Fighting for Change

December 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

By Dervedia Thomas

One year ago, a walk home from work turned into a nightmare for Abraham Paulos, 30, an immigrant born in Sudan to refugee parents from Eritrea.

Paulos came to the United States as a political asylee when he was two years old. But his future in this country was threatened one afternoon when a victim of a robbery told police that he was one of the perpetrators.

This led to four days behind bars, including two at Rikers Island prison complex, before his roommate bailed him out.

Abraham Paulos advising a detained immigrant on Families for Freedom's hotline

“I felt like I was in a dream, with endless cages, handcuffs and dark faces,” he said. “I was angry because I realized that the criminal justice system has little to do with justice and more to do with racism and poverty, and I was extremely sad to see that almost all of the prisoners in one of the biggest city jails in the world were men of color.”

His experience would do more than just make him sad and angry, it would give birth to his career as an activist fighting to change U.S. immigration policies.

After being warned by family and friends that his criminal charges could also lead to the cancellation of his green card and possible deportation,  Paulos called the hotline of Families for Freedom a non-profit immigrant rights organization. One year later, he became the executive director of the same non-profit that gave him legal advice and counsel.

“Families for freedom really helped me navigate the intersection of the criminal justice and immigration systems,” he said. “So I became a member and started volunteering and I applied for the job [executive director] and got it.

He now manages a staff of three people, volunteers, interns from Columbia University and City University of New York as well as the organization’s members. Most members are from the Afro-Caribbean islands and are facing deportation, or have family members in detention or removal proceedings. With his fellow members, he is trying to change U.S. policy on deportation and detention and provide advice for immigrants.

It is easier to assist people before they are sent to a detention center, said Donald Anthonyson, 52, from Antigua, who has been an organizer with Families for Freedom since the non-profit began over nine years ago.

A record number of immigrants, close to 400,000, were deported under the Obama administration during the fiscal year ending 2011. Over half of those deported were listed as criminal offenders.

Paulos had two prior convictions in his teens, jumping a turnstile and stealing books out of a library. He could have been deported if detected by immigration officials while in jail.

“We are lucky that we got to him when we did,” Donaldson said.

Seven months after his arrest, the criminal charges against Paulos were dismissed in court without explanation from the judge.

He is now suing for wrongful arrest.

“The NYPD ignored the blatant evidence that I was walking towards the scene of the crime, I was coming home from work and the scene of the crime occurred in front of my apartment building,” he said.

Families for Freedom wants to end deportation and detention even for those who are undocumented.

“Being an immigrant without your papers is a civil violation, it’s not a crime,” Paulos said. “The merger of the criminal justice system and the immigration system is an unholy marriage, and we just don’t think that that’s right at all.”

At issue is the fact that immigrants with criminal violations, even if they have green cards, could face deportation.

The number of crimes that could deport an immigrant was increased from five to over 50 under the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act signed by President Bill Clinton In 1996. These crimes range from serious violations like rape and murder to lesser crimes like shoplifting, soliciting a prostitute or jumping a turnstile.

“Under that reasoning, the assumption has to be that an immigrant is way more of a threat to public order,” Paulos said. “We find that to be very inconsistent.”

Abraham as a baby in Sudan

Abraham as a baby in Sudan

But deportation is further complicated for those from Eritrea. Many people have fled this nation before its independence from Ethiopia in 1993, and as a result, many Eritreans in the diaspora are categorized as “stateless.” This means that they do not have citizenship in and cannot be sent back there.

“His commitment to work is really driven from his experience in a broken immigration system,” said Andalusia Soloff, 30, who has been a supporter of Families for Freedom for over a year. She is now a member of the organization’s staff and works directly with Paulos.

“He is dedicated to making sure that the people most directly affected are the ones at the forefront of the movement for change,” Soloff said.

Donaldson said Paulos is a fitting leader for their organization.

“He came to us the usual way, through the hotline,” says Donaldson. “But we try to empower our members to be at the front of the movement, Abraham is a perfect example of this.”

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