent brought Johann to an adjacent room and he sat there with his luggage, not sure what was happening or would happen next, "I got scared, that I'm-in-trouble-feeling, worried it's all going to happen all over again. I was just trying to be calm." 40 minutes later an officer came in and asked Johann two questions, if his mother was single (yes) and how old he was when he had his citizenship (14). But they kept the copy of the letter from the US consulate. Johann said, "I really want that letter. I'm scared."
In Jamaica, Johann had expressed his discomfort with the unfairness of feeling this way, "I feel like I'm doing something wrong, or like they're doing me a favor [by issuing the passport]. I feel like I have to ask a favor of them."
(I have written a note to Barbara Gonzalez asking for procedures US citizens should follow if they want to make sure that earlier wrongful deportations do not haunt them forever--right now the FBI database will indicate that he is illegally in the country and he may be arrested for illegal reentry--and will post the reply when it arrives.)
That feeling of not quite fitting in or being accepted by one's own country emerged repeatedly in our conversations as a burden and also a source of strength. The first time we spoke, Johann told me about speaking with his mother from Jamaica after he'd lost touch with her for almost two years, "Wow, we've been looking for you," she said, "I could hear a sigh of relief that I wasn't dead or hurt somewhere. That was hard, hearing my mother's voice again. It was almost painful. I didn't cry because I was used to being alone. We were in Washington State. I am from Jamaica. There are no Jamaicans in Washington State."
And there weren't many deported US citizens in Jamaica. One of the most difficult challenges Johann endured was hiding his deportation, "I couldn't say, 'Hi my name is Johann Francis and I've been deported from the United States because those people are looked down on. They're outcasts. It's like, you had your chance and you blew it. Why should I help you now?" But Johann could not locate any Jamaican documents to verify his birth there--which he would need for either Jamaican or US citizenship. Although he was by law a US citizen, he was de facto stateless and invented various tax numbers and so forth for later employment.
Hiding his identity was not easy. First, there was the accent. Johann spoke American. He made up a story of going to the US for education and returning to Jamaica by choice. But it also was hard when people believed him. Speaking from Jamaica a few days before returning, Johann said:
"I'm still going with that story up to this day. That was a mental drain, being unable to speak Jamaican without an accent, and I had to go through the whole fabrication. I've been constantly somebody else. I think three people knew my true story. I don't know if you know the psychology, but when you hear a foreign person who speaks another language, when they get upset, they start speaking that language. It's an expression of themselves and who they are and they relate better speaking the language they know and feel frustrated speaking a language they don't know. That's me for ten years. In the seventh or eighth year I started associating myself with other deportees for the sake of wanting to be home in America. That was so wierd. I could relate to them whether I was a citizen or not. I told one or two of them the truth becuase you want to talk to somebody. You want to tell your story."One interesting piece of Johann's story is a legal misunderstanding on the part of his mother, one that persisted until his seventh or eighth year in Jamaica. His mother knew that Johann had derived US citizenship, the equivalent of citizenship at birth, when he was 14 through her naturalization. She simply assumed that the US would not deport a US citizen and inferred from his deportation that the government had revoked his citizenship. Once they realized that this is not what had transpired, and that Johann had his US citizenship rights stolen by a US government that had flagrantly violated his due process rights, Johann began his quest to return.
Until the government clears up the legal mess it created, Johann is still at risk of arrest, but he is very happy to be back and begin to tell his story.