One injustice follows another

May 9, 2013

Marlene Martin of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty tells the story of Santos Reyes, who has suffered multiple injustices as an immigrant in America.

THE STATISTICS don't lie: Barack Obama has become the deportation president.

The number of people thrown out of the U.S. for lacking proper immigration documentation started growing from the late 1990s through the 2000s, but it hit a peak during the Obama years. As the New York Times reported:

In four years, Mr. Obama's administration has deported as many illegal immigrants as the administration of George W. Bush did in his two terms, largely by embracing, expanding and refining Bush-era programs to find people and send them home. By the end of this year, deportations under Mr. Obama are on track to reach two million, or nearly the same number of deportations in the United States from 1892 to 1997.

The Obama White House defends its record, claiming that rather than a general crackdown, the Department of Homeland Security under Obama has just been highly successful in making "[deportation] of criminal aliens the top priority," according to the Times. The message is that the federal government is focused on getting rid of the "bad guys."

Protesters in Boston oppose the new three strikes law
Protesters in Boston oppose the new three strikes law

In fact, immigrant rights activists point to studies showing that the government is still deporting huge numbers of people whose only "crime" was to enter the country without documentation. Even among deportees with a criminal record, the offense was minor in many cases. In a report last year, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency admitted that over one-quarter of "criminal immigrants" deported from the U.S. in fiscal year 2011 had been convicted of traffic violations.

But the case of Santos Reyes shows why the Obama's administration deportation injustices extend even to immigrants with felony convictions.

Santos was finally freed from prison this year after spending 15 years behind bars as a victim of California's draconian "three strikes and you're out" law. He was convicted of a minor and completely nonviolent offense--taking a California drivers' license test in the name of his cousin to help him get a license--but because he already had two felony convictions, he got a 26-years-to-life sentence.

This year, Santos finally won his long struggle against the cruel three-strikes sentencing law and was ordered released. But he then suffered another injustice--on March 28, ICE agents were waiting for him at the prison when he was released, to deport him to Mexico immediately because he was undocumented.

This society owes Santos the many years he spent unjustly imprisoned. Instead, the federal government is kicking him out of the country.

SANTOS WAS sent to prison in 1998 after being convicted and sentenced under California's three-strikes law, passed by voter referendum in 1994, which requires that anyone convicted of a third felony to be given a 25-year-to-life term, even if the third felony was nonviolent in nature. No plea bargains are allowed under the law, and the first chance at a parole is after 25 years are served. Even after that long, 80 percent of all parole requests are denied.

Santos had been working as a roofer steadily for the previous decade. He was married with two children, aged one and three. Little did he know his life was about to be turned upside down when he offered to help out a cousin who had failed the written part of a state drivers' license test because he couldn't read English well. When Santos sat in for his cousin and took the test, he got caught.

This "crime" should have been classified as a misdemeanor under California law. But the prosecutor decided to charge Santos with perjury, which is a felony. He had two prior felony convictions. In 1981, as a juvenile, he was found guilty of stealing a radio from the home of someone he knew, and in 1987, when he was 22, he was convicted of armed robbery. In neither case was anyone harmed.

So in 1998, Santos went to prison for what could have been the rest of his life--for nothing more than helping out his cousin.

The sentencing had a devastating effect on Santos' family. He lost touch with his wife and never saw his children--he only recently started to correspond with them by letters. As he said in an interview with the Campaign to End the Death Penalty's New Abolitionist in 2010:

At this time, I've been literally left behind, and my wife and children have moved on with their lives. It breaks my heart, but I also know that this is my experience, and to some degree, it is best that they don't suffer with me. I yearn to someday some how see my children and, like any father, know how they are doing in school, give them sound advice, and ultimately love and encourage them.

I have not seen my children for over 13 years--the length of my incarceration. All I'm left with are the memories of them as little boys. I know that I've made mistakes in the past, and those growing pains/errors were used to bury me, but this injustice has affected every person in my family.

CALIFORNIA STARTED a three-strikes avalanche in the 1990s. By the end of the decade, 24 states and the federal government had some form of the mandatory sentencing law--though California's was considered the harshest because it didn't matter if the third offense was nonviolent and minor, as long as it was classified as a felony.

Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone chronicled some of the "crimes" that have landed people in jail for at least 25 years under "three strikes": stealing a slice of pizza, three golf clubs baby shoes or five children's videos, not to mention possession of small quantities of drugs.

Curtis Wilkerson has already done 18 years at California's Soledad prison for the crime of stealing a pair of tube socks worth $2.50. On top of that, the judge imposed a $2,500 fine, which he is still working to pay off at his prison job, in the cafeteria. Wilkerson is paid $20 a day--and the state takes $11 of it. According to Taibbi, "Curtis will be in his 90s before he's paid the state off for that one pair of socks."

Wilkerson is Black, which is no surprise, since racism pervades every aspect of three strikes. A disproportionate number of African Americans are sentenced under the law. Why? Because district attorneys typically get to make a choice on how to prosecute each case, which determines whether three-strikes laws apply.

"After the police arrest someone, the prosecutor is in charge," wrote Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow. "Few rules constrain the exercise of his or her discretion. The prosecutor is free to dismiss a case for any reason or no reason at all. The prosecutor is also free to file more charges against a defendant that can realistically be proven in court, so long as probable cause arguably exists--a practice known as overcharging."

Alexander writes that prosecutors are well aware that racial bias, as long as it is not overt, will be tolerated--so they have free reign.

So is it any wonder, under a system where the vast majority of prosecutors are white, that Blacks, who make up only 7 of the California population, are 28 percent of the prison population and 45 percent of those subject to the three-strikes sentencing laws?

After a long battle, the three-strikes law in California was finally amended in November 2012 with passage of Proposition 36, which requires that a defendant's offense be serious or violent enough to justify a 25-years-to-life sentence.

This gave prisoners like Santos a chance to be free.

The change in California's three-strikes law was years in the making. Groups like Families to Amend California's Three Strikes held protests and press conferences to push for the change. A previous ballot measure challenging three-strikes was narrowly defeated in 2004 after a last-minute influx of big money to pay for ads to scare people into voting against it.

Thus, Santos Reyes remained behind bars, despite the efforts of his energetic defense committee that worked to bring his case into the public light. The late socialist activist Peter Camejo, the 2004 vice presidential candidate on Ralph Nader's independent ticket and three-time Green Party candidate for California governor, took up Reyes case during his statewide campaigns. He spoke from the podium often about the injustice Santos was enduring.

Now, after the passage of Prop 36, more than 150 people have already been freed, and many more will likely follow. But there is still work to be done--to get rid of the punitive three-strikes law altogether.

For Santos, he won his freedom, but at a cost. Because he was an undocumented, he could no longer live in the U.S. after his release. So on March 28, when Santos was finally released from prison, ICE agents were there to transport him to Mexico. There, Santos reunited with his elderly mother. Fortunately, reports David Warren of the Sntos Reyes Defense Committee, "we were able to raise around $4,000 to help him restart his life."

Despite the injustices he has faced, a letter from Santos on April 12 strikes a note of optimism: "I am so happy. I am at my mother's house now. I made it at the border without an ID, and I crossed about five checkpoints. So pretty much I did it. Now I'm going to my birthplace to get my birth certificate so I can start my new life here at Guadalajara."

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