Harlem community youth leader fights deportation

Robert Panton’s life sentence was cut short after 30 years when a federal judge declared him “fully rehabilitated” and reduced his sentence to time served.

But Panton’s good turn in the criminal justice system didn’t help him with immigration authorities.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in August denied Panton’s request for a stay of removal to Jamaica amid an outpouring of support from his community and Democrats in New York’s congressional delegation, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Reps. Jerry Nadler and Adriano Espaillat.

That high level support followed Panton’s work behind bars and his success as a community leader in a relatively short time as a free man.

“It seems like ICE didn’t care one way or another what I was doing with my community,” Panton said.

“So that was kind of shocking, that a person would be moving forward, forward, forward — like if there’s a real benefit in there, and not a danger [to the] community. My crime was nonviolent crime, it was my first felony offense, first offense period. And still they’re pushing.”

Panton is scheduled for a check-in with ICE Wednesday, and ICE often uses those check-ins to apprehend people with orders of deportation.

If he is detained, it won’t be his first time under ICE custody.

Following his release from jail, Panton was immediately detained by ICE and held for 10 months until April 2021.

Since then, he has launched a campaign to mentor at-risk youth, volunteered in other similar programs, mentored youth working their first summer jobs and advocated for immigration reform.

Panton also runs a suicide prevention hotline that forwards directly to his cell phone.

His 1994 conviction for one count of conspiracy to possess and distribute heroin came with a life sentence at the time because of mandatory sentencing guidelines that are no longer in the books.

At the time, he was a Golden Gloves boxer who’d quit the circuit after a hand injury sustained in a car accident where he was a taxi passenger.

But Panton saw himself going to college, like his two sisters, until his arrest.

“So what I started doing is say, ‘You know what? I’m gonna do exactly what I would do if I was out there. I’m gonna start trying to progress and do something.’”

In prison, Panton got a college degree and a paralegal certificate and started a youth program called “The Slow Down” program.

When he was arrested, Panton was a legal permanent resident who had arrived at age 4 from Jamaica.

Legal permanent residents, or green card holders, can lose their residency or their right to renew their green cards over a host of felonies, including drug crimes.

But Panton, who doesn’t remember Jamaica and has never returned there, said his behavior for good or ill is a product of his U.S. upbringing.

“Anything I’ve done that was a mistake, an error in my behavior as a child growing up, I learned it here. I didn’t learn it nowhere else,” he said.

Returning to Jamaica would mean separation from his children and grandchildren, on top of abandoning some of his charitable work.

“This is the only country I know. So in actuality they’d be throwing me to the wolves and I’d be trying to figure it out as I go, you know what I mean? And that’s the honest assessment of it,” said Panton.

Advocates supporting Panton’s case are stunned that his appeals to ICE seem to have fallen on deaf ears, even with a mounting collection of attenuating circumstances.

Panton’s request for deferred action was nearly 100 pages long, including letters of support from his family and community organizations, and the order from District Judge Loretta Preska resentencing Panton.

“There can be no doubt that Mr. Panton has fully rehabilitated himself, and there is no need for further incarceration to protect the public from additional crimes by Mr. Panton,” wrote Preska.

That push was accompanied by pressure from congressional offices for ICE to consider deferred action.

The agency’s response was a boilerplate denial, according to advocates familiar with the case.

ICE did not return a request for comment on this story.

For advocates, Panton’s case raises questions about ICE’s capacity to process cases with substantial, sometimes life or death, human consequences.

For Panton, who is afraid of life far away from his nine grandchildren with another on the way, ICE’s demeanor shows a lack of direction.

“So if they was to get out of the fact that just being an institution, and looking at things as ‘our job is to deport, our job is to deport,’ well then, I don’t think that’s their mandate to just deport. I think their mandate is to actually look at what benefits the country,” he said.

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