Marquis Palmer is in a library at Oxford University. He is ostensibly there to study for his logic class; he is instead staring at Facebook. He isn’t checking to see what parties are happening this, his last weekend in England. He isn’t chatting with potential romantic partners; isn’t commenting on the latest viral video to hit his feed.
He isn’t doing any of that, because Brendan Dunn, an activist, has just sent him a message. “Hey, it isn’t looking good,” says Dunn, half a world away.
Marquis stares at the screen. His heartbeat slows, his hands grow clammy. He waits for the next ping of his phone.
“They detained him. They’re going to deport him,” says Dunn, and Marquis’s whole world collapses.
There is a drab office building on Troy-Schenectady Road. It is gray and squat. It has a parking lot that houses about seventy cars; there’s a fairly stringently guarded entrance, uniform-clad security guards who shoot the shit with each other as they process visitors. Men wearing suit ties and jackets, clutching thermoses of coffee, enter and leave throughout the day. Anything could be happening here; insurance underwriting, tax preparation. But it isn’t just anything that happens here — this is the headquarters of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and they are in the business of deportation.
There is something unusual about the building today; there are protesters. They stand outside the building, they stand there for hours. They are middle-aged and mostly white, with steel-grey hair that curls and frizzes; they are casually dressed in raincoats and fleece jackets; they don’t fit any definition of a regulation office look. They disrupt the rhythm of the workplace; the people entering and leaving toss the protesters a confused glance or two, or they roll their eyes and proceed with their day.
This isn’t the first time these protesters have been here. They’ve been here before, standing in this very location, for the action for Maria Martínez-Chacón.
Maria made it home to her family, that day. Ricky Morgan isn’t as lucky.
Reverend Joe Cleveland stands with the protesters. He’s the well-dressed exception in this crowd— he is a minister, after all. He leads the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Saratoga. His hands are shoved into his pockets of his dress pants; there is a glum expression on his face. He’s tired. He tries to laugh, to converse with those who stand around him, tries to keep spirits up, but any smile slides right off, like oil separates from water. Just five minutes ago, he got word that Ricky had been taken to Albany County Jail. What the activists feared would happen is beginning to happen. The group, which had been larger by about ten people, has split; half have gone to the jail to hold vigil, half have elected to remain here, in front of ICE’s offices, in order to let new visitors know to drive to the jail.
Cleveland doesn’t know how they can do this. Doesn’t know how a country that claims to be a nation of immigrants can — no. He can’t keep doing this to himself. He’s stopped trying to process this; stopped trying to rationalize. He tries to keep this thoughts with Ricky. If they’re going to do this, he thinks to himself, they can’t do it behind closed doors, in the dark.
Albany County Jail is just a five minute drive from the ICE offices. Whereas ICE is hidden in plain view, tucked away behind the flashy Route 7 diner, which effectively draws the eye away from the everyday business of deportation, the jail is on a secluded parcel behind Albany-Shaker road, the main artery delivering people to and from the airport. Correctional officers gather for their smoke break outside the jail, and suspiciously eye the splinter-group of protesters who have unfurled a banner reading “STOP DEPORTATIONS”.
There are familiar faces here, too. A small group of people in the Capital Region does the majority of the heavy lifting, it seems. There’s Siobhan Burke — she was at the last action, at the last protest. There’s Sean Collins. He was last seen wrestling an American flag away from a Trumpian counter-protester last week, fury in his eyes.
Reverend Cleveland shows up with Joe Paparone, organizer with ICE-Free Capital District; they greet Burke. Her soft brown eyes, usually crinkled around a smile, are hard-set. She thinks of the counter-protesters who showed up to the sanctuary city protest in Troy last week. She thinks of what she’d say to them if they were here, if they were in front of her, mocking this little movement. If they were mocking Ricky and his family.
Nothing, she realizes. She wouldn’t say a thing to them.
They’re not worth our breath, she thinks, and suppresses the urge to laugh, scornfully.
Ricky Morgan met his wife, Melissa, in ‘98 or ‘99 — she can’t remember when.
“God,” she says. “Long time ago.”
We are sitting on her porch in Dolgeville, about half an hour outside Utica, with her 24-year-old daughter, Ebony, about a week later. Ebony’s own daughter Isabella, 8, is fooling around with a bike in the driveway; Melissa’s step-son (and Ricky Morgan’s biological son) Delancey, 7, is with her. The side door is closed to prevent the dogs from getting out — Melissa is nervous that they’ll pee on my feet, by way of introduction.
“My sister used to date his friend, and that’s how I met him. From the day I met him, I was with him,” says Melissa, matter of fact. There is a world contained within that statement, but she doesn’t elaborate.
“I think I was 23. I’m four years older than him. I asked him how old he was, and he told me, and I was like, you’re lying.”
“No, I really was four years older than him.”
I ask what he did.
“He was a crewman. He worked on the cruise lines. He came up on a work visa, but that expired long ago.”
I’ve seen pictures of Ricky; there’s one circulating on Facebook that I particularly like. He is handsome; dark-skinned, solidly-built, squinting into the sun. His hands are on his young son and nephew’s shoulders, gently directing them to face the camera. Given how old Delancey looks in the photo, I infer that the photograph is recent, but it has taken on a grainy quality in my memory as I sit on the porch; as I talk to Ricky’s wife.
“Was it love at first sight?” I ask, curious. Melissa shrugs.
“I don’t know. I think he kind of grew on me,” she says. “He took on the father role right away, for all of them,” she says, gesturing at the kids playing in the driveway — she is more comfortable talking about her children than she is about herself.
Ebony speaks. “He was there. When I did something wrong, he was always there to tell me what I was doing wrong. He taught me how to cook; my real dad never taught me how to cook. When my mom was working, he was always there.” Her halting, shy voice grows more sure. “When times were hard and the lights were out, he’d take us to the park all day. He’d take us somewhere, to keep our minds off of it. He always made sure we ate.”
“He was always there,” she says, and her voice rings with sadness.
There are more children than are present, that day in Dolgeville. There are more than just Bella and Delancey and Ebony. There’s Shi-Ann, 13. There’s the step-children, Melissa’s biological children: Dustin, 25; Marquis, 20; Dimonique, 17. There’s the step-grandchildren, a new generation of Melissa and Ricky’s progeny: Nora and Nova, twins born about a month ago, and there’s Lyncoln and Jacob, whose ages Marquis, who gives me this list, doesn’t even know.
And then there’s Dominic, 12 years old.
“He’s so random,” Melissa tells me, laughing. “He called me the other day when I was at work, wanted to know if I could buy him a headset. Just random stuff like that.” When I arrive at Melissa’s house, Dominic is on the front porch, asking his mother to make him a sandwich. Dominic has down syndrome; Dominic is in remission from leukemia; Ricky was Dominic’s lifeline, watching him after school, ferrying him to doctor’s appointments in Syracuse.
“Now who’s going to take him?” asks Melissa. She stretches out her legs; sighs. She flicks her cigarette. “This should be interesting. I don’t think they offer FMLA at a retail bank,” she muses. Melissa works at the Woodforest Bank in the Herkimer Walmart. “And even if they do, it’s unpaid, so it doesn’t matter.”
Ricky calls, from the Batavia Federal Immigration Detention Center, out in western New York.
Ebony takes the phone from Bella; she talks to her step-father. “I have no idea how to do his hair, but I’m going to figure it out,” she says, determinedly. They’re talking about Delancey, who looks up at me shyly. He has a head full of dreadlocks, and Ricky, who knows how to care for dreads, is not here to care for them himself.
“His hair needs to be cut,” Melissa says, irritated.
Ebony ignores her. “I don’t know how to do it, but that’s what YouTube videos are for. That’s what people with dreads are for. I’ll figure it out. I already went to Sally’s and bought the stuff you used before.”
I can imagine Ricky, gently coaxing his son to wet his hair. I imagine Ricky lovingly massaging the dreads between his fingers; talking to Delancey in a soft voice.
“Most of the criminal aliens we find in the interior of the United States, they entered as a non-criminal,” says acting Director of ICE, Thomas Homan. He is speaking to the House Appropriations Committee’s Homeland Security Subcommittee.
“If we wait for them to violate yet another law against a citizen of this country, then it’s too late. We shouldn’t wait for them to become a criminal,” says Homan.
An hour to drive from Utica to Schenectady, and just five minutes to travel from the ICE offices to Albany County Jail, in the back of a van, peeking out at the free world from behind hatched glass, reinforced with steel. A lifetime in this country, raising generation after generation of children, and all of that washed away in a matter of moments.
We shouldn’t wait for them to become a criminal.
Ricky Morgan was a soccer coach. He was crazy about the game, and Ebony tells me how popular it was in Ricky’s native Jamaica. “He’s the only reason we all played,” she tells me. “I didn’t want to join, but, you know.”
“Shi-Ann played soccer too,” adds Melissa. “Ricky’s a sports person. I’m not a sports person.”
Ricky worked 40 hours a week at Walmart, for the last three or four years, Melissa tells me.
“Well, he had a job before they decided to take him,” Ebony reminds Melissa.
Melissa nods. “I went to use my Walmart discount card and it didn’t work, so they must have terminated him. I was like, well, that’s nice. If he gets released, he no longer has a job.”
“When did you find out about his immigration problems?” I ask.
“I found out when we were having our first daughter, in about 2003,” says Melissa. “I don’t remember how I found out. I think he told me his visa was going to expire. Then I told him, you know, you might want to get this renewed, but then it was too late, but I didn’t realize you couldn’t renew it.
“We happened to get married just before it expired,” says Melissa. She looks frustrated. “I don’t know. I never knew how any of that worked.”
Ebony speaks. “A lot of people thought once you’re married…” she trails off.
Melissa is a United States citizen, born and raised.
Melissa nods. “Yeah, but that’s a misconception, apparently. I thought the same thing.”
“I thought when you’re married, been living together a whole bunch of years, you’d be fine,” says Ebony. She smiles, sadly. “I guess that’s television for you.”
“It’s hard because in schools, they don’t really teach you the law,” Ebony continues. “They just teach you stuff you don’t even remember when you graduate school; unnecessary stuff. How are you supposed to not break the law when you don’t even know the law? You can’t say ‘oh, your parents,’ because who taught your parents?”
I look at Melissa; she is looking at Bella, her mouth in a thin, hard line.
“Don’t go too far,” she warns, as Bella threatens to cycle out of view from her mother and grandmother.
“MS-13. The gang-bangers. They rape, they pillage your house,” says Carol Lucey. She is a counter-protester, a middle-aged woman wearing a deep red lipstick, who speaks with an air of authority. She has come to oppose a planned rally for sanctuary city in Troy, led by pro-immigration activists.
“They’re not good people!” she says, confidently. “Usually you’ll see tattoos all over their faces, which identifies them. It’s common sense. We need them out.”
Lucey discounts the activists’ fears that families will be broken up. “Trump’s only going to deport the bad ones,” she says, dismissively. “I saw him say it on TV.”
Marquis Palmer speaks to me from his dorm room at Oxford, where he is doing his year abroad, studying literature and philosophy. There is a suitcase on his bed; it is open. Marquis is packing — he is returning home to Dolgeville a week early, so he can be with his family. Marquis did his year abroad in England at the prestigious university; he has a year left at Hamilton College, in nearby Clinton.
“This is going to make next year more difficult,” he tells me. He sounds tired, like he hasn’t slept much since all this began. “Personal tragedy doesn’t mix well when you’re trying to do academic work. Doing my senior year in addition to helping my family work through my stepfather’s deportation will be challenging.”
Ricky entered Marquis’s world when he was a kindergartener. Marquis had two fathers in his life, for a few years — his biological father had joint custody of Marquis until, at the age of 7, his father was incarcerated.
After that, it was just Ricky.
“I just don’t want my younger siblings to go through the same thing I went through. When my father was incarcerated, it was a very painful, very traumatic experience,” says Marquis. “I’m most worried about them,” he says.
The financial problems his family are about to face are overwhelming to Marquis. He doesn’t quite know how his mother will cope with the loss of a full-time earner. “We’ve always financially struggled,” he tells me. “My mom recieves her paycheck, she pays her bills. There’s nothing left until the next paycheck.”
Brendan Dunn, an activist with ICE-Free Capital District, has set up a GoFundMe campaign, to help alleviate the financial burden the family is sure to face, with Ricky’s deportation. It is up over $5,000. Dunn hopes to raise at least $5,000 more.
This isn’t the first time Ricky has faced detention due to his immigration status. In 2012, Ricky was detained for six months in Batavia. Despite Ricky’s American family, despite his job, despite the soccer coaching, he’s always been a priority for deportation.
“Controlled substance in the sixth or seventh degree,” says Melissa, despairingly. “Barely a misdemeanor. It was before I met him. I don’t know what it was.”
“Do they not realize that people change their lives, and on top of that he has had a family since then? And he has a job,” says Ebony, frustrated.
There are lawyers working on getting the conviction vacated; someone in Utica, and maybe the National Lawyers Guild is involved as well. Melissa isn’t really sure. The lawyer who is in contact with the family “talks a lot, and he talks really fast, and half the time I’m at work so I can’t really pay attention.”
The last time Ricky was taken was hard for the family — they relied on the fundraisers that Dunn and other activists threw. Marquis, 15 at the time, felt an obligation to help out — he got his first under-the-table job at the time. It wasn’t a lot, but it was something.
The 2012 experience has left Melissa with a certain knowledge that she wouldn’t otherwise have. She knows how to visit Ricky at Batavia, which is a skill in and of itself. There are plenty stories in the activist community of visitors traveling great distances to visit inmates, who then get turned away for seemingly-arbitrary reasons.
“When I go there, I don’t have nothing on my body,” she tells me, gesturing at herself. “I make sure I’m completely covered, or they won’t let you in. The kids have to have birth certificates. I might have a problem getting Delancey in, because I’m not his mother, so I don’t know. I took him last time, but things have changed since then.”
Now, her biggest fear is that she won’t have time to see Ricky before his flight departs for Jamaica on June 26. “My next day off is Monday. Ricky asked if I was bringing the kids, and I said I can’t, I have to sign the bank papers. And Dominic has finals on Monday, and he can’t miss that.” She’s praying for another weekday off (visitation at Batavia is weekday only), but two of her fellow employees are on vacation, leaving her bank short-staffed.
Melissa has also learned, over the years, to not fear ICE agents. “I tell them, ‘You don’t scare me, you can’t send me anywhere. I’m from my country, and you can kiss my ass,’” she says, laughing. Mouthing off to the agents is a form of resistance, in the face of the psychological terror ICE is waging on her family, in Melissa’s mind. “It feels good to curse that guy out, for some reason. I do it every time,” she says. “The last time I went, he slammed the door in my face and said that he’s only dealing with Mr. Morgan.” She laughs. “He slammed the door in my face!”
Melissa blames the Trump administration for what is happening to her family. Under the Obama administration, Ricky was detained, but was eventually released. What were monthly check-ins decreased into yearly check-ins. “As soon as Trump took over, they became monthly again. He went one week, and the guy told him to come back the next week, and he was like, what’s going on here?” says Melissa. “And then all of a sudden they detained him.”
“What I don’t understand about Trump is that his wife is an immigrant,” she says, frustrated. “So it makes no sense. He’s a hypocrite. He has a mail-order bride but he wants to send all the immigrants home. He doesn’t realize that the immigrants are part of the population that keeps this world going and prosperous.”
“Is there any empirical evidence that supports the claim that immigrants pose some type of national security risk? The answer is no. Just look at the data, it tells us that that’s not the case,” says Marquis.
“What are the consequences of believing a claim that has no actual empirical evidence?” asks Marquis, unfolding his arguments like a lawyer would. “In this instance, the consequences of believing such a ridiculous claim are that it tears apart families like my own. This is a lot of unnecessary trauma. Perhaps one could argue that it is necessary because it strengthens the security of the nation, but it’s not, in fact, the case, that deporting my stepfather does anything for national security.”
“It really just is an unnecessary evil. You’re tearing apart a family in support of a lie. That’s all it really boils down to.”