In 1996, Congress passed a law demanding that foreigners convicted of violent felonies be deported. But Rick Walters says some are being unfairly targeted.
The London-born entertainer, better known as "Slick Rick," discusses his complex battle over deportation with host Farai Chideya. Also joining the conversation, Walters' attorney Alex Solomiany.
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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.
In 1996, Congress passed a law demanding that foreigners convicted of violent felonies be deported. Since the terrorist attacks occurred September 11th, 2001, the government has enforced that law more vigorously.
But has it also been enforced unfairly? Yes, say supporters of the rap star Rick Walters, most commonly known as Slick Rick. The London-born entertainer did prison time for attempted murder, then got into a complex battle over deportation.
Rick Walters, aka Slick Rick, joins us from our NPR bureau in New York. Glad to have you on the program.
Mr. RICK WALTERS (Entertainer): Thank you.
CHIDEYA: Also on the line is one of Slick Rick's attorneys, Alex Solomiany. Welcome to you, too.
Mr. ALEX SOLOMIANY (Attorney for Rick Walters): Thank you.
CHIDEYA: So, gentlemen, before we begin I should mention that we put in a call to the Department of Homeland Security, which took over the enforcement powers of the INS, and no one has returned our request for an interview up to this point.
So, Rick, let me start with you. You were born in London to Jamaican parents in the '60s. And then at the age of 11, you moved with your parents and sister to New York. How long have you struggled with immigration issues?
Mr. WALTERS: I would say it's been about - from what I remember it's at least been four years when I was, you know, incarcerated before this time. The law that passed is saying that if you serve more than five years in prison, that you are eligible to be deported.
And I served three years, and fours years was fighting immigration, so that's why, they, you know, the situation got the way it is. They figure seven years you served over time. It's just really paperwork and what line you fall under. You know what I mean?
CHIDEYA: Mr. Solomiany, from what I understand from what Rick was just saying, he served less than the five years time for the crime that he committed. But all of the other time that he spent in jail that's kind of pushed him over this limit has to do with immigration issues. Can you unpack that a little bit for us?
Mr. SOLOMIANY: Yeah. Basically, Ricky was asking for a waiver where a judge is going to consider the positive factors in his life against the negative. And that was to weigh the charges of deportation, which were the crime for which he was committed.
The law says that if a person serves more than five years in prison, that person is no longer eligible to apply for the waiver. Ricky was granted the waiver by an immigration judge. An immigration judge said that the positive factors in Ricky's life far outweighed the negative factor, which was the conviction. But then on a technicality that decision of the immigration judge was reversed.
And the technicality is that Immigration decided to appeal the decision of the judge. And while the case was on appeal, he passed the five-year threshold. And once he spent five years and a day in prison, Immigration then weighed it a little bit longer and told the Board of Immigration Appeals, ha, now we've got him, he's served more than five years; whatever the judge did, you need to undo.
CHIDEYA: Rick, do you feel as if you were targeted in any particular way, or do you think that this was all some kind of government bureaucracy mistake?
Mr. WALTERS: My crime happened in 1990, this is 2006. We're talking about over a decade and six years ago, you know what I mean? It just comes across as too mechanical and not fair to the regular public.
CHIDEYA: Let me ask you this, you know, I want to get into the law a little bit more with your lawyer, but some people in this country would argue, well, hey if anybody who's not a U.S. citizen is convicted of a serious crime just toss him, day one.
Mr. WALTERS: Right.
CHIDEYA: You know, you've lived in this country for 30 years. You know, you're really well known among aficionados of hip-hop and there's a lot of love for you in that community. But a lot of people just are like, well, hey, we've got enough homegrown criminals, why do we need anymore who come from some place else? How would you respond to something like that?
Mr. SOLOMIANY: Let me ask...
Mr. WALTERS: I was...
CHIDEYA: Let me - let's let Ricky answer first and then I'll come to you.
Mr. SOLOMIANY: All right.
Mr. WALTERS: I would answer like this: I was in this country since I was 11 years old. There's a lot of things we all grow up and learn. I just see the laws as not being humane enough. If a person doesn't commit a crime since 1990, 16 years later we want to throw him out because of some kind of paperwork technicality. That's the problem with Congress and a lot of things that's going on in the world today.
We have to present ourselves in the international world as humane and intellectual. We cannot present ourselves as frustration and a lack of compassion.
CHIDEYA: And, Mr. Solomiany, I will ask you the same question that I asked Rick. Do you feel that this is targeted persecution or prosecution, or do you think that this is just a mistake, or is this just how the government works?
Mr. SOLOMIANY: I think Immigration has some discretion. It's a situation where some people deserve a second chance. And Ricky was given a second chance by the judge. And again, it wasn't that he did something wrong after that that then he wasn't deserving of the chance the judge gave him. This was reversed on a technicality. And as a matter of fairness at this point, it's our position that he should be allowed to stay. This is a situation where Immigration benefited from their own delay. They could have taken Ricky before an immigration judge much sooner.
And this case would have been resolved way before he served five years in prison. In the decision that the judge made to allow Ricky to stay, the judge cited the length of time that Ricky had been in the United States.
At the time, Ricky had already been in the United States over 20 years. The judge mentioned that Ricky had no close relatives or any ties to the United Kingdom, that he owned property in the United States and that he had strong family ties, his mother, his son, now he's married. And she also cited to many of Ricky's accomplishments while he's been here in the United States in that he gave talks to churches, he spoke to youth groups regarding the dangers of violating the law. And all those things are the factors that the judge considered in determining that the positive equities in Ricky's life far outweighed the mistake he made and the conviction that he was given because of that crime.
CHIDEYA: Well, Rick, I just have one final question for you. I remember, as I guess some of your immigration issues began, seeing Free Slick Rick t-shirts. And what has it been like, what kind of response have you gotten from the hip-hop community and how has it affected you as a musician in your ability to make music?
Mr. WALTERS: I'm 41 now, you know. So as a grown adult in the hip-hop community it really hasn't affected me too much. It's just common sense. I just bring my argument before the regular public, regardless. And I say, listen, we're talking about something that happened over 16 years ago. You've got to have common sense. You've got to have intellect. We've got more things going on in America than to make ourselves look like we are just inhumane, barbaric, anti-immigrant - I don't want to come across like a pity party, I'm just trying to say that's the real deal.
CHIDEYA: Rick Walter, otherwise known as Slick Rick, and Alex Solomiany, thank you for joining us.
Mr. SOLOMIANY: You're welcome.
Mr. WALTERS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.