News Release

The number of deportees to Tonga from other nations but in particular the United States has steadily increased over the years, prompting questions as to why.

While in the Kingdom, Tonga’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations and Ambassador to the United States Her Excellency Fekita ‘Utoikamanu spoke with Tonga-Now on the issue.

"The US immigration law regarding deportation is exceedingly strict," the Ambassador said, adding that it is a caution to all immigrants including legal residents that breaking the law in the US must be avoided at all costs.

The Ambassador said a 1996 law signed by President Bill Clinton made it harder for immigrants to remain in the United States if they committed a crime. The United States Immigration Support website states that more deportations occurred in the mid-1990s following the introduction of the stricter immigration regulations as part of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act.

Simply put, an individual who is an illegal immigrant, resident, or non-citizen is deported if he has somehow broken the law. Those who received a jail sentence for a year or longer face deportation regardless of whether the sentence was later suspended. Furthermore, the deportation could result from a crime as minor as petty theft to more serious felonies such as murder -- even if the crime was committed in the past.

This ‘one-strike’ policy does not provide the individual with the choice to remain in the US. The new deportation law meant children as well as adults could be deported, and sped up the process so that in some cases families were unaware a member had been deported until afterwards.

‘Utoikamanu said the automatic cancellation of visas – even those with Green Cards or legal residency – has affected a lot of the 70,000 Tongans living in the United States, particularly after 9/11 saw the US Government take a more active stance on its immigration laws. She said the law has in some cases extended to naturalize citizens, and more minor crimes have been included. In one case a woman who was arrested following a domestic dispute with another woman was deported. Appeals are unlikely to change the outcome, and delays usually come only when the US faces a country unwilling to accept back a deported individual.

"The United States takes this issue very seriously particularly when crimes against security is a highly sensitive issue. It is the reason many Tongans who have broken the law are returned and why it is even more important that they avoid doing so at all costs."

Crimes committed by Tongans in the United States, particularly those relating to gang violence, is a widely publicized media issue. The Ambassador said in areas well populated by Tongans, community and church leaders are working with the police to curb the problem, which results in most of the deportation cases to Tonga.

The recent death of a young Tongan woman from a gang-related incident in East Palo Alto (California) highlighted the community’s desire to put an end to the violence. Tongans rallied in the hundreds along with other members of the Palo Alto community to promote peace and an end to the killings in a march through the county.

There is no isolated reason so many of our young are caught up in crime, said the Ambassador, but we can look at the factors such as the different culture and lifestyle which are existing reasons for similar problems in other countries such as Australia and New Zealand.

The message however, is that the consequences should deter individuals from breaking the law. Not only are they deported; they often serve their full sentence in the US prior to being removed.

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