Roland Sylvain pulled over to the side of the road on his way to work last week to scream of joy when he heard the news.
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam had just granted Sylvain a pardon for minor criminal convictions from almost two decades ago. This pardon, Sylvain said, finally opened up the doors to a dream that seemed like it may never materialize: the ability to live in the United States among his loved ones, without the persistent fear of an impending deportation.
“To get that news, and to know that now I have a better chance of not having to deal with this case anymore, for once and for good, is unbelievable. It’s an unbelievable feeling,” Sylvain, 43, said in an interview. “It felt like a dream.”
Sylvain’s attorney, Jessica Rofé, said that Sylvain had one pressing, celebratory question when she called him to tell him he had been pardoned: “‘He was like, should I go to Dunkin’ Donuts?’” Rofé said, laughing.
Sylvain can now be granted a waiver of deportation, so he can ask for discretionary relief in immigration proceedings, said Rofé, a Supervising Attorney at the Immigrant Rights Clinic at the New York University School of Law. Asking for this waiver was not an option before the pardon, because he was previously essentially “subject to mandatory deportation,” Rofé said.
Sylvain, who lives in Queens but was born in Haiti, immigrated to the U.S. in 1985 when he was a child, and lived for decades in the U.S. as a legal permanent resident. Since then, he has never returned to Haiti, and now works as a supervisor at a medical supply company. Sylvain has four U.S-born children and a step-daughter, and has been living with an overhanging anxiety of being separated from them due to this potential deportation back to a country he no longer knows. His family, Sylvain said, “lost their mind” when they heard about the pardon.
Documented and Latino USA told Sylvain’s story as part of a podcast series on the impact of the Trump administration on the immigration courts.
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Sylvain had been in and out of immigration court since 2012 after he received minor criminal convictions in 2003 that stemmed from a traffic stop, for signing someone else’s name on traffic tickets in Virginia. These convictions, his legal team said, put in motion deportation proceedings after he was arrested by ICE coming back into the country from an international cruise.
In 2014, an immigration judge closed his case using a method known as “administrative closure,” which spared him for a time from being deported. Then, in 2018, Roland’s story collided with another man’s—a Guatemalan immigrant named Reynaldo Castro Tum. Reynaldo had come to the United States in 2014 as an unaccompanied minor and been sent to live with his brother-in-law in Pennsylvania. Soon after, the government lost track of him.
It was the massive organizing and community support engulfing his case that Sylvain and his advocates believe led to his pardon. Advocates wrote letters to Gov. Northam of Virginia after the pardon application was submitted in 2019, and blasted social media with Sylvain’s story.
Sylvain’s pardon comes at a time when the Biden administration is being criticized for its treatment of Haitian migrants at the border, as the administration rapidly deported thousands of migrants who came to the United States seeking asylum. Sylvain’s advocates say his case is another example of anti-Blackness in the criminal and immigration legal systems, citing racial profiling and racial inequities in U.S. immigration policies.
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Last week, Rofé and her team received a call and accompanying documents informing them that there was a pardon, though it didn’t come with specific reasoning about why the pardon was granted, she said. Gov. Northam’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the pardon.
Sylvain’s story resonated nationally. When the pardon was granted, not only was Sylvain elated, but the entire community who had worked tirelessly to keep him home was uplifted by the announcement. “When the news came that the governor granted the pardon, we heard from people all over the country who took action,” said Oliver Merino, a coordinator at the Immigrant Justice Network. “There was this joy, just to see that community action has an effect.”
Now, Sylvain wants to push lawmakers and advocates to change the system, he said, explaining how he never thought that such a minor action could have such a drastic impact. Most of all, he plans on becoming a U.S. citizen as soon as possible, “So that this never has to haunt [him] ever again.”