Janine Jackson interviewed Mizue Aizeki about criminalizing immigrants for the February 24, 2017, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: “Vicious,” “extreme” and “frightening”: some of the terms being used to describe the Trump administration’s announced plans on immigration. The executive orders and attendant guidance memos greatly expand the category of people prioritized for deportation; the category of “criminal” could now include someone accused of a crime, or believed to be a risk—along with essentially deputizing local and state law enforcement to act as immigration officials, and cutting federal resources to cities that don’t go along with the program. Stories of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) pulling people out of hospitals, and parents away from children, are providing vivid illustration of what may be ahead, even as they show us that it was, in some senses, already here.
In resistance to these actions—what the New York Times called “the brutal idiocy of it all”—perhaps we have an opportunity for a deeper rethinking of deportation policy in general—grounded in the idea that, as our next guest wrote recently in a column for Huffington Post, “human beings who happen to be noncitizens have fundamental rights, too.”
Mizue Aizeki is deputy director of the Immigrant Defense Project. She joins us now by phone. Welcome to CounterSpin, Mizue Aizeki.
Mizue Aizeki: Hi. Thank you for having me.
AP photo (by Rob Schumacher) of Guadalupe Garcia’s arrest (Guardian, 2/9/17)
JJ: Many people saw the gut-wrenching pictures when Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos was taken away in a van. She’s a 35-year-old mother of two in Phoenix who checked in with immigration officials regularly because she was out of status, and this time they took her and sent her to Mexico, where she hasn’t lived since she was 14.
A New York Times editorial reflected a pervasive kind of response. The headline was “Bad Dude? No, but Deported Anyway.” Trump promised to go after criminal aliens, the paper said, “but Ms. Rayos fits no such definition and was no threat.” Now, it’s clear that the paper opposes the policy generally, but we’re still inside this frame of criminality as criterion. I wonder, what do you see as the problems with this “criminal immigrant” approach with regard to deportation?
MA: 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.
New York Times (12/23/92)
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. 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 rule of law that we’ve been fighting against since the 1990s.
JJ: It really does seem that we can’t get at these problems if we don’t see them as connected in that way, if we don’t see that coherence. I mean, when we look at deportation policy, you have to look at something like “broken windows” policing here in New York, in which people, black and brown people, are targeted for arrest on things like “quality of life”—selling loose cigarettes—and then they have the “criminal record” that can now make them subject to deportation. It seems like you really can’t make sense in terms of pushback, in terms of resistance, unless you see these things as of a piece.
MA: Yeah. I think the frame and the logic behind zero tolerance, of broken windows policing, is exactly what we’re experiencing right now, especially under the Trump administration and the memos that you mentioned in the beginning, where the frame of criminalization has expanded to anyone who’s ever committed something that you could be arrested for—which is basically anybody, I would argue—or if you have been arrested but your charges are still pending, and then, of course, people with a wide range of criminal convictions.
But today in the New York Post, there was an NYPD detective from Queens who basically made this very parallel. He equates ICE activities to broken windows policing where he says, it’s a privilege to live in this country, not a right, and is it asking too much to ask someone to not commit a crime? So the very existence of this person being here is a threat.
JJ: Wow. Well, in terms of reporting, the imperviousness to fact is troubling. I mean, I have seen the statistics showing that the crime rate has in fact declined during the period in which the immigration population increased, including in gateway cities like Miami and El Paso. So when Donald Trump stands up to sign these orders with people who’ve had family members killed by immigrants as a representation of the issue being addressed, the clash between image and reality I think can be overwhelming, including for reporters who are supposed to be sorting it out for us.
MA: Yeah. And I think this is where the kind of age-old role of racialized fear really comes in, where there are certain ideas of othering and who doesn’t belong and who presents a threat that are very much part of the whole idea of who belongs, right, or who has rights. And it’s definitely a challenge because, you’re absolutely right, the reality doesn’t match at all, anywhere, the threat or the risk. And this is consistent with policies about mass policing and mass imprisonment, whether you’re citizen or noncitizen, right, the crime rate has been decreasing since the ’70s, and yet the society becomes more and more punitive.
And so I think partly how we’re trying to elevate a conversation, at least amongst those who listen, is, in this era of economic restructuring that has been happening since the ’60s through the ’70s and ’90s, what the government’s response has been is to embody the blame for economic and social problems or disorder on people, right, as opposed to the system. And part of the challenge that we face is the massive diversion of resources to surveillance, to imprisonment and deportation, and expanding of policing forces.
And so I think at this moment, despite all the challenges we face, it’s really a moment for those of us working against racialized policing, expansion of the police state, and mass imprisonment and mass deportation, to collectively join forces and figure out the spaces where we can fight. And that’s already happening, it’s been happening for a while, but I think in terms of concretely pushing back on this moment, it’s a moment to rethink the past 20, 30 years, how we got here, and how ideologies like broken windows have really become normalized and need to be challenged.
JJ: I just saw a report from a group that’s called CIVIC, Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants In Confinement, and it said that media coverage, while it’s often critical of deportation policy, in this case specifically the detention system itself, we tend to hear very little from immigrants themselves, or from people in those systems themselves. Now, vulnerable and out-of-status people are not the easiest for reporters to talk to, obviously, for various reasons, including access. But overall, I wonder, how do you think the inclusion of those voices might change coverage, and perhaps public understanding? And is there anything that you would like to see media in particular doing at this point on this set of issues?
MA: I think in this current moment, one of the challenges that we face is, because we receive news in so many different ways, and information through social media, is a return back to more of what I would call long-form or investigative reporting.
And I found one of the most compelling articles about this impact of broken windows policing is an article that was in the New Yorker on Kalief Browder and what happened to him, a young man from the Bronx who was arrested for stealing a backpack, and then was held in Rikers for years, in solitary confinement for a large part of it, and then ended up committing suicide after he was released. And so I think that 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: And that actually just makes me think of another point, which is that a number of the stories that we’re reading raise questions about whether or not these orders will pass legal muster, whether they’re really enforceable or workable, and that is absolutely important. But we should recognize, shouldn’t we, that announcements like this can have an effect even without going through the whole process of becoming official laws? I mean, they do kind of greenlight behavior, don’t they?
MA: Yes, I think that’s absolutely right. And I feel like within the immigrant communities right now, there’s widespread fear, there’s trauma that impacts on children who have to live with either the fear of themselves or their parents being taken away from them. We all are hearing more stories about racial profiling, of police and targeting of people who they perceive to be immigrants. And I think that this is one of the challenges that we face in this particular political moment, is a kind of a callousness and an acceptance of intolerance, or a codification, I guess, of intolerance, that we’re going to have to figure out how to push back on.
JJ: Well, and I guess you have addressed that. I did want to ask, what are some elements of what a humane immigration policy would look like, and what are we—a lot of what we’re talking about these days is, we feel like we’re in chaos, almost, but we don’t want to settle back to the status quo ante; we want to have a new vision that we’re pushing for. And you’ve talked about making connections between groups and different sorts of work. That’s, I guess, a part of the vision of the humane immigration policy that we could be fighting for.
MA: Yeah. I mean, it sounds so simple to seem almost silly, but I think that the basis of a humane immigration policy really is is to begin to respect people fully as human beings. We’re living again in a moment where people have been reduced to negative labels, and determined as being therefore undeserving of the most basic human rights. And this phenomenon of exclusion, expulsion and extreme punishment is not limited just to the United States and the boundaries of this country, but really it’s a global phenomenon.
And if we step back and think about, what is the function of controlling borders in this way, and what is the function of excluding certain people or punishing people and exiling them, it’s to reinforce a system of inequality where certain people have access to mobility and to wealth, and the vast majority of the world’s population are denied that. And so I think, if we’re starting to look back humanely, it has to be a global approach, which also takes into consideration the historical and economic and political forces that push people to migrate.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Mizue Aizeki of Immigrant Defense Project. They’re online at imdefense.org. Mizue Aizeki, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
MA: Thank you.
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