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Winning the Fight of Our Lives: Immigrant Rights and Prison-Industrial Complex

By Subhash Kateel

Published on: October 01, 2008

If the immigrant rights movement doesn't understand raids, detention, and deportation in the context of the greater prison-industrial complex, and organize accordingly, we will lose the fight of our lives - a fight we can and must win.

During the immigration debates and protests of 2006-2007, a small but significant chorus of organizations - those working with families facing deportation - spoke out strongly against many of the immigration reform legislative proposals. What many in the beltway where calling "Comprehensive Immigration Reform" (CIR) wasn't comprehensive enough to fix the detention and deportation system that had eaten up and spit out almost two million people and destroyed nearly as many families. Instead, the grand bargain for reform was to allow for stricter immigration enforcement in exchange for a normalized status for some undocumented immigrant workers.

In the limited scope of those debates, the primary contention was whether that normalized status would lead to green cards (legalization) or not for those immigrant guest workers. It seemed the folks in the beltway, some dear friends of ours, felt the need to concede the anti-immigrant forces' thirst for more enforcement in order to obtain some semblance of legalization. However, it seemed the survivors of immigration enforcement - families facing deportation and families affected by the deaths and militarization of the border - were being made into sacrificial lambs for an elusive blessing of legalization riddled with unwanted curses.

Our intentions weren't based solely on self-interest. Fighting for justice for our brothers and sisters that died in detention, for our children that had lost parents to deportation, and for our families whose sole income provider suffered the desert terrain alongside the border wasn't a trivial struggle. But like our colleagues backing CIR, we were also fighting for the future of immigrant communities.

Emerging apartheid

At that time, I wrote in Left Turn about the fight of our lives. Back then, my colleagues and I had highlighted to our friends in the immigrant rights movement that we were witnessing the emergence of immigrant apartheid in the US. A system was developing that would systematically criminalize and attack immigrants' lives as people of color and working people. This emerging apartheid would use the criminal justice-, prison-, and deportation systems - and any other system - at its disposal to make lives of immigrants - both legal and undocumented - as hard as possible. What we would see, whether we won reform or not, would be more arrests, more raids, more detentions, and more deportations. In sum, more destruction of our communities.

Many people in the mainstream of the immigrant rights movement thought that we were blowing things out of proportion. Some mocked our characterization of what was happening to immigrants as "apartheid." Some allies had labeled our work against deportation, detention, and the excesses of the criminal justice system as "boutique issues" - sexy, but not as substantive as the fight for legalization. Others were far too enchanted with portraying immigrants as hardworking and law-abiding. They saw nothing wrong with focusing the ire of immigration enforcement on the "bad" immigrants nor saw anything cynical about alluding to rights as something that "good" immigrants deserve.

They sure as hell weren't going to sacrifice a potential win just to benefit the "bad" immigrants, namely - those in the deportation- and criminal justice systems. We would keep insisting, in vain it seemed, that this fight had to be about more than just green cards in an era where green cards were losing their significance. It also had to be about more than the "good" immigrants in an era where the "good" immigrants could easily be recast as "bad."

We were speaking from experience. We had seen how the FBI had taken a young hardworking legal immigrant and pizza deliverer named Anser Mahmood and recast him, first, as a suspected terrorist. When that didn't work, the small financial assistance he gave to immigrant friends was defined as "alien smuggling," making him a criminal alien and mandatorily deportable to Pakistan, despite the pleas from his own upstate New York neighbors and over a dozen members of Congress. We had seen US Army veteran and legal immigrant Warren Joseph's post traumatic stress from the first Gulf War cause him to run afoul of the law and into an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center for three years, facing deportation to Trinidad. We had seen post-September 11 raids tear apart the lives of over 1500 working families from South Asia and the Middle East under the guise of the "war on terror."

The anti-immigrant far Right (and not-so-far Right) had no such illusions of a difference between "good" and "bad" immigrants. They talked openly about a "war of attrition" against immigrants. Late night pundits like Pat Buchanan talked candidly and favorably about going after all unwanted immigrants under the guise of going after the "worst." Those of us that had worked with families facing deportation for the past decade understood this strategy.

Movement miscalculation

A major miscalculation of some of the immigrant rights movement was the assessment that the immigration system was attacking only immigrants and their undocumented status. So once immigrants had their papers - a path to legalization not to be confused with actual legalization - they would be fine. This ignores the fact that the value of a green card had diminished since the passage of 1996 so-called reforms. It also ignores the fact that many of the aforementioned immigrants still lead their lives as low-income immigrants of color.

Many of our friends in the immigrant rights movement simply couldn't see that the forces creating apartheid against immigrants were also attacking the ideas and institutions of immigrants - those that allowed them to rise above subsistence (in some cases flourish) -as much as they where attacking immigrants and their status. In the process immigrants - and the ideas and institutions of their everyday lives - were being criminalized. This criminalization had become far easier in a period marked by "wars" on drugs, "wars" on terror, and other "wars" meant to have an elusive target and a beginning with no end.

Some of us had the blessing of knowing elders that fought for civil rights, and those who carried the struggle beyond civil rights, to the Black liberation movement. Historical reflection impressed something upon us. Just maybe, for all the rhetorical linkages that the immigrant rights movement drew with the Civil Rights movement, we failed to see what happened in the Black community after the peak of the Civil Rights movement.

The victories of integration were followed by an explosion in the prison system and mass incarceration in the Black community. Communities that survived poll tests, poll taxes, and grandfather clauses to preserve their right to vote were processed through the criminal justice system only to be disenfranchised again. The vibrant businesses and civic associations that endured decades of Jim Crow would be replaced by extreme capital flight and a criminalized informal sector - a criminalized political economy. What the Civil Rights struggle forced the government to give back to Black folks through the narrative of its "best" (Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, etc.) the government would later take by pushing narratives of the Black community at its "worst."

Open eyes

Hindsight is only 20/20 when our eyes are open. The difference between that period and this period is that the clues of what was next for the Black community were not as readily available to our Freedom Fighters of that era. President Nixon's crime strategy, as he articulated behind closed doors, was to direct the criminal justice system primarily at the Black community without publicly saying so. This only became public knowledge after one of Nixon's closest aides' personal experiences with the prison system exposed him to its evils.

By comparison, the blueprint criminalizing immigrants was made readily available to the public. The much-touted and hated Sensenbrenner-King bill of 2005-2006, which passed the House of Representatives, left little encrypted in its desire for wholesale criminalization of immigrant communities. Even earlier, plans like the quickly-recanted "PATRIOT Act II," crafted in 2002 by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, proposed to criminalize the very way immigrants made their livings and lived their lives.

During the Civil Rights movement, there was a whole chorus of Freedom Fighters that cried that the struggle couldn't just be about integration. The expansion of the prison-industrial complex in the Black community and its subsequent "wars" (on drugs, for example) was that era's tragic "We told you so." In 2006, many of us were screaming, "This can't just be about green cards!" The expansion of ICE raids was our tragic "We told you so."

On May 12, 2008, ICE agents arrested 389 workers during a raid at the Agriprocessors Inc meat packing plant in Postville, Iowa. Within weeks, nearly 300 mostly-Latino workers were criminally charged by federal prosecutors with crimes ranging from identity theft to illegal entry. Where a typical ICE raid would result in mostly administrative immigration charges, these workers were railroaded through federal criminal court receiving up to six month sentences in federal prison. In dramatic fashion, ICE instantly made this group of immigrant workers criminal aliens - the "bad" immigrants.

We felt no satisfaction when government tactics confirmed our worst fears. No one wants to be right or prophetic when predicting the destruction of our communities. However, we were taken by surprise by the response from the previously conservative mainstream of our movement. People that would have never been open to understanding the injustices of the criminal justice system and the deportation process saw clearly the need to tackle these systems with a newfound vigor. Over and over again, we would see new voices in immigrant communities come out and say, "Let us fight for legalization, but let us fight for more than legalization." Organizers and activists that have rarely spoken publicly about a family member's incarceration or deportation are coming forward. Old adversaries are talking about strategies to tackle the deportation system.

Movement blueprint

Predicting the emergence of immigrant apartheid is far easier than identifying how a movement can defeat it. But individuals and organizers around the country are developing the blueprint for how we may begin to win.

1) We must make this bigger than green cards. We are fighting for the future of our communities. We cannot act like the path to legalization is a path flowing with milk and honey. It is a necessary step in a path towards a greater vision of social justice.

2) We must focus on building power in immigrant communities. Organizers such as Juan Pablo Chávez of the Florida Immigrant Coalition have instructed us at great length on the need to organize rather than mobilize. We cannot be a movement of mobilizations and talking heads. We must build real leaders in real communities to bring about real change.

3) We must organize in immigrant communities most directly impacted. We must stop talking about "good" and "bad" immigrants and build with those most affected. This is the only way to build a movement with more depth. Families that have survived the prison-industrial complex are not sob stories and charity cases; they are individuals that have survived one of the most sophisticated systems this society has for marginalizing someone. Their knowledge and determination makes our movement stronger. New organizations such as Deported Diaspora in Boston, new organizers such as Luisanna Santibanez in Austin, Texas, and older yet formidable organizations such as Homies Unidos in Los Angeles, and Families For Freedom in New York continue to dedicate their time to building in the most impacted communities. More efforts like this have to be incubated and supported.

4) We must build the capacity of grassroots organizations to create the solutions to their own problems. Policies in the beltway must be grounded in the wisdom and intellect of communities on the ground. But that can only happen when immigrant communities develop the faith and the capacity to create those solutions. Otherwise, solutions in the beltway will be made for immigrants, not by immigrants.

5) We must identify the ideas and institutions in immigrant communities that we need to protect, and protect them vigorously. The things that enable a detainee to represent himself and win his freedom, or enable an immigrant family to survive the desert and support family on two continents are the same things that will enable us to build real alternatives to the world we live in today. When we forsake what our communities have already built, we forsake our real power.

6) We must confront the Department of Homeland Security more directly. From Hurricane Katrina, to the ICE raids, to corrupt agents along the border, the Department of Homeland Security has survived numerous investigations and audits only see its budget increase even more. If we don't find more creative and strategic ways to confront ICE, we will see even more destruction of our communities and have no one else to blame.

Recently, I spoke with a family friend, a young Caribbean woman whose husband was detained by ICE. Nearly everyone had told her that her husband would be deported. Despite this, through her persistence, he was released a month after being detained. On the way home from picking him up she told me "I said my prayers and knew if I fought hard enough, I would see us together again." With that spirit, I know that if we fight smart and fight hard, our communities, our families, and our loved ones will win this fight.

Subhash Kateel is the co-founder and former co-director of Families For Freedom in New York. He is currently a Soros Justice Fellow working with families facing deportation through the Florida Immigrant Coalition. He lives in Miami, but misses his friends and family in Brooklyn and Michigan.

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