Despite beingÂ born in Tonga, the deportees live almost as if they are exiles in their own land. Â Many were raised in the US from a very young age after emigrating with their parents or other family members, and they may not have any recollection of life in Tonga before moving abroad. Â Many of the deportees identify as being American, which they are in terms of their overall appearance and conduct, but not in terms of legality. Â Their chances of ever being permitted back into the US are very slim, and those who realise this are generallyÂ able to at least partially integrate back into Tongan society through learning the language, culture, and utilising existing family connections. Â Other deportees, however, choose to continue on the very path that got them sent back to Tonga in the first place, and inevitably find themselves in and out of the Tongan prison system as a result.
On my most recent trip to Tonga I met a man named Sione Ngaue. Â He is an American deportee who now resides on his family land in the village of Nukunuku on the island of Tongatapu. Â Despite his history, Sione is an example of a deportee success story. Â He has managed to start a new family back in Tonga, and he works as a freelance artist and tattooer, specialising in traditional Tongan designs.
I cycled out to Nukunuku from Nukuâalofa one afternoon to visit Sione in his traditional Tongan fale, which is one of the few left standing in Tonga. We talked at lengthÂ about his own personal experience of being deported from the US, and about his new life in the Kingdom of Tonga.
The following is a transcript of our conversation recorded on July 14th, 2015:
Todd:Â What is your name and when did you get deported back to Tonga from the United States? Sione: My name is Sione Kihe Kai Ngaue, and I got deported from America to Tonga in 2008.
Do you want to talk about why you got deported?
There were several things that led up to it, but in the end it was vehicular manslaughter.
What was the deportation process itself like? How did you first find out that you were going to be deported?
You usually know that you are going to be deported when you are like a year into the system, your prison term you pretty much know the warrants you have and things like that, you know you have an INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) hold real early. So when you are doing your time you know that youâre going to get deported.
So you serve the whole sentence and then you go?
Thatâs the way it is. Everybody who gets deported has to serve their time in America before they are deported.
How does the process of actually being deported go, do officials actually escort you?
Yes, you get out of prison and when you come out the gates you have INS officers waiting for you, you know, with cuffs again. So you come out of cuffs, to get put on cuffs. You know, they take the state cuffs off, and the feds put their cuffs on you and put you in their bus. So you go through the process all over again with the INS, but the one thing good about INS is that you know the longest youâre going to be there is three months and you will be sent home.
So do they fly with you on the plane?
They have to escort you, they make sure. The judge tells you, âyou will be escortedâ. Especially if you have a heavy record. Some have a lesser record only get escorted by one (INS official), and some will even get escorted by three. I was escorted by two, my older brother was escorted by three.
When you land in the destination airport, do they just take the handcuffs off of you and you go?
There is no cuffs on the plane, itâs against federal law and international law. You just give them your word and theyâre like âIâm taking you homeâ, if you try anything you will go back to prison in the US and you will never get out. Behave and you will go home.
So when you land in Tonga, then do they have to release you over to the Tongan police?
No, if I wanted to I could have just walked off but I hung around the airport immigration for a minute and the guy told me that he saw me get off with those guys. Actually when we went through New Zealand they (the INS officials) bought me duty-free two bottles of whiskey and two cartons of cigarettes. Them guys, they were happy that I was a good guy, you know? I was happy to go home.
So did you have any family in Tonga when you arrived back after being deported?
I didnât have a visitor for the thirteen and a half years I served, so I didnât let anybody know that I was getting deported. I got out of the airport and I walked all the way home, my Mom was here, and my brother but they didnât know. It was just all of a sudden, and here I am.
How old were you when you originally left Tonga for the US?
I left when I was four.
So in your mind you were American?
What was it like essentially being an American by all accounts minus the legal side of things, and then having to integrate back into Tongan society? Was it a hard transition?
It wasnât as hard for me as it is for some other deportees because I had family here already. I can speak for some of my deportee brothers and sisters who get sent down here, and who donât have family. They have a harder transition. I had family here at the time when I got here.
Did you speak the Tongan language at that time?
Very little, very little. I could pass, just barely make it through. It wasnât until I had been here for like six years that my Tongan really evolved.
Do you think that some of the deportees who are sent back try to continue with the gang lifestyle in Tonga that they left behind in the US?
Yes, a lot of them. Dozens. And they are now in the Tongan prison system, you know. Right out of the US system, and they didnât learn. Coming with the same lifestyle from the US to Tonga, you canât do that. Tonga is laid back slow man, you gotta go with it. You gotta go slow here.
How many deportees from the US would you estimate are here in Tonga?
Manâ¦hundreds. I think there are over 400. I donât think itâs reached the thousands, but when I was here there was like 300 or 400 from the US alone. That was six years ago.
Is there a reintegration program, or other support network for deportees when they arrive back in Tonga?
No, the worst part is that the ones that come from America, out of that system and they do long terms, you know ten years, 15 years. And they were taking some kind of psychological medication and then they sent them here to Tonga without it. When I came to Tonga, all I had was a picture ID, a passport. It was a piece of paper, that was my passport they brought me with. So I didnât have any kind of medications or anything. A lot of these deportees, theyâve been on medication for all their lives and they get down here and just kind of let loose and thatâs where they roam around going crazy. Tongan society ainât gonna help them too much. People here wonât know whatâs wrong with them to help them.
With all the deportees coming from the US who have essentially no support network in Tonga, are they essentially reforming the same gangs here?
Itâs basically not like that anymore, I think itâs more like a of a single-man game. You know, you come down here, you start your little crew of three or four people and you do whatever you do to survive. Like I said before, they havenât figured it out so a majority of them are in Tolitoli prison now.
I have been seeing TCG (Tongan Crips Gang) graffiti around, is that something that is currently active here?
It is, it is active in Tonga, but they really donât know what they meaning of TCG is. You know, a lot of the local kids are getting involved in the painting and stuff on the wall but they donât know the concept behind it for real. Thatâs the good part.
If you were given the opportunity, would you go back to the US tomorrow?
No, I wouldnât. I would never go to the US, never again in my life do I want to see the US. Iâm not angry, and I donât have anything bad to say about it. I am the pilot of my own plane, you know. I have lived it, and I know America but I love Tonga. I love not having money and things like that, it makes me who I am and itâs no big deal.
Can you explain what you do now to survive here in Tonga?
As you know, I was incarcerated for thirteen and a half years and within that time I tightened up my artistic skills and I am a tattoo artist. I am slowly getting into paintings and everything else. I believe that when a man tells himself that he is a professional or a master in something, he ceases to learn more so I am an apprentice and I will be an apprentice until I die. This is what I do, I am a freehand tattoo artist. Always learning.
Is there anything at all that you could say you miss about the US?
The only thing I miss is a greasy cheeseburger, you know. Thatâs basically it. And it miss my brothers that are incarcerated right now, but they are still alive. Thatâs it. Other than that itâs all good.
Thanks for taking the time to talk today Sione. Is there anything else you would like to say about life in Tonga?
Life in Tonga is about one love, thatâs it. Thatâs it. Laid back. If you ainât got funds here, itâs not the end of the world. We eat coconuts, bananas, and papayas all for free. Thatâs what we say, ofa atu!
Malo Sione! Ofa Atu