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Crime Involving Moral Turpitude

I took six books from the library without checking them out. Now I can’t become U.S. citizen.

We are proud to introduce Huddled Masses, a journal of writing and arts on the themes of Migration and Mobility sponsored by the Zolberg Institute and published in partnership with Public Seminar. Our goal is to provide the middle ground, to bridge the gap between the academic journal and the news, to raise solidarity with the vulnerability of the arts. The first issue contains poetry, fiction and non-fiction that provide, we hope, alternative perspectives on the issues that saturate the airwaves and fill our classrooms. From poems of the Caribbean Diaspora to an essay on the flocking of starlings, to the piece highlighted below, we are a platform for the long-form or the “deep-form,” for nuanced investigations that challenge and broaden. Huddled Masses has rolling submissions and we encourage submissions, responses, additions, heckles, and comments. Email us athuddledmassesmag@gmail.com.

—Daniel Horowitz,
Editor-in-chief, Huddled Masses

The following essay is featured in the first issue of Huddled Masses.

“Crime Involving Moral Turpitude (CIMT) refers generally to conduct that shocks the public conscience as being inherently base, vile, or depraved, contrary to the rules of morality…”

—Immigrant Naturalization Act

It was April Fools’ Day in 2003. I sat in a tight cubicle across from a U.S. immigration officer; behind him, there was a large detailed map of Iraq. The United States military was marching toward Baghdad and would reach the city in about 24 hours. The country had just endured an aerial bombardment called “Shock and Awe,” also an apt description of how I felt after the denial of my U.S. citizenship. The immigration officer had the posture of a soldier and seemed unusually calm as he read my FBI file. He was still and his speech felt rehearsed. I assume that’s how they have to be when they deliver the shock denying citizenship. The reason given supplied the awe: I had supposedly committed a crime of “moral turpitude.”

A crime involving moral turpitude is one of the most confusing and imprecise categories of deportable offenses. The term was first used in the nineteenth century and involves transgressions related to vague moral standards, but even immigration experts have a hard time defining it. My “crime” is one that I do not regret nor do I think is contrary to the “rules of morality.”

I was 19, and essentially living on the streets of Chicago. I had spent the three years prior in a boys’ home but was kicked out because I was struggling academically. I found a job cleaning a downtown Chicago jazz bar but needed more time to save money to secure a room. I was sleeping wherever: with friends, at the jazz bar after it closed, or riding the trains at night. Books consoled the anxiety of homelessness.

Reading was an escape from a dark reality. I’ve never read as many books as I did when I was sleeping wherever I could, often reading several books each week. Because I was borrowing from friends, the range was random and boundless, from Richard Wright’s Native Son to the Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda, to Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. I spent many days finding cafes in which to read during the day, and rode the heated subways at night.

One afternoon I realized that I had read all the books I possessed. Buying books was not in the budget, so the only solution was to get a library card. The only library I was familiar with was one near the group home I had been released from: the Evanston Public Library, located in the center of Evanston, Illinois, an idyllic suburb north of Chicago, home to Northwestern University, which adds a collegiate flavor to the town. It was a pleasant place to grow as an adolescent, fairly diverse socio-economically, and most areas were safe. Importantly, the local train connected Evanston to the city. I jumped the turnstile and headed to the library.

I entered the library and walked straight to the information desk. The librarian, a white woman with gray hair, glasses, and the aura of a middle-aged hippie smiled when I asked her about applying for a library card. She understood what books meant to me. A true librarian. She grabbed an application and handed me a pen.

At first, it seemed like the information required for the one-page application was basic: my name, suffix, gender, and birthdate. Then I froze. It asked for an address. My pen stopped moving. The librarian noticed and walked over to me. Time slowed for a moment, and I was in a shocked silence. I shook my head and handed her back the application. She was surprised but said I could read any book as long as I was in the library. She had given me an out. I thanked her and disappeared into the maze of bookshelves. There wasn’t much thinking to it, I knew what I was going to do. The only person I felt bad for was the nice librarian.

I can’t remember the books I collected, but once I had about six books in my hand I went to the bathroom. In the stall, I went through the books and stripped the sensors off of them. The last book was a short instruction book on how to make an African drum, a Djembe to be precise. I stripped the sensor and realized that there was CD-Rom in a sleeve in the back of the book. I quickly inspected it and placed it back in the book. I crammed all of the books in my heavy bag and prepared to make my getaway.

Once the librarian at the front desk was busy, I darted for the door. As soon as my hand grasped the door handle, the alarm went off. The sound pierced the serenity of the library. The librarian looked at me as if there was some misunderstanding, and calmly but loudly over the alarm said, “Sir, can you come to the front desk?” I stared back at her and yelled, “I can’t right now, ma’am!” And I booked it.

There was no break between the sound of the alarm and the police sirens, just one big wailing. I made a right into a wooded alley that led to a dead end. The officers must’ve known this because at this point they were out of the squad car chasing me. As soon as I could hear them breathing behind me I fell into the usual fetal position. One of the officers handcuffed me with his knee on my back. The other officer grabbed my backpack and emptied it out, disappointed by the contents. As the books fell to the ground near my face, I realized that there wasn’t enough time for the librarian to have called the police. The officers had no idea why I was running. After a short interrogation, I told them I took the books from the library without checking them out.

At the precinct, the officers went through the books. It was an extra sensor in the CD-Rom that triggered the alarm. I spent a day in jail, eventually pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to six-month supervision. It’s the only conviction on my record.

That conviction not only barred my citizenship but also leaves me at risk of deportation. Since denial of my citizenship in 2003, millions of people have been deported for crimes involving moral turpitude. The draconian U.S. deportation laws allow immigrants, documented or undocumented, to be deported if they commit one crime involving moral turpitude within five to ten years of getting residency status, or commit multiple crimes involving moral turpitude at any time. As the definition of moral turpitude varies from state to state and judge to judge, it leaves a lot to the discretion of an individual.

The category is so wide that it often captures almost any brush with the law, whether it’s mothers caught stealing milk for their babies, teenagers fighting after school, a friend passing around a joint or a college student using a fake ID. All of these are crimes that can get one barred from citizenship or even deported. The context of so-called “crimes” are rarely considered in the immigration system. I tried to describe the factors that led me to make the decision to steal books from a library to no avail. I found it ironic then, as I do now, that I was making a moral argument of my crime to an immigration officer who had the map of Iraq behind him. If there ever was a crime of moral turpitude, was it not the bombing of a country and deaths of hundreds of thousands of people over a lie of weapons of mass destruction?

Because of my crime, I am still, to this day, not a U.S. citizen.

Abraham Paulos is a seasoned communications expert, journalist, and movement leader who has advocated for human rights for more than a decade. Abraham is the National Communications Director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) and is currently finishing a Masters at The New School.

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Abraham Paulos

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