originally published by VOX
When public defender Sophia Gurulé tried to visit her client in ICE detention in June, she was hit with a roadblock: His facility in Bergen County, New Jersey, was under quarantine due to a mumps outbreak. She wouldn’t be able to talk to her client in person for the next three weeks.
For 25-year-old Ousman Darboe, daily communication with his legal representation is essential. In May, he lost his removal proceedings case in immigration court. Now, he is pending deportation to his birth country of Gambia.
While he was quarantined in a unit with little air ventilation in the middle of summer — his family a two-hour bus commute away in the Bronx — Gurulé has been fervently at work on an appeal. She is exploring all options, including sending a letter to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for his release. This is the final chance she has to help keep his family together. Darboe has never held his daughter, now 17 months old, outside of a detention facility.
Like many of the approximately 10.5 million undocumented immigrants living in the US, Darboe came to the country as a child. He was 6 years old when his parents brought him and his three older siblings to New York in 2001, settling in the Fordham Heights neighborhood of the Bronx, one of the poorest congressional districts in the country.
Navigating life in a strict Muslim home, where he helped care for his younger siblings, was occasionally at odds with his assimilation as a kid in Fordham Heights. But Darboe worked quickly to fit in. He shed his accent and learned English. He played basketball and often kept quiet. And, much to his family’s disapproval, he sometimes cut school, often to avoid the heavy violence and policing on campus.
Based on the color of his skin alone, it’s not a surprise that Darboe went on to face numerous interactions with law enforcement as a teenager and young adult — a series of stops, alleged misidentifications, and arrests that led him to be locked up in Bergen County.
According to the Bureau of Justice of Statistics, black and Latinx residents are more likely to be stopped by police than white residents, and when stopped, police are twice as likely to threaten or use force against them. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, these statistics are even starker in New York City: Black and Latinx people were the targets of four out of every five reported stops between 2014 and 2017, and black and Latinx people were more likely to have force used against them.
But as many immigrant justice advocates will tell you, if being black makes you a police target, then being black and undocumented in a poor neighborhood will make you vulnerable to surveillance, punishment, and exile. Darboe wasn’t born of privileged social class or with means to a prestigious education; he did not fit the “exceptional immigrant” model preferred by US immigration policy. The odds of Darboe living not only a free life, but any life at all in this country, were stacked against him from the moment he stepped on US soil.
Darboe has instead found himself in what criminal justice reform activists call the prison-to-deportation pipeline, a coded system that works to funnel black and Latinx immigrants from the criminal court system into Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) custody, to the immigration court system, and ultimately back to their nations of birth — with very little recourse or space for adjudication.
For example, low-level crimes such as marijuana possession are lumped into the offense of “drug trafficking” in immigration court — even if it’s recognized as a misdemeanor in the criminal courts — mandating automatic deportation without any leeway for a judge to consider an individual’s circumstances, according to Human Rights Watch. As a result of this one-size-fits-all policy, deportations over drug convictions of any sort increased 43 percent from 2007 to 2012.
Peel back the numbers further, and black immigrants make up a disproportionate amount of criminal-based deportations. According to the advocacy group Black Alliance for Just Immigration, which reviewed data on immigrants from African and Caribbean countries from the Department of Homeland Security Yearbook and the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, 76 percent of black immigrants are deported on criminal grounds, compared to 45 percent of all immigrants. Despite making up only 7.2 percent of the noncitizen population in the US, more than 20 percent of people facing deportation on criminal grounds are black.
“There’s a particular intersection of vulnerability — immigrants in general are vulnerable, and there’s often poverty and racial aspects to their vulnerability as well,” said Jodi Ziesemer, director of the Immigrant Protection Unit at the New York Legal Assistance Group, a nonprofit that provides comprehensive free legal services and advocacy. “Black and undocumented immigrants are at particular risk because they’re targeted racially by a lot of our institutions ... while being also targeted for ICE and enforcement actions.”
As a young quiet kid, Darboe would have never guessed that his existence in the US — and in the Bronx in particular — would put him on a trajectory of altercations with law enforcement, eventual incarceration, and possible deportation. Darboe’s sister Adama said her brother once told her, “I came to this country thinking it would be better for me, but they’re actually against me.”
A path that began with police targeting
Darboe’s first interaction with police came at age 16: On June 25, 2010, he was falsely accused of stealing headphones at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Jerome Park neighborhood of the Bronx. Situated just around the corner from the famed specialized high school Bronx High School of Science, DeWitt has a history of police patrolling the hallways and metal detectors that caused hour-long delays, a system that left students feeling “like inmates,” according to a 2005 New York Times report. It was a situation so toxic that more than 1,500 students marched over to the Department of Education at the beginning of the school year.
When Darboe was at the school five years later, not much had changed. He told the court earlier this year that there were a lot of gang wars, fights, and cuttings. “DeWitt Clinton was a harsh place to go to school, because most of the time there’s gang wars — there’s weapons being found at school,” Darboe testified. “Basically nobody went to class.” Gurulé says Darboe witnessed police being given free rein to stroll the school, on top of the standard school security that already existed on campus. (DeWitt Clinton High School has not responded to Vox’s request for comment).
His eldest sister, Adama, in contrast, went to Marble Hill High School for International Studies, a smaller school with an above-average reputation and an emphasis on dedicating resources to college preparation. Adama tells Vox these schooling differences significantly impacted the siblings’ trajectories, placing Darboe in an environment that put him under police scrutiny, and with a friend group that grew accustomed to being viewed as criminals.
Though Darboe was quickly found not to have stolen the headphones and his case was dismissed, the incident would prove to be the first in a long string of interactions with police. According to court documents, Darboe said that while the kids in Fordham Heights were “not the best of influences,” they would often be “attacked by the police officers” because the neighborhood was simply known to be violent.
“Broken windows” policing was common in neighborhoods with large black and Latinx immigrant populations such as Darboe’s area of the Bronx. By focusing on low-level crimes in so-called unkempt neighborhoods — with vandalism, loitering, and drug offenses — police departments theorized they could prevent bigger crimes from happening there. In the 1990s, police in cities like New York took this practice one step further and instead of waiting for people to commit misdemeanors, they enacted “stop-and-frisk” — stopping, questioning, and frisking anyone who looked suspicious.
According to a 2013 study by the Vera Institute of Justice, at least half of all recorded stops by police in New York City involved people between the ages of 13 and 25, and more than 40 percent of young people who’ve been stopped said they have been stopped nine times or more — with nearly half reporting that threats or physical violence were used against them. Broken windows and stop-and-frisk policing created an environment where kids from certain neighborhoods, and often of a certain skin color, were repeatedly profiled as criminals. In fact, in 2013, a US district judge in New York ruled stop-and-frisk unconstitutional and ordered police to stop the practice in the Bronx specifically, because of the way it targeted young black and Latinx men.
But that ruling — which outlawed stop-and-frisk but didn’t put an end to broken windows policing — came several years after Darboe was already caught up in the system.
In October 2010, four months after being falsely accused of stealing the headphones, Darboe was fingered for stealing a purse and was adjudicated as a youthful offender. When asked in court why he stole it, Darboe said that he didn’t have any school supplies, or a book bag, and he couldn’t ask his parents because he knew they didn’t have the money. “I felt, I felt bad because I felt like I had to take [a] drastic measure to get the stuff that I needed,” he said.
Three months later, in the following January, he was stopped and frisked on Webster Avenue — just down the block from his childhood home — and charged with marijuana possession, but was only found guilty of disorderly conduct. And in March 2012, he was charged for cellphone theft, which landed him in Rikers Island — a jail complex infamous for its excessive use of violence in inmate discipline — as a violation of his previous youthful offender agreement over the purse theft.
During his time at Rikers, having just turned 18 and awaiting his cellphone theft hearing, Darboe spent nearly 10 months total in solitary confinement for fighting, and five of those months he says he was not even aware he was able to step outside for an hour a day and get fresh air.
When he was finally sentenced in July 2013, Darboe was sent to Greene Correctional Facility in upstate New York to serve time for both petty theft charges; nine months later, he was released on parole — meaning that he spent more time in pre-trial detention awaiting his sentencing than his actual sentence. His disappearance was so abrupt that his longtime friend from high school, Lashalle Poston, now his wife, initially thought he had left the city. “At first I thought, African parents, when they get in trouble, they send their kids to Africa,” Poston tells Vox. “He just disappeared.”
Despite having spent the latter half of his teen years being in and out of facilities, a youth offender record is not a criminal record; it is automatically sealed and does not have to be reported as a criminal conviction. “It wouldn’t bar him from applying for things,” Gurulé said, referring to documentation that wouldn’t leave him vulnerable to deportation. “A judge can be, ‘I see you got arrested for doing that and I don’t like that, that makes me think you’re a bad person,’ but it doesn’t bar him for applying.”
So upon his release in 2014, at age 20, Darboe took steps to make a fresh start. He moved back in with his parents; started dating Poston, who served as his support system during his incarceration; and began attending Getting Out and Staying Out, a Rikers reentry program for young adult men.