Register Sunday | June 16 | 2019
Get Outta New Orleans

Get Outta New Orleans

Confessions of a deportation officer

This is your dream job, br’!” That’s how my friend, Rayford Purvis, started his pitch, massaging me with that extremely abbreviated form of “brother” one hears down here in the swamp. Typing this now, it seems ludicrous I listened any further. Your dream job! Come on. As a starting point, it’s as inauspicious for a career as it is for a magazine story. But you’re still reading. So maybe you’re like me.

Rayford was shouting over the hip hop grooves at Butler’s saloon in New Orleans’ Black Pearl neighbourhood. His excitement was contagious: “Imagine making a federal salary here in New Orleans! Then think about meeting people from different countries every day on the job, learning wild cultures. You get overtime to stay out drinking with foreign diplomats. You like to travel? How about hitting a new exotic territory every other week? And getting paid twenty-five bucks an hour just sitting on the plane? You better come on in, br’.”

I’m pretty sure Rayford also said we’d be arresting people, but this was an immigration job, and if there was any picture in my head it was of kitchen raids on shrugging Mexicans who would put down their ladles and pots, smile, and shake their heads in good-natured defeat as I led them away. Rayford undoubtedly spelled out that we’d carry guns, tackle felons and wear heavy bulletproof armour in the streets of New Orleans all summer long, but the sublime soundtrack in Butler’s made those images seem like cartoon fun—crime-fighting duo Purvis and Holbrook outwit evil villains! Point is, the danger didn’t really register. After all, at the time I was parking cars at the downtown Marriott.

The job, though, was not technically Rayford’s to give. I had to take a standardized test, go in for an interview, clear a background security investigation, get a clean bill of health and roll through a seventeen-week training program at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia. But Rayford’s endorsement carried a lot of weight. I shot through the system, and before I knew it, it was my first day, Rayford Purvis was my partner, and I was staring at a Honduran house-painter flecked with white and getting red in the face as he went deeper into his ice-cold Salva Vida lager shipped from the homeland. The bottle tipped up into the bluest sky.

I nudged my partner. “Should we get him?”

Rayford crunched down his eyebrows. “What? I know you didn’t think we were running around here picking up wets, doing the Border Patrol’s job for ’em.”

“Wets” is the affectionate term immigration enforcers use for aliens whose chief crime is being in the United States without permission. Controlling this element is the responsibility of the Border Patrol and of immigration special agents. And bless those boys. Without them, billions of people would pour into America. The Earth would probably spin off its axis.

“Your badge says Deportation Officer, br’!” said Rayford. “That means you go after the ones who are already criminals in the eyes of the law.”

“How can we tell who that is?”

“Ames, you know my position?”“Deportation officer.”

“That’s my job title,” Rayford said. “My position here is captain of the Violent Alien Apprehension Team. So we won’t be sacking up any hard-working painters today. Look at him.”

I let my eyes fall on the Honduran as he took his last sip.

“Watch what he does with the bottle, br’,” Rayford said. “See how he rolls it in the bed of his truck?”

“Yeah?”“That’s how you know we’re not going after him. The guy we go after, he’s gonna smash that bottle in your face.”

Dream over. There are no dream jobs. Not in this world. Forget what you think you know about immigration. I never raided a kitchen. I never crouched behind scrub brush waiting for sad sacks to backstroke the river. And Rayford wasn’t lying when he said that Honduran house-painter wasn’t our concern. I was a deportation officer. I dealt with felons, with absconders who had already been ordered removed by immigration judges and with aliens whose conduct automatically qualified them for deportation. Between the sloppy Italian counterfeiters, French Quarter tourist knifers from the Dominican Republic, Greek car thieves, Guatemalan cut-in-front-of-you-and-hit-their-brakes insurance scammers, Chinese identity jackers, Nigerian liars, British hooker beaters, Vietnamese home invaders, Bahamian cop killers, Canadian child molesters and all the other thousands of predators from every country in the world who decided to make New Orleans home, Rayford and I stayed busy.

I can vouch for this: foreign scoundrels keep stampeding New Orleans and there is zero chance of rounding them all up. Rayford picked his favourites, and by favourites I mean the absolute worst. In all the years he dragged me through those slick New Orleans streets, we never sacked anything less than a full-on menace, and I’m being honest when I say the sick boys were the sweet spot of the job. You come out of the academy trained to take down big, bad aliens. And you keep going to schools—like the three-week Fugitive Operations program—where you do nothing but fight and shoot for nine hours a day, and you come out knowing you can subdue anybody, even if he’s cutting you to ribbons with a ten-inch cleaver.

As overwhelming as the street work was, it was the smallest part of the job. Deportation officerdom brought with it plenty more challenging duties. After you get the cutthroats off the streets, you get them in the jails. New Orleans District has a half-dozen jails packed with roiling alien masses awaiting deportation. It was our responsibility to visit these unhappy souls every week to try to keep them calm, though these incarcerated all-stars guaranteed no shortage of jail emergencies. You could visit these maniacs each week, join them in the flint tombs of general population, answer their questions for hours till your clothes were sticking to you from shower humidity and the industrial disinfectant seared your sinuses—you could log their grievances, address their concerns, share their pain, but the best you could achieve was a little more time between uprisings.

Let me tell you about the true immigration prison riots, the ones that light up like an ammo warehouse fire and put you behind enemy lines from the start. Perhaps you’re visiting a dorm when you pick up a sign. You’re talking to a buff Cambodian at his open cell entrance and you notice his bedsheet knotted through the bars of his door to thwart a lockdown. You look out of the corner of your eye and see the sheets knotting up all the way down the tier. You feel the blood rush to your face as you take that step back that you need to take, even though it’s going to be the signal the bad boys jump on to break the scene wide open. Next you get hit in the neck with a flying battery. CopperTops are nailing you, Raiders-game style, and you throw your hands up to try to keep them off your face. There is a surge of thugs out onto the main floor. You see the mop handles coming, too. You look at the close threats, but you’re more worried about the long-distance adversary. Somebody out there is on a hundred-foot heat-seeking tear straight at you.

The deputies are running in already, all geared up, and that’s good. But they don’t exactly have your back. It’s too disorganized for anybody to have anybody’s back but his own. Still, the deputies are on your side. They’re flattening the same people you’re flattening, which is everybody on the floor who’s not in the deputy uniform. If you’re lucky, there’s a sharp colour contrast between the deputies and the detainees. Blue uniforms vs. orange jumpsuits is classic. Orange jumpsuits are good targets for you, but the craftier aliens have already stripped down to their wife-beaters, and the craftiest of all are yanking the blues off felled deputies and going infiltrator. You’re trying to kick the prisoners back into their cells and they’re trying to floor you. Every alien outside the cells is fair game, as obviously you are to them. It’s the closest you’ll ever be to living a zombie movie.

The hoses come on, even before the fires. The fires are going to break out, little flames all over the place, but that’s not what these hoses are for. Riot hoses aren’t finesse weapons, and chances are you’ll get swept into the slop pile with everybody else. Pangs of claustrophobia and hydrophobia kick in even if you’re not claustrophobic or hydrophobic. You feel a little better when you see Rayford in the tempest with you, belly-flopping those wet gorillas.

The good-ol’-boy deputies start peeling everybody apart and hurling aliens into the cells. You didn’t notice the din before, but now you notice the quiet. The storm’s over. Glowing toilet-paper ashes glide through the air and lonely fires burn in corners, but they’re just a signal of the end. The iron-bar doors slam shut on the detainees, irrespective of cell ownership or capacity, and you hobble out the main door feeling as if you just emerged from a car wreck. It’s about then that Rayford turns to you and says, “Hey, br’, you’d better get cleaned up. The Uruguayan consulate thing’s at seven.”

Get ready for the hardest part of the job. On a pure aggravation level, nothing compares with trying to get the motherland to take back its wayward son. If you’ve ever wondered why all those deportable aliens stack up in our jails in the first place, this is why: their countries don’t want them. If the foreign government doesn’t give us a passport or a one-way entry pass with which to bring these felons on the plane, we’re stuck. Receiving airports throw anyone without a travel document right back to America.

When I first began working as a deportation officer, there were four countries—Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Cuba—that refused, as a matter of official national policy, to accept the return of their criminals. Cuba was the only one that made sense: the United States grants Cuban citizens unique permission to stay once they make it to these shores, so Fidel Castro decided that if America wouldn’t return his functioning, upstanding souls, he wouldn’t take back his rejects. Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos had no excuse but hold-over resentment from the Vietnam War and a hunch that the more viciously their criminal aliens marauded the United States, the sweeter the foreign aid packages would be when repatriation deals were eventually negotiated.

As Rayford once told me, at least these four countries had the virtue of honesty. There are scores of other nations that publicly present a US-friendly criminal-return policy while privately making the process a minefield that more often than not can’t be negotiated before we have to release their delinquents onto our own streets. In 2001, a Supreme Court remand, known in immigration circles as the Zadvydas decision, gutted US immigration enforcers of their right to hold deportable aliens for longer than “a reasonable amount of time.” You’d think a few months would be a big enough window to get a travel document on, say, a serial rapist with a birth certificate and a real, albeit expired, passport in his file. Just hope, though, that the criminal isn’t from Guyana, China, India, St. Vincent, Gabon, France, a former Soviet republic (“Oh, Vadim is not from our country. He was born in 1987, in Soviet Union, and that does not now exist, so sorry”) or any of the hundred other nations whose governments like to stall just as long as it takes for the Zadvydas decision to kick in.

And kick in it does, unleashing a never-ending torrent of murderers, rapists, terrorists, kidnappers, child molesters and every other stripe of undesirable into American communities every business day. So that’s why we go to the Uruguayan consulate at seven. That’s why we go to all the consular functions we’re lucky enough to get invited to. And a successfully negotiated deportation brings us to the part of the job Rayford hooked me with. Remember how at Butler’s he really sold me on the travel? It soon became clear that my official journeys abroad would generally not coincide with the itineraries of the world’s leisure travellers. Over time, though, you get to go everywhere. Before long, my official20passport contained stamps from such true garden spots as Luanda, Angola; Skopje, Macedonia; San Pedro Sula, Honduras; and Mumbai, India.

There is, of course, that obvious detail involving the circumstance of your travel. The whole trip you are sitting next to a man who wants to kill you. There are standards, after all, for determining whether an alien merits an officer escort. Quite a few hackers, embezzlers, heist pros, fences, drug dealers, pyramid schemers, and bank- and wire-fraud boys can be belted into their last connection alone, if you judge they’ll make it through the flight without incident. The aliens who have to be accompanied to their ultimate destinations usually fall into one or more special categories: violent boys, escape artists, juveniles, the insane and the sick.

I find airplane rides with people in these categories less than comfortable, but there is at least a sense that your prisoner is somewhat contained. I prefer the security of the steel torpedo at 39,000 feet to the boundless chaos of a plane change at some shadowy outland airport. One of the first lessons a deportation officer learns is that the ground is not his friend.

We once escorted a Somali prisoner to Khartoum, Sudan, only to discover—while our vocal prisoner screamed for his Sunni Muslim brothers in the airport to rescue him from the infidel kidnappers—that there was no Khartoum-Mogadishu connection and, in fact, the carrier printed on our tickets had gone out of business more than a year ago. Rayford stepped up. Lacking onward connections, with malevolent civilian bystanders and bone-corrupt security goons circling in for the strike, Rayford quickly took an airport administrator hostage. While periodically ordering me to silence our prisoner with a prohibited throat strike, Rayford negotiated with the administrator to secure our safe passage out of Khartoum. A plane was held for us and we were in the air with our deportee within minutes.

It’s the textbook case for thinking your way out. Shooting your way out, incidentally, is not an option available to agents abroad, nor is even cowing a mob with a flash of holstered firepower, as American enforcers are prohibited from carrying guns into foreign countries. So when officers travel internationally with the established maniacs and berserkers, they leave their automatics at home. But if you make it all the way to your destination and succeed in getting your charge into the hands of his country’s authorities, by all means go wild on the town. You’ve more than
earned some diversion.