Summit of the Americas: Security as an Intermestic Issue

In the coming days, the twin island republic of Trinidad and Tobago, where I was born, will play host to the Fifth Summit of the Americas. Thirty-four presidents and prime ministers will converge on Port-of-Spain. The theme of the summit is Securing Our Citizens' Future by Promoting Human Prosperity, Energy Security and Environmental Sustainability. As outlined in the Concept Paper, leaders will gather "to consider the most important issues facing the region and to advance collective solutions in pursuit of a higher quality of life for all citizens." One key issue I hope leaders will address is the physical security of citizens in the region.

Over the past decade or so, many Caribbean islands have experienced a threat to national security like no other. Talk to anyone in the English-speaking Caribbean islands and, inevitably, the conversation turns to the crime rate - or, more precisely, the spike in the crime rate.

Just over a year ago, my cousin was mugged in broad daylight after she completed a bank transaction at an automated teller machine in Port-of-Spain, the nation's capital. One morning, a college classmate of my younger sister was carjacked at knifepoint as she set off for work from her home in Diamond Vale, a stone's throw from Port-of-Spain. When my mother brings me up to speed with happenings in my old neighborhood, her narrative is often punctuated with anecdotes of gunfire exchange. This in a small town on the eastern end of the island formerly referred to as country. At times it seems like no corner of the island has been spared.

I've tried to reassure friends and family alike that the spurt in crime is not solely an outgrowth of prevailing socio-economic conditions in Trinidad. Rather, the root cause can trace its provenance in part, I think, to legislation enacted by the U.S. government, legislation that has had a ripple effect not only in Trinidad and Tobago, but also throughout the Caribbean and Latin America.

In 1996, then President Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, with a focus on enforcement and deportation. In theory, as intended by the framers, the purpose of the Act was to "establish measure to control the borders of the United States, protect legal workers through worksite enforcement, and remove criminal and other deportable aliens." In actuality, the Act has had pernicious effects.

Under the Act, the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), was granted unfettered powers. Judicial review of deportation and detention decisions made by immigration judges was now restricted.

Aggravated felony - kidnapping, rape, murder and terrorism - was previously the threshold for deportation. Under the Act, minor crimes - petty theft, shoplifting, low-level drug infractions and drunk driving - were now reclassified as aggravated felonies and added to the list of deportable offenses, along with minor traffic violations and urinating in public.

The most draconian characteristic of the Act was the fact that it was retroactive in its application. Therefore, if a noncitizen - including legal permanent residents - had a prior offense, even served out his/her mandatory sentence in the U.S. prison system, but then traveled abroad, he/she would be subject to detention and deportation upon re-entry into the United States, as provided by the Act. In other words, the Act transformed detention and deportation into mandatory minimums.

In October 2004, Prof. David C. Brotherton of John Jay College co-organized Criminal Justice and Deportation: the Invisible Crisis, a conference which addressed the issue of deportation policy. Last year he co-edited Keeping Out The Other, in which he wrote, "The phenomenon of forced repatriation for noncitizens has grown exponentially since the passing of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 ... It is the logical result of the three wars on the globalized 'other': the war on drugs, the war on terror and the war on the immigrant."

In the years following the passage of the Act, there was a marked increase in the number of deportations to Trinidad and Tobago. According to statistics compiled by the Department of Homeland Security covering fiscal years 1998 to 2005, the percentage of criminal formal removal of Trinidad and Tobago nationals stood at 69 percent in 1999, and rose to 77 percent by 2005. In the intervening years, immigrants from Trinidad and Tobago were deported at least 50 percent of the time for criminal reasons.

During the corresponding years, Trinidad and Tobago not only witnessed a surge in crime, but also a noticeable change in the nature of crime which now includes kidnapping, carjacking and an increase in the use of more powerful weapons. The CARICOM Regional Task Force on Security commissioned a report in 2002, and listed Trinidad and Tobago among the countries with emerging high levels of armed and organized criminality. The Central Statistical Office in Trinidad and Tobago reports that the number of injury deaths caused by firearms rose from fewer than 50 deaths in 1999 to about 150 deaths by 2003. Statistics compiled by the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service reveal that murders committed with firearms rose from 54 percent in 2001 to 74 percent in 2006.

Rest assured that Trinidad and Tobago, along with other islands in the English-speaking Caribbean, was not exactly crime-free prior to the passing of the Act. And there is a difference of opinion as to the role and extent criminal deportees play in the spike in crime. Reports by both the United Nations and the Inter-American Development Bank point to the drug trade as a contributing factor to the escalation in criminal activity. Nevertheless, the policy of forced repatriation of Caribbean nationals convicted of crimes in the United States cannot be discounted as a factor. Even CARICOM representatives suggested that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights intervene to reduce the flow of deportees.

President Obama was correct in his assessment when he said, "The Bush administration pursued a misguided foreign policy ... Its policy in the Americas has been negligent to our friends, ineffective with our adversaries and disinterested in the challenges that matter to peoples' lives." For the past five decades or so, United States foreign policy towards the Caribbean has oscillated between occupation or intervention and benign neglect. But U.S. presence in the region dates back to more than a century. As Walter Russell Mead points out in his book Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World, "the U.S. Navy has maintained a global presence much longer than most Americans realize ... In 1822, the United States established its West Indian and Pacific squadrons."

In a speech delivered in Miami back in May 2008, then presidential candidate Obama declared, "It's time for a new alliance of the Americas. After decades pressing for top-down reform, we need an agenda that advances democracy, security and opportunity from the bottom up. So my policy towards the Americas will be guided by the simple principle that what's good for the people of the Americas is good for the United States." This is sound judgment. As Walter Russell Mead outlines in Special Providence, there are four schools or approaches to American foreign policy - Hamiltonian, Wilsonian, Jeffersonian, and Jacksonian. Both Jeffersonians and Jacksonians see foreign policy not simply as a field of concern in its own right but as an instrument of domestic policy; they favor particular foreign policy ideas because they believe that certain approaches to foreign policy will best advance the kind of domestic policy and order they wish to promote.

Therefore, when President Obama's vision for the Americas is implemented as outlined, security is good for the people of the Americas and is good for the United States. In fact, security is an intermestic issue. President Obama is best advised to assist Trinidad and Tobago as well as other host-receiving nations towards re-integration of deported criminals so as to promote development and human prosperity.

NOTE: The author organized campaign efforts for Barack Obama at the West Indian Day Parade in Brooklyn last Labor Day. For photos of the event, see Arlene"s flickr page.