‘We Have the World’s Largest System to Imprison and Exile Immigrants’

The October 30, 2020, episode of CounterSpin was a compendium of archival interviews about Donald Trump and immigration. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Janine Jackson: Welcome to CounterSpin, your weekly look behind the headlines. I’m Janine Jackson.

This week on CounterSpin: As we record on October 29, the Supreme Court has ruled that Wisconsin doesn’t need to count mail-in ballots that arrive after November 3, with Brett Kavanaugh suggesting the decision supports the Trumpian canard that mail-in voting is rife with fraud. That ruling, of course, from a court with a new 6–3 rightward tilt, due to Senate Republicans pushing through their chosen judge, despite voting being underway, and without passing relief for millions suffering hardships due to Covid-19. Who needs Halloween when we’ve got Election 2020?

We don’t know what’s going to happen next, but stories will be written about these last four years, and to the extent that those stories are written by corporate journalists, they will be distorted, and the role of the media unrecognizable. We’ll hear that Donald Trump was a “showman” whom “no one suspected” would have such grave impacts, that “everyone” was surprised as his chicanery “became” cruelty before our eyes. And that journalists rejected and resisted the evisceration of civil norms and the assaults on vulnerable communities. But we know better.

Today on CounterSpin, we’re going to use the lens of one issue, immigration, to look back at four years of Trump policy and of coverage. We’ll hear parts of conversations we had in real time with Cristina Jiménez of United We Dream, Kica Matos of the Center for Community Change, Immigrant Defense Project’s Mizue Aizeki, Suman Raghunathan from SAALT, Jacinta Gonzalez of Mijente and journalist Tina Vasquez of Prism.

That’s coming up. You’re listening to CounterSpin, brought to you each week by the media watch group FAIR.


JJ: Right-wing efforts to keep Black and brown immigrants out of the country, and those here vulnerable and voiceless, didn’t begin with Trump. In the summer of 2016, the Supreme Court deadlocked 4-to-4 (think about that for a second), and thus blocked moves by Barack Obama to expand eligibility for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and for Parents of Americans programs, that shielded people, temporarily, from deportation.

In July 2016, we talked with Cristina Jiménez, co-founder of the United We Dream network.

Cristina Jiménez: “For communities like the ones United We Dream works with…what is at stake is really an existential threat.”

Cristina Jiménez: In my family alone, you have three different immigration statuses. Both of my parents continue to be undocumented, although we’ve lived here for the past 17 years, and I have, after 16 years, a green card, a permanent resident card, and my brother is a beneficiary of DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which is a temporary protection from deportation. And other families across the country have either similar situations, or even have US citizen children or US citizen family members, at the same time that they are undocumented family members, which is why the decision of the Supreme Court for millions of people was just so important.

And even though the Court had a split outcome and basically made no decision on the case, it meant that close to 5 million people, including families like my own, will not be able to get protection from deportation. Unfortunately, it’s something that communities and families have been looking forward to with much hope. So it was a very, very difficult day, the day that the decision came out, and many families and millions of people were impacted by it.

JJ: The media stories that I saw pretty much pivot directly to the presidential election. In response to the Supreme Court ruling, immigrants rights groups are going to turn out the vote, is the story. I’m not saying that that’s untrue, but I guess I wish there’d been more attention to the human impact of the ruling, and maybe bigger questions about immigration and what kind of society we want to live in.

CJ: So for Democrats and Republicans, what’s at stake is the vote, and they are both in the battle to keep power or to gain power, but for communities like the ones United We Dream works with, which we work largely with Latino and immigrant communities in over 25 states, what is at stake is really an existential threat for us. Because candidates like Donald Trump have committed publicly, multiple times, to basically wipe out the country from people like myself and my parents, and 11 million people who are here who are immigrants, and this is a huge deal for Latino voters, for Asian-American voters, and for largely immigrant communities across the country. And that has not necessarily been an angle that the media have focused on, but rather has really paid attention a lot to what this means in terms of votes, when in reality what we’re talking about is the wave of hate and public promises of blocking migration from Muslim countries, and wiping the country out of people like myself, and millions of families.


JJ: Candidate Trump became president-elect Trump and in November 2016 we asked Kica Matos, director of immigrant rights and racial justice at the Center for Community Change, what she says when people ask her, “What now?”

Kica Matos

Kica Matos: “Those of us who do live in multi-racial communities will wake up one day and see our next-door neighbors taken away.”

Kica Matos: There is a cautious optimism amongst some of my progressive friends who think that Trump really was engaged in a campaign to win and to win at all costs, and he stoked the fires of bigotry and racism in order to win, and they think that he will, as president, be a different person. I can tell you right now that that is not the case when it comes to immigration.

If you look at his hundred-day plan, he intends in a very short amount of time to defund sanctuary cities; to repeal the relief that was extended to young people, so that they will be subject to deportation; he wants to build his notorious wall between the US and Mexico; and, finally, he intends to deport what he calls “undocumented immigrants with criminal histories,” though “criminal histories” are as yet undefined, but that is a very significant number of people. So the “what now” for us is to mount a formidable defense, and to do everything we can to stop him at the local, state and national level.

JJ: Let me draw you out on one point. Because I have seen, already, some stories with a kind of tone of relief: “Oh, he’s just going to deport the criminals,” you know? We see this also with welfare policy, people looking—liberals, you know—for policy that would punish bad poor people, but help good poor people. There’s something very dangerous in itself about this attempt at division, and then the push to legitimize a crime-focused approach to immigration policy in general.

KM: That’s right. And I’ll say a couple of things. One is, they are finding it very difficult to defend their number of 2.5 to 3 million people who they believe to be in this country as undocumented with some kind of criminal history. So we think that A) this number is made up and B) that as they move forward with their deportation machinery, that they’re really going to go after people with misdemeanors or people, for example, who will get pulled over because of a pretextual broken headlight. And one of what we call the architects of hate, Kris Kobach, has already said that in a situation like that, they don’t plan to adjudicate the case. So if you get pulled over with a broken headlight or some minor infraction, their intention, once they find out you’re undocumented, is to deport you.

But it is this dangerous narrative that they’re moving forward to facilitate the deportation of millions, because if we demonize immigrants and we call them criminals, then I think they’re betting on Americans feeling this great sense of ease that, wow, look at that, we’re getting rid of the “bad immigrant.”

And it creates, also, this dynamic amongst the immigrant community that is very uncomfortable for many, where the good immigrant gets saved and the bad immigrant gets targeted for actual deportation. And that’s a narrative that people feel very uncomfortable with, given the fact that they are playing fast and loose with what their definition of a “criminal” undocumented immigrant is.

And so it behooves sanctuary cities, and cities who care about their communities, to do everything they can to protect them. Because these policies will not just affect those targeted, it will affect entire communities. I think it will come as no surprise that we live mostly—except for, you know, gerrymandered districts—in multi-racial communities. And those of us who do live in multi-racial communities will wake up one day and see our next-door neighbors taken away.

We’ll go to our church and wonder what happened to that family, and we will learn that that family was deported. We will see acts of terror in public spaces, in houses, in places where people work. And so I think it behooves all of us to wrap our arms around our communities, and it behooves city officials and state officials to mount a strong wall — talking about walls — good strong walls to protect their residents from the terror that Trump and his administration intends to unleash in a few months.


JJ: By early 2017, the New York Times was referring to the “brutal idiocy” of Trump immigration policy. But treating it as wholly aberrational is not helpful, as Mizue Aizeki deputy director of the Immigrant Defense Project laid out in February 2017.

Mizue Aizeki

Mizue Aizeki: “The exclusion and expulsion of particular groups of people who have been deemed a threat, or un-American, has very much been part of the whole project of nation-building since the very beginning.”

Mizue Aizeki: Just to put it a little bit into context, I think the broader problem is, especially over the past 20 years, that we have experienced the rapid development of the world’s largest system to imprison and exile immigrants. And the heart of the system has been this government-constructed state of emergency that really relies on racialized fear, and has conscripted the entire criminal legal system, from the police to the courts to the prisons to probation, and eternally brands people as so-called criminals. And I think it’s definitely a challenge, in terms of who is deserving and who is undeserving of rights. But in many ways that’s the heart of criminalization, right, where a system of criminalization basically expands and legitimizes surveillance and regulation and punishment of these certain peoples and communities, while at the same time determining that they don’t deserve any protection.

JJ: I remember an article long ago in the New York Times called “Criminal Communities,” which really highlighted for me the way there are often—we read it as a singling out of criminality, but in fact it’s almost always being used to brand, or to target, entire communities of people.

MA: Yeah. And I think in terms of the particular context of immigration, the exclusion and expulsion of particular groups of people who have been deemed a threat, or un-American, has very much been part of the whole project of nation-building since the very beginning, right, where certain bodies represented an imminent or inherent threat, from Native Americans to formerly enslaved people, and fast forward to the current day, where the target is people from Muslim countries, or criminalized immigrants.

I think where we really saw convergence of this is in the 1990s, where a very highly punitive frame was applied to so many aspects of US policy, whether in welfare or the crime bill, and in the case of immigrants, these particularly harsh immigration policies, which rapidly expanded the number of criminal offenses that would subject someone to deportation, but also made deportation a mandatory minimum in the vast majority of cases.

New York Times: Criminal Communities

New York Times (12/23/92)

It’s at this particular moment that we’re living in, the convergence of the war on the poor and then on immigrants, and overall on criminalized people of color, converged with these themes of personal responsibility, law and order, and the rule of law that we’ve been fighting against since the 1990s.

One of the issues that happens is when we use words like “deportation” or “detention,” they’re almost sanitized, right? What does that mean to people to be incarcerated, to be locked up, to be taken away from your family?

I was talking to my colleague this morning about trying to stop the deportation of a man who the government is trying to deport back to Honduras. In the last 50 years, he’s only spent 12 days there. That’s not his home. And he has three children who are adults but are severely disabled and rely daily, minute to minute, on his care. And so there’s a deep cruelty to this system that would definitely be elevated by including the voices of people who’ve been directly impacted, and I think that’s a good place to start, that’s where we need to start.


JJ: Media tend to compartmentalize but immigrant communities recognized a shared crisis, on “the border” or nowhere near it. In December 2017, we spoke with Suman Raghunathan, executive director of SAALT, South Asian Americans Leading Together.

Suman Raghunathan

Suman Raghunathan: “The surging tide of violence really spurred by, encouraged by and enabled by the views and political rhetoric coming out of this administration…is really contributing to an increasingly problematic and toxic discourse at a national level about our communities.”

Suman Raghunathan: In the last year to 18 months, we’ve seen an increasing number of studies that really bear out the relationship that SAALT had been suspecting for quite some time, which is that when our elected and appointed officials, and those who aspire to be elected and appointed officials, poison the nation’s political debate and our national conversation on communities, indeed our communities, which is an incredibly diverse spectrum of folks in this country, right, so they include South Asians, Muslims, Arab Christians, Middle Eastern communities. When we have individuals who call into question the very place and viability of protections afforded to all of those folks in the country, then we know that that indeed spurs violence against our communities.

We’re in the process of finalizing an analysis of hate violence and xenophobic political rhetoric since the election, right, so roughly over the last year.

JJ: Right.

SR: And what we’ve increasingly found is an even deeper relationship between the policies and views espoused by President Trump and those of his administration, and acts of violence against our communities, which are reaching levels that we only saw in the year immediately after the events of September 11. We’re seeing over a 50% increase in the number of documented hate violence incidents since the November 2016 presidential election, relative to the previous year. So the level of violence and the surging tide of violence really spurred by, encouraged by and enabled by the views and political rhetoric coming out of this administration, and of policymakers, is really contributing to an increasingly problematic and toxic discourse at a national level about our communities.

And it’s crucial that journalists not only call a spade a spade, particularly around drawing a connection between the explicit aims and goals of restrictionists and of white supremacists, who are currently occupying, and have occupied, positions of power in this administration, but also really connecting the dots between those policies and their impact on the ground.

JJ: Right, right.

SR: I also think that, in terms of the resistance, we have seen a tremendous amount of resistance, right. The reality on the part of organizers and grassroots communities, that all of these attacks are attacks on all of us, has been an incredibly inspiring and hopeful reminder of the need for us to build strong coalitions, and of the need to continue to call out, not only the administration, but also those who are informing the administration’s efforts to explicitly target our communities.


JJ: By the summer of 2018, there was plenty of outrage about families being separated and children held in cages. We talked in July with Jacinta González  senior campaign organizer at Mijente, about how to grow awareness beyond “families belong together.”

Jacinta Gonzalez (image: Democracy Now!)

Jacinta Gonzalez: “I think we also have to be wary of not taking advantage of this moment, because it’s unveiling what the system truly is meant to do.” (image: Democracy Now!)

Jacinta González: I think what we saw clearly with this newly created crisis by this administration is that when we simply demand things like “family unity,” what we get is family unity behind bars. And so for us, it was really necessary to be able to raise awareness of not only what was happening with the devastation of young children being separated from their parents, but also with the criminalization of migration and mass prosecutions of folks who are entering this country. Because with this analysis, we’re able to actually make demands that would get to the root of the problem, instead of just treating the most horrific manifestation of the actual policy.

JJ: Right. In your very straightforward piece, “How to Stop Child Separation? Stop Sending Their Parents to Prison,” that you wrote last month for Truthout, you talked about, if we really want to go forward from this, and we want to use our very warranted feelings of upset and anger at what we’re seeing to really end the crisis, there are a number of elements of that work that we could be looking at. What are some of things that you’re pointing to that folks might direct energy to?

JG: We put out a policy platform that describes that there’s both movement demands that we’re making, but there’s also really concrete things that both Congress can do, different government agencies can do, to try to get us a little bit closer to the real solutions to some of these problems. For us, a primary demand or a central tenet is the abolishment of ICE as an agency. We know that family separation has been happening, not only at the border, but also when deportations are taking place and parents are being separated from their families. But also community members, more broadly, are being separated from their loved ones, and from people that they share their lives with.

And so we think that ICE as an agency should be completely abolished, which means that there should be a moratorium on deportations, there should be a defunding of the agency, we should end all forms of detention, and those are very concrete demands that can be accomplished now.

But we also point to the need to decriminalize migration. You know, the laws that are on the books that are allowing Jeff Sessions to throw the book at people are laws that were written in the 1930s by a legislator that was openly advocating for lynching, that was against interracial marriage and that promoted the criminalization of migration. And so it’s time for us to take a strong stand and decriminalize that as well, by taking away Section 1325 and 1326 that allow for these prosecutions to happen.

Truthout: How to Stop Child Separation? Stop Sending Their Parents to Prison.

Truthout (6/17/18)

JJ: Am I too optimistic there, or do you think people are starting to understand what it really means to criminalize immigration itself?

JG: I think we see tendencies going both ways. So I actually think there’s a lot of things that are really exciting about seeing people broaden their analysis of criminalization and their understanding of policing, understanding that Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Border Patrol are policing agencies, and so that a lot of the same critiques that can be applied to ICE also apply to the police. And so it broadens the conversation and the possibilities of what we can do and what kinds of alliances we can build, particularly between black and Latinx communities.

But you also have, I think, a tendency in the center to try to say that this is not the time for radical demands that actually give different possibilities. That we should say things like, “Well, we’ll give you the wall, but legalize this many people.” And I think we’ve seen a couple of rounds of that. You know, we had legislators saying that they would negotiate with Trump on some of these policies, knowing full well the far, far right-wing agenda that he’s pushing.

So I think we also have to see the opportunity of being able to have more people understand the criminalization, and I think we also have to be wary of not taking advantage of this moment, because it’s unveiling what the system truly is meant to do. And so these are the moments where we can actually provide other options and alternatives to folks beyond what many mainstream Democrats have been presenting as solutions.


JJ: Finally, in the fall of 2018, Amnesty International released a report on all sorts of abuses at the US/Mexico border, including pulling children from their parents. I noted to movement journalist Tina Vasquez, now at Prism, that one of the authors said some of the behavior meets the criteria for torture.

Tina Vasquez

Tina Vasquez: “We’re told that we’re supposed to be unbiased, but I can show you facts and evidence to show you that the US immigration system is inherently abusive and violent and racist.”

Tina Vasquez:  I also spoke to an immigration attorney who told me he’s representing some of the clients that were in the report, and that he certainly thinks of this as torture, and it falls along those lines and those definitions, because of the psychological damage that parents experience, not knowing where their children are for so long, not knowing if they will see them again. And, of course, there’s the damage the children experience; some are reporting that could be irreparable.

It’s been such a disturbing, harmful—I can’t use the word I want to use—it’s been a mess. And now the Trump administration is considering rolling it out again. So the public outcry, while really overwhelming at times, and it seemed to be the reason why the executive order was signed, it didn’t seem enough to stop the Trump administration from continuing this policy.

JJ: Part of what informative reporting like yours does is demonstrate continuity and disjuncture in immigration policies and practices. It’s not about Obama versus Trump, or Democrats versus Republicans. It’s, do we want a humane, welcoming society, and how do we go towards that, or do we want a racist and nativist one? You know, things can have happened before and still be worse now, and that seems very important to underscore and to make sense of.

TV: If nothing else, what I hope that my reporting does is it makes it clear—and I’m really unapologetic in my stance on this as a journalist—I think we’re told that we’re supposed to be unbiased, but I can show you facts and evidence to show you that the US immigration system is inherently abusive and violent and racist. And so what you’re seeing is the products of that; it’s just being wielded by a different administration that is more overtly anti-immigrant, and more comfortable being overtly racist.

But that is always my starting point when doing immigration reporting. It doesn’t matter who’s in the White House, that’s the starting point, that detention is inhumane and violent, and so is the immigration system.

NYRB: Abolish ICE: Beyond a Slogan

New York Review (10/10/18)

JJ: When I was talking about letting immigrants’ actions set the dynamic of the story, rather than, “the US government announced this policy; here’s some quotes from immigrants in response,” I was thinking about recent pieces of yours, one that ran on Rewire.News and NYR—the New York Review of Books—Daily, that was headlined “Abolish ICE: Beyond a Slogan.” I found it a very encouraging story.

And just to the point that you’ve just made, it’s reporting; it doesn’t change over into some other category of thing. It’s just reporting that has different actors at the center of it. And it really importantly shifts, I think, our understanding of the situation. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about reporting that story on Abolish ICE, and what’s coming through there?

TV: It’s something that I’m thinking about more and more. There’s a queer undocumented poet named Yosimar Reyes who’s been doing a speaking tour called #UndocuJoy. And he talks a lot about how we only want to show the tragedy that is what’s happening to immigrants, or how hard it is to be an immigrant, with no real examples of how immigrants every day don’t just survive and thrive, but have full and fulfilling lives. And so that can’t be at the center of all of the reporting I do as an immigration reporter. But it’s something that I’ve been thinking about, and it’s been weighing on me.

And so this Abolish ICE piece changed form in its reporting. Initially, it was going to be sort of an overview of how elected officials are signing on, or signing off of, the movement to Abolish ICE. That just didn’t feel right; it didn’t feel good, and it didn’t reflect the interviews that I was doing.

It was important to me that the piece showed the resilience of immigrant communities, that the movement to Abolish ICE is led by immigrants, undocumented immigrants, and specifically brown and black, queer and trans immigrants. They are on the front lines, as they have been in many movements. And it was important to me to highlight that, and to showcase their resilience and the ways that they’re fighting back. And then also to uplift the voices of people who don’t have a lot of options, but are still fighting back.

So different immigrant communities have different realities and lived experiences. And I want to highlight those as much as possible, and make them the story, make them the center of the story.


JJ: That was Tina Vasquez; before her, Jacinta González, Suman Raghunathan, Mizue Aizeki, Kica Matos and Cristina Jiménez. And that’s it for CounterSpin for this week. Counterspin is produced by FAIR, the media watch group based in New York, online at fair.org  The show is engineered by Alex Noyes. I’m Janine Jackson. Thanks for listening to CounterSpin.

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