Immigrant Rights Clinic ends activist’s 30-year struggle against deportation

In April, NYU Law’s Immigrant Rights Clinic, co-led by James Weldon Johnson Professor Alina Das ’05, secured a final waiver against deportation for Jean Montrevil, a Haitian-American immigrant rights activist who has been fighting deportation for 30 years. 

Yulanda Lui ’23, Gabriela MacPherson ’24, Jean Montrevil, Aidan Langston, Diana Rosen, Lauren Wilfong, and Alina Das ’05
Yulanda Lui ’23, Gabriela MacPherson ’24, Jean Montrevil, Aidan Langston ’23, Diana Rosen ’21, Lauren Wilfong ’21, and Alina Das ’05

“It was an important victory for Jean, who is a community leader and advocate whose work has encouraged so many to rise up against injustice,” says Das. “He can continue to do the good work he’s been doing without the fear of deportation.” Montrevil is the co-founder of the New Sanctuary Coalition, an organization that seeks to reform US deportation and detention systems in addition to providing aid to individual families.

In 1990, the 21-year-old Montrevil, a permanent legal resident of the United States after immigrating from Haiti at 17, was convicted of drug charges, for which he served 11 years in prison. While his convictions meant that he faced potential deportation from the US, Das says, he has been an exemplary citizen since his release: a proprietor of a small business, a husband and father, and an active member of a local church. Through his church, Montrevil became involved in Families for Freedom, a nonprofit that helps families navigate deportation proceedings. In 2007, Montrevil co-founded the New Sanctuary Coalition.

Das says that his activism made him the target of deportation efforts by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In December 2009, Montrevil was detained for deportation during a routine check-in with ICE, but his deportation was stayed due to the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti in early 2010. Montrevil was eventually deported in 2018. 

That’s when the clinic officially took on his case. 

Diana Rosen ’21 and Lauren Wilfong ’21 helped Montrevil obtain a pardon in 2021 for his prior convictions in Virginia—the rationale for his deportation—from Virginia’s then-governor Ralph Northam. Next, Rosen, Wilfong, Aidan Langston ’23, and Sarah Butterfield ’22 facilitated his return to the US in 2021 through a First Amendment suit in the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York, arguing that Montrevil should be protected from retaliatory deportation due to political speech. While the case resulted in a successful settlement, the threat of deportation still loomed over Montrevil, Das says. 

After Montrevil’s return to the US, Yulanda Lui ’23 and Gabriela MacPherson ’24 petitioned ICE to use its discretionary powers to agree to a waiver of Montrevil’s remaining convictions, but were denied. Seeking a final waiver for his convictions, Montrevil, Lui, and MacPherson filed a 212(c) relief from deportation request, and went to immigration court in April. The judge granted Montrevil’s relief request on the basis of his commitment to his community since being released from prison in 2000. Now Montrevil can no longer be deported on the basis of his past convictions. 

MacPherson says that she and Lui developed the strategy for the hearing, under the supervision of Das. They chose and prepared witnesses and conducted extensive interviews with Montrevil to build a case that emphasized his many contributions to the community, MacPherson explains. “Alina gave us both incredible freedom and incredible guidance,” she says, noting that they also consulted with Montrevil’s deep bench of community supporters, particularly from his church, in crafting their strategy. 

The day of the hearing, Lui says, the courtroom was packed with previous clinical students, Montrevil’s family and church community, and other activists. “You could just feel a sense of history and journey and significance in the room,” she says. “I was honored to be a part of it, not just because Jean is just a wonderful person and activist, but to be there for a victory [achieved] through the effort of so much advocacy and support—it was incredibly meaningful,” says Lui. 

Now that he has won his case, MacPherson says, the clinic is working with Montrevil to prepare to apply for citizenship. 

“I think that representing Jean, for all the students, has been transformational, just as knowing Jean, for me, has been transformational,” says Das, adding that Montrevil’s passion for justice and his tirelessness in the face of obstacles was inspiring. “And I think the students also were able to see how their innovation, creativity, and resilience in terms of strategy can have an impact.” 

Posted July 26, 2023.