Five year-old Tony Amorim sat with his dad in a van in Danbury, Conn., in 1989.
“Do you want to come with me,” his father asked him, “or do you want to stay with your mother?”
Tony loved them both, but the boy couldn’t imagine living without his father.
“I want to go with you,” Tony answered.
Right then and there Tony’s father drove away and took him to the far-away land of Florida.
Last week, I interviewed Tony, now 28, on the phone. I couldn’t call him directly because he is in Norfolk County Correctional Center awaiting his deportation hearing scheduled for today.
Tony’s voice was tight. He was eager to share his story — his whole story.
On the face of it, his case is simple. According to a Notice to Appear, issued to him by the Department of Homeland Security, Tony is a native and citizen of Brazil who entered the U.S. through Orlando, Fla., on a Nonimmigrant Visitor for Pleasure Visa in 1985. In 1995, Tony was granted Lawful Permanent Resident status by an immigration judge. He was 11 years old. In 2004 he was arrested and convicted for possession of narcotics. Four years later he was arrested and convicted again for possession of narcotics with intent to sell and for possession of a pistol.
It sounds like Tony is the poster child for the kind of person who should be deported: two felony convictions and possession of a gun. But you haven’t heard the whole story.
Tony’s mother Recili brought him to the United States from Brazil in 1985 when he was 20 months old. In a phone interview with Tony’s sister, Lilly, she explained that they came from the Brazilian state of Pernambuco, where she remembered they lived in a tiny apartment. Chickens ran around outside, they were poor, and violence was rampant, she said.
Lilly said when they came to the U.S., they were not planning to stay. She said they were coming to visit family, but the prospect of going back to Pernambuco felt more and more daunting with each day.
The family settled down in Danbury, Conn., where they could live close to relatives.
“I worked 60 hours each week at $300 per week to feed my family.” Recili said in a recent telephone interview. “… I was supposed to be a lawyer in Brazil.” She added that her mother was a lawyer in Brazil.
Tony said leaving with his father at five years old marks the starting point of his downward spiral. He said they moved around frequently and were eventually brought back to Connecticut to live with their mother.
When his father came to visit in his fifth-grade year, Tony said something in him snapped.
“I was just mad,” Tony said. “So, everything my dad told me to do, I did the opposite.”
Tony said he started using drugs.
About his first arrest in 2004, Tony explains: “In high school I would sell drugs a little bit. Deep down inside I really hated it, but I had a good friend of mine who was doing it.”
After his arrest, Tony said he tried to reform himself, attending Gibbs College to earn his associate degree, but then he couldn’t find work. He said he fell into deep depression and started self-medicating with drugs again. It wasn’t long before he sold again.
“Three days before my arrest in October 2007,” Tony said, his voice lightening, “I had a dream. I was getting caught; I was going to jail. I was sitting outside, smoking a cigarette and in my dream I heard a voice saying, ‘You’re not happy. What are you gonna do when you’re 30?’ I went to go pray. I said, ‘God, I don’t know you. Jesus, I don’t know you. I don’t want to sell drugs. Please show me a career.”
Three days later Tony was arrested. He said when he went home that night, after being released on bail, he immediately started reading the Bible. He started with Proverbs and Ecclesiastes; the books of wisdom.
“When I was reading Proverbs I was like ‘Whoa!’ and then I read Ecclesiastes and I said, ‘Whoa!”
Tony wanted a complete change. He said he changed his phone number and cut off all relations with old friends, read his Bible and started attending Victory Christian Center in Danbury.
When his sentence came he served six months in jail in Bridgeport, Conn. He recounts that during this time in jail, he took the opportunity to go deeper with God. He was transferred to a halfway house for another six months and entered a drug program where said he had revelation after revelation about his relationship with his father.
Soon after coming home, he said he found a job with a landscaper at his church and joined a local ministry called Jiu Jjitsu for Christ, which helps at-risk youth and adults to choose health instead of drugs and violence. The group’s motto is “Fighting like David. Living like Christ.”
Tony’s voice raced with excitement as he shared his ascent at work. He said he began working for a structural steel and miscellaneous metal company, and moved up from Estimating Assistant to Junior Estimator in a short time. He said he took a new position at another company and cleaned up his credit enough to buy a new car.
Tony said it was the day after he bought his new car, while driving to work, when an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent picked him up and detained him.
ICE was focused on his two convictions. It didn’t matter that Tony had already served his debt to society. It didn’t matter that Tony is not undocumented. And it didn’t matter that he was currently helping to transform his entire neighborhood and the lives of so many at-risk youth. It didn’t even matter that he was the principle breadwinner for his mother and sister, who have both been naturalized citizens since 2005. None of that mattered. Tony has felony convictions on his record, so he must be detained, according the law.
Ben Winograd is a staff attorney with the American Immigration Council, an organization that specializes in immigration law. In a recent interview Winograd explained: “The reason Tony is required to be held in detention is because he has been charged with an aggravated felony. One consequence of being convicted of an aggravated felony is that you are subject to mandatory unreviewable detention.”
But Winograd went on to explain: “An aggravated felony does not have to be ‘aggravated’ or a ‘felony’ to be considered an aggravated felony for the purpose of federal immigration law.”
A fact sheet on aggravated felonies published in 2012 by the Council explains: “… an ‘aggravated felony’ is simply an offense that Congress sees fit to label as such, and today includes many nonviolent and seemingly minor offenses.”
Further, to obtain a bond from an immigration judge, detainees “must demonstrate with substantial likelihood that the crime in question does not qualify as an ‘aggravated felony.’”
Drug trafficking is considered an aggravated felony, but Winograd explained: “As it happens there is a case currently before the Supreme Court that seeks to determine what it takes to be a drug trafficker under the immigration laws.”
While a sign of hope, the Supreme Court’s ruling will likely come down too late to impact Tony’s hearing. But there is still reason to hope: according to Winograd there are rare cases in which someone has been convicted of an “aggravated felony” and has not been deported. “But,” Winograd added, “it would be a challenge.”
When asked if there should be room for the recognition of “redemption” in immigration law, Winograd answered: “Absolutely. Prior to 1996 Tony would have been able to go to the court and throw himself on the court’s mercy. But, in ‘96 Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which made immigration laws more punitive toward immigrants in all respects.”
What does this all mean for Tony?
This young man who has known no other country than America and claims the New England Patriots as his football team of choice — this man’s fate is being guided by Supreme Court rulings and congressional legislation enacted during times of great prejudice and fear-mongering aimed at immigrants and other non-white people.
In essence, Tony’s case reveals the need to review the legitimacy of the social assumptions and prejudiced premises upon which much of our current immigration system rests.
Is there room for redemption in our legal system? Should the judge who hears Tony’s case be able to take into consideration his previous circumstances and his redemption?
As a Christian who believes in the reality of the transformational power of the cross and the reality of Christ’s resurrection, I believe in forgiveness. I believe in redemption: Tony’s redemption and the redemption of our immigration system.
Keith Gaillard, a former New York police officer who has known Tony for three years, explained in a telephone interview, “I’ve always felt that certain laws need to be revisited, revised, or taken on a case-by-case basis. Tony has been doing well. They should at least take a look at his background.”
I asked Tony, “As you face the possibility of being deported what are the things that go through your mind?”
He answered: “If I think beyond these walls, then I go crazy. I do everything I can to keep my mind inside. I read my Bible and when I have feelings of depression I rebuke it.”
Then Tony shared a verse that he has taped above his bed: “What is impossible with man is possible with God. — Luke 18:27”
Lisa Sharon Harper is director of mobilizing at Sojourners. She is also co-author ofLeft, Right and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politicsand author of Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican ... or Democrat