Cape Verdean deportees import U.S. problems

In January, State Rep. Marie St. Fleur joined a delegation to Cape Verde to meet with government officials and address growing concerns among Cape Verdean communities at home and abroad. The group held a session with over 10 deportees to discuss the hardships they face as they struggle to reintegrate in Cape Verde.

Also on the agenda was business development on the islands, the political relationship between Cape Verde and the United States, and the social and cultural issues that arise from Cape Verde's ties to America.

Justin Fernandes, a Cape Verdean community organizer who filmed a documentary about the deportees a few years back, said in Cape Verde, "being deported is the worst thing that can happen to a person. As a deportee you are not even to be spoken to because you are an outcast," Fernandes said. "You are a disgrace to your culture."

Fernandes said he knew a deportee - dropped off on the island of Sal by immigration agents and left to fend for himself in an unfamiliar country - who hung himself from a tree in the middle of the city within a few days.

"He had no money, no food, no friends, no family," Fernandes said. Having already served his time in prison in the U.S., "he thought he had suffered enough."

Fernandes said another young man that he grew up with had a similar fate; deported in 1990, he killed himself in Brava in 2005. The stress became too much for the struggling man who had no job and no way to get one, said Fernandes.

"After 10, 12, 15 years of trying, trying, trying, he finally gave up and killed himself because he couldn't pay one bill…America throws deportees on the islands and tells the government to pick up the pieces," Fernandes said.

According to St. Fleur, programs to open communication between Cape Verde and U.S. government officials and facilitate the reintegration process are in the works.

"It is in the interest of both countries to figure out how to do this in a more humane way," she said.

The Institute of Communities in Brava works at repatriation through education and job training and extends special lines of credit to help deportees establish small businesses. But Cape Verde is a poor country and they don't have the resources available to meet the needs of all the deportees, said St. Fleur. That's why collaboration with the American government is essential.

Mistreated by citizens and the government, deportees in Cape Verde are lonely, lost, and desperate for a community to belong to, said Fernandes. In Cape Verde, he said he found a population of people in distress and a country reeling from the effects of growing American influence.

"A country that was never even on the radar as a criminal community," Fernandes said, was now dealing with rampant crime and violence.

The 1996 Immigration Act triggered nationwide deportation of immigrants convicted of a long list of crimes. The Act took away judges' discretion and made deportation automatic, regardless of the circumstances of the crime, how long the immigrant had been in the U.S. or whether they had reformed since committing the crime.

Since 1996, the number of Cape Verdeans deported from America each year has grown. Suely Neves, a graduate student writing her thesis on deportation policies in Cape Verde, said that according to her research, nine Cape Verdeans were deported in 1996 through the consulate. By 1997 the numbers had doubled. Today Cape Verdean deportations average between 40 to 50 per year, but Neves said she believes there are "way more than that," unrecorded by the consulate.

According to crime statistics from the National Police of Cape Verde, crime on the islands rose 17.2 percent between 1996 and 1997 and another 13.9 percent the following year. In successive years, crime rates fluctuated, but increased a total of 62 percent between 1996 and 2005.

Growing crime, violence, corruption and drug use in Cape Verde illustrate "a revolving door" between Cape Verde and the United States, said Fernandes. "It doesn't stop in any particular place."

According to the State Department's Bureau of African Affairs, there are nearly as many Cape Verdean immigrants living abroad as there are natives inhabiting the country's 10 islands off the western coast of Africa. Through several waves of immigration, spurred by economic hardship and drought, Cape Verdeans have become a population of people whose history is defined by immigration, and whose community is struggling to strike a balance between their cultural heritage and their future as a globalized community.

"We must put the United States and Cape Verde in the same direction," said Victor Borges, Cape Verde's Minister of Foreign Affairs, who met with American government officials in February to take part in the first bilateral conversation between the two governments.

At a recent visit to Catholic Charities' Yawkey Center in Dorchester, Borges said, "When I was a young boy there was always the verb 'to be'; to be something. And now we speak to our children using much more the verb 'to have'. To have things, to have money…But before we have all this we must be something."

Commercial influences from America introduced to Cape Verde via deportees - television, music and the Internet - are seen as having created a cultural crisis on the islands, where hip-hop reigns supreme and natives have adopted consumer-driven values that they see in other cultures.

"Thuggies," Neves said, represent the globalized hip-hop culture that is more about the "loose jeans, big shirts, and hats" than the "conscious hip-hop of the early 90s." The earlier movement was about giving voice to youth in urban areas.

"Early hip-hop artists changed the world," Neves said. "Now it's about money. Mainstream artists are commercialized and positive messages are not being conveyed." Hip-hop today is all about drugs and violence, Neves said, and that is what Cape Verdean youth are mimicking.

People in Cape Verde have always been intrigued with outside culture, said Neves. "There's a curiosity when you live on an island about what's beyond that body of water," she said. "Everyone has family living abroad, so they're connected to the international world." Through increasing technology, Neves said, "Cape Verdeans see the good and the bad of another nation."

Neves said that American deportees are often used as a scapegoat to explain corruption in Cape Verde. "The deportees have an influence but there is a combination of things going on," said Neves, who claims she witnessed native Cape Verdeans committing just as many crimes as the deportees.

"It's hard on them," said Flavio Daveigo of the deportees. A mentor at St. Peter's Teen Center, Daveigo visited Cape Verde in 2006 and ran into people he knew from Dorchester that had been deported. "They get caught up in crime, trying to get accepted into the community," he said. "Trying to make ends meet, they get into situations they shouldn't be in."

Deportees struggle to find jobs in Cape Verde partly because they lack education and job skills, but also because of the stigma that follows them. Some deportees who were involved in gang activity in the U.S. band together in order to survive in Cape Verde.

Many deportees also suffer from psychological problems that Cape Verde officials don't yet understand, said Paulo De Barros, director of St. Peter's Teen Center.

"The kids are coming from a violent community, they're traumatized and the trauma goes with them," De Barros said. "They go back and try to get used to a place they haven't been since they were five, six, seven years old. It's a whole new process and they still have America as their home because that's all they know."

"Many people in Cape Verde are very afraid [of the deportees] because they had never seen the type of crime and the type of robberies that are happening now before the deportees arrived," said De Barros.

A crime phenomenon called "Kasu Bodi," has appeared in the Cape Verdean community, and the locals blame deportees who steal to have something to eat, said Neves. A Creolized pronunciation of "Cash or Body," people are robbed on the streets, raped or killed if they don't have any money. Cape Verde natives, mimicking the more hardened criminals sent from America, have adopted the phenomenon as another American trend. "Just like every summer there is a new song," Neves said, "Kasu Bodi was the thing that caught on one year."

The authorities in Cape Verde are not prepared to deal with new types of crimes being committed. There are certain neighborhoods that the police won't even go to, Fernandes said, because "they know all they can do is get hurt." There aren't enough guns to go around and the streets are unlit at night, he said. People throw rocks at passersby on the streets, Fernandes said, "major sized rocks coming at 40 to 50 mph. If they hit your head, you're dead."

In America, the probation department is designed to help convicted criminals readjust and become functioning members of society, but there is not yet a system in Cape Verde to help the deportees find their way.

"Some of them are loving kids, caring kids and if they were given the right support they would be able to integrate," De Barros said.

"If you commit a crime and need to be deported, that's the law," De Barros said, "but at least put something in place, some sort of support, some sort of transition so you're not just taking a bad apple out of one tree and putting it in another tree expecting that apple to grow. It's not going to grow."

Maria de Jesus Mascarenhas, Cape Verde Counsel General, said this is not just a problem to be dealt with in Cape Verde. There is important work to be done in the United States as well, she said. "Our great test to be done here is to help people get better integrated into American society," she said, "to get them well integrated as a community, as a minority, and as Cape Verdean-Americans."

Some older members of the Cape Verdean community fear that youths in America are forgetting their country's roots and long history, making it difficult for them to understand and identify with their heritage.

Daveiga is working on an exchange program that would help Cape Verdeans in America stay in touch with the people in Cape Verde. Problems of reintegration in Cape Verde, he said, are the result of kids getting "too acclimated to the way of life here. They need to go back and look at the reality of what's going on in Cape Verde."

Borges said he hopes to open a museum of Cape Verdean history; he asked for photographs, letters, information, or videos from the community that relate to the country's past. "Immigration has been a long journey for Cape Verdean people," Borges said. "We must have the opportunity to share this past with the young generation."