Last Updated on Monday, 1 May 2023, 8:46 by Denis Chabrol
Reproduced from Gothamist
By Matt Katz
Published May 1, 2023 at 6:01 a.m.
Lorenzo Charles, born in Guyana and raised in Brooklyn, was deported in 2003 following what he described as a wrongful conviction for attempted burglary.
That should have been the end of Charles’ American story, as it is for so many legal immigrants convicted of crimes and then forcibly removed to the countries of their birth.
But for Charles, it was the start of a 20-year fight to return to Crown Heights — a place that he never stopped thinking of as home. Despite what legal experts told him were multiple insurmountable odds, Charles believed that he could somehow reverse his order of deportation — that through persistence, faith, and legal intervention, he could one day be un-deported.
“When we get deported, it’s hard because we don’t forget the world we came from, but the world we came from forgets us,” he said. “And then we’re trapped in this world that don’t wanna own us, or claim us….Every day you wake up in pain. You wake up yearning because it’s somewhere you don’t want to be, and you’re confined there.”
Growing up in Crown Heights
Charles arrived legally in the U.S. with his mother and sister in 1983. He was 6 years old. His childhood was filled with relatives and friends who lived in a cluster of NYCHA apartment buildings. In the mornings before school, they’d hang out in the hallways, singing, he said. And on the weekends, they’d attend parties in the building’s scrappy backyards, and cruise up and down the main drag, St. John’s Place.
Then came the arrests: first for attempted robbery as a 16-year-old in 1993, then for attempted second-degree burglary when he was 20. After serving four years in prison for the second conviction, Charles was locked up by immigration authorities. The criminal conviction led the government to strip him of his green card. In 2003, Charles was deported to Guyana — a country he only remembered via blurry memories.
At this point, Charles’ whole family was in the U.S. The only people he knew in Guyana were other Guyanese men he met in immigration detention before his deportation.
He felt out of place almost as soon as he arrived. Instead of a shower, there were buckets. “I was like, yo, what is this?” he said, laughing. “I thought it was the end of the world.”
A Caribbean life
Because he was viewed as an overprivileged American, Charles said he wasn’t welcomed in Guyana and had trouble getting work.
“It’s even harder to get a job because guess what? You’re considered a criminal,” he said. “Plus you got kicked out from the place where everybody really wants to go.”
So he went into business for himself. He burned DVDs, and rented the movies to locals. He bought some video game consoles and opened an arcade and internet cafe. To bring in more business, he hired a tattoo artist.
After that business was up and running, he moved to the neighboring nation of Suriname, where he offloaded container ships, and then to Trinidad and Tobago, where he worked security and construction. During that time, he also self-published poetry, novels and children’s books.
Throughout, he kept picturing his old neighborhood in Crown Heights — even watching YouTube videos showing the streets. “I never forgot a moment of it — I loved it, I loved it, I loved it,” he said.
And his family back in Brooklyn always believed he’d be back. “It’s just a feeling like you knew that he was gonna get a chance to come back up here,” Charles’ nephew, Darren Charles Edwards, said. “Ask anybody in our family — we knew he was gonna come back up here.”
Via Facebook, Charles reconnected with a woman, Karima Joseph, with whom he had attended elementary school in Brooklyn. She was living in Trinidad. After feeling culturally disconnected from most people he met in the Caribbean, Charles found a true friend in Joseph. Eventually, they married, and he became a doting stepfather to her two children. And since she’s a U.S. citizen, he had even more of a reason to want to be back in the country.
“So life gave me something to remind me to not lose focus of who I am,” Charles said. “Karima just had this outlook: We’ll be back in America.”
When Charles wasn’t working, he was trying to “find a way outta here” by researching immigration case law, reading old cases, and scouring the Immigration and Customs Enforcement website. “And I just kept digging,” he said.
He also networked with legal advisers from around the globe. Eventually, in 2020, he connected with a team of students and attorneys at the Immigration Justice Clinic at Cardozo Law School, who reopened his case file. They found Charles got subpar representation and pleaded to offenses he said he didn’t do.
“He was essentially railroaded,” said Ellie Williams, one of the law students who worked on his case.
ICE does not maintain statistics on the number of people who are allowed to return to the U.S. after being deported. A Haitian community activist in New York, Jean Montrevil, was deported in 2018 but allowed to return three years later after the governor of Virginia pardoned him for two old drug convictions. And earlier this year, an Afghan asylum-seeker who was mistakenly deported, according to his attorneys, was returned to the U.S.
But immigration experts and attorneys told Gothamist it is extraordinarily rare — especially given the sheer amount of time that Charles was gone, across four presidential administrations and three mayoralties.
The first hurdle that Charles’ legal team had to jump was to convince judges to vacate the criminal convictions which triggered the deportation. Then, they would have to appeal to immigration authorities to reopen the deportation case.
Incredibly, over the course of two years, Charles won a cascade of legal victories: The Brooklyn district attorney’s office agreed to allow Charles’ first conviction at 16 to be downgraded to a juvenile offense, which he could not be deported for. Then prosecutors downgraded the second conviction to something more in line with what James took responsibility for — trespassing.
Finally, ICE under President Joe Biden agreed to support a court motion to essentially scrap the deportation order. The Board of Immigration Appeals ultimately agreed, and after two decades Charles got his Green Card back — and a legal right to return, and stay, in the country.
“This was impossible,” Charles said. “This is impossible.”
Citing unspecified privacy issues, a spokesperson for ICE said he wouldn’t comment on the case.
Back in Brooklyn, 20 years older
On Sept. 1 last year, Charles got on a plane to New York City. On the way, he said, he tried to understand the significance of his 20 years away. “Like, what was the purpose?” he asked. “But I was happy, I don’t think there’s anything in my life that could top the happiness prior to that or anything after that. It was my happiest moment.”
He saw nieces and nephews he had never “been in the same physical world with.” And he had family and friends waiting for him, proving that he wasn’t forgotten while he was gone.
While he was gone, things changed. The Caribbean influence in his neighborhood faded. The playground across from his apartment building got an upgrade. And he’s noticed far more rats scampering around the city.
“I had a life ban — this wasn’t supposed to happen,” he said. “I’m on a constant high … Living in death, and then being able to be alive again.”
But the happy ending lays bare more grim realities. One of his attorneys, Lindsay Nash, co-director of the Immigration Justice Clinic at Cardozo Law School, said that it shouldn’t take years of maneuvering by multiple legal experts to right one wrongful deportation. She said the problems in the criminal legal system — particularly in the disproportionate prosecution and punishment that Black men face — means unjust and unconstitutional deportations of immigrants are inevitable.
“You need something like regulations and hard policies and rules to provide a better system for situations like this,” Nash said. “We’ve long known that this kind of thing can occur.”
Black immigrants are more likely than others to be deported due to a criminal conviction, according to an analysis from the NYU Law School Immigrant Rights Clinic and Black Alliance for Just Immigration.
“If things had been a little bit different, if [presidential] administrations had been a little bit different, Mr. Charles would not be back in the country today,” Nash said. “And that would be a pretty serious miscarriage of justice.”
Since Charles returned, New York hasn’t always lived up the rosy vision he had when he was in Guyana. He’s already witnessed a shooting in his old neighborhood. And he’s starting to recall some of the more brutal elements of life here in the 80s and 90s — like the crack trade that operated out of abandoned buildings and the violence.
“That part, the violence, it wasn’t in the memories,” he said. “I totally forgot that reality.”
Charles is now 45. He goes to college full-time at City Tech and works as a case manager for gang-affiliated young people through a restorative justice program called Project Restore. His goal is to become an immigration and criminal lawyer, and help people who’ve been deported.