#1in3: Meet Khali

“People make bad decisions that have real-life consequences. And when people end up serving time for those bad decisions, how much more punishment should they endure? How much more degradation? How much more isolation? How much more judgment should they face?”

Khalil’s life is a true American story in more ways than one. Raised by a single immigrant mother in New York City, Khalil lived an ordinary, happy childhood. However, after a series of poor decisions, Khalil’s life took a drastic turn, finding himself entangled with the justice system and, subsequently, ICE. Despite these circumstances, Khalil’s story is one of transformation and resilience, marked by tremendous personal growth, professional achievement, and advocacy.

about khalil

In 1986, Khalil immigrated with his mother as legal permanent residents from their birth country of Guyana to New York City. As a child from a tropical country, he recalls how different New York’s climate was, and how peculiar it was to see snow falling for the first time. Khalil remembers having a great childhood. Khalil is the only child of a single mother who loved him tremendously. Khalil also had a tremendous support system in his extended family and cousins, many of whom had also immigrated from Guyana. He was smart and school came easily to him. He graduated from high school and felt like he had “made it” in America.

After high school, Khalil got a job at the airport. It was at this point that his journey took a dangerous turn down the wrong road. His friend circle shifted from young high schoolers to older men in their mid-twenties. Khalil grew up in South Jamaica Queens, a neighborhood where there were numerous socio-economic issues, such as high rates of unemployment, drug use, and poverty.
Khalil’s father was not a part of his life and although there were positive male figures in his life, Khalil gravitated towards friends who were older than him. Coupled with a false sense of the need to be “macho,” this persona eventually led him to join his group of friends in committing a robbery of two white women in Central Manhattan. Khalil was only 21 years old at the time.

Even though it was Khalil’s first and only offense, he was sentenced to serve 11 years in New York State prison. According to Khalil, the Judge noted at sentencing, that they were “kids from a bad neighborhood.”

In Green Haven Correctional, a maximum security prison, Khalil began his sentence, once again, gravitating toward the wrong group of people. One day in the yard, a friend asked him, “What are you doing here?” Khalil was a bright young kid, much younger than most others there, and seemed to have a lot of potential. His friend suggested that Khalil take advantage of the prison’s college education program. Khalil was extremely hesitant because he didn’t believe he could be a good college student. Upon earning his first A, Khalil approached the teacher and asked her why she was going easy on him, perhaps a reflection of Khalil’s self-doubt and lack of confidence. The teacher explained that his paper was worth an “A” that is why she assigned it to his paper. This ignited Khalil’s passion for higher education and invigorated his belief in his ability to embrace new opportunities.

Khalil enjoyed school and pursued other programming opportunities available, including the Youth Assistance Program (YAP). He wanted to be part of the solution, not the problem. Khalil went on to complete many programs, not only as a participant, but as a teacher, leader, and facilitator. In these programs, Khalil deconstructed misconceptions he had formulated about himself and proved to himself that he had the potential to be a positive contributing member of society upon his release.

On February 26, 2010, Khalil was released from prison. It was the most emotional day of his life. He was sad to leave behind dozens of friendships, but he was determined never to return to prison.

Re-entry for Khalil was difficult but successful. Khalil took a two-week course for formerly incarcerated people on how to successfully reenter society. He was told he would be asked about his conviction on job and housing applications, and that he would need to be honest. However, he was trained to write the criminal code number under the felony question, instead of the name of his offense. This softened the blow and allowed him an opportunity to explain his conviction to employers, rather than endure the immediate judgment that came with seeing the name of the offense. It also allowed him to demonstrate the hard and soft skills he developed while in prison. He got a job at a non-profit, started a family, finished his bachelor’s degree, and started his master’s degree. To Khalil, completing his master’s would be the mark of true success and would make his mother the most proud of him. Khalil rebuilt his life despite adverse circumstances, a feat many don’t have the opportunity to achieve. 

One week before finishing his master’s program, Khalil encountered an unpleasant surprise. It was morning. The coffee was brewing, but his children were not yet awake. There was a knock on the door, and Khalil opened it to find an Immigrations & Customs Enforcement Officer (ICE). Khalil was arrested under an Executive Order from the Obama administration to deport non-citizens with criminal convictions.  Although Khalil immigrated to the United States on a green card, he was not a naturalized citizen and, therefore, eligible for deportation because of his criminal record. At the precipice of escape from his past, Just when Khalil thought he had overcome his past, he found himself dragged back to prison for another five months, this time leaving behind his wife and two young children. 

Khalil’s family, classmates, and community organized on his behalf. They began to write letters to the government, begging for his release, and sharing  Khalil’s story and accomplishments. While in detention, Khalil applied for a pardon from the governor, a shot in the dark as no person facing deportation had ever been pardoned. The government attorney told Khalil they had never seen so many letters advocating for someone’s release. Due to enormous advocacy efforts by friends and family, Khalil was freed from prison, pardoned, and reentered society a second, and thankfully final, time.

Khalil recognizes how privileged he was to have the resources for such a successful re-entry. He attributes much of his success to the intentional steps he took towards living a life to be proud of, and the people who helped him unlock opportunities. 

When we asked Khalil what matters most in his life, without hesitation, he said his family.  Khalil is a father and has four beautiful children– three daughters and one son. His second eldest daughter, who was old enough to remember when he was arrested by ICE, still fears when Khalil travels for work, worried he might not come back. Khalil vows to be a present father, especially since his father wasn’t there and that had a traumatic impact on him. 

Today, Khalil feels a deep commitment to giving back to the community, advocating for pardons, and destigmatizing people’s views about those with records. He works at the Council on Criminal Justice and currently serves on the Board of other non-profits. Khalil believes that there is much progress to be made in representing people with records and continues to work toward his goals of justice reform. He looks forward to a day where we can talk about those with felony convictions without immediate judgment. 

To read more about Khalil’s story, check out this article, from the Marshall Project and op-ed he wrote here.

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