Over the past several weeks, Indefensible Podcast has brought you the stories of real people from across the country who have fought deportation well before the Trump administration. In each of the five episodes, we held space for immigrants to speak about their experiences in their own words. With other on-the-ground advocates and organizers, we hoped to help unmask the ongoing work of criminalization, which is at the heart of the increasingly cruel and devastating attacks on our friends and loved ones, and offer a counter-narrative to the hateful platitudes that dominate public debate.
To close out the series, we created this podcast extra for listeners who are interested in learning more about the context of the series, how the stories interconnect within the broader system, as well as ways to get involved. It’s a conversation between Will Coley, the independent radio producer who created the series, and Mizue Aizeki, Deputy Director of Immigrant Defense Project. Will and Mizue, both longtime immigrant rights advocates, discuss the social and political forces driving our era of mass deportation since the passage of the 1996 immigration laws. As they remind us, it wasn’t always like this, and it doesn’t have to be.
Click through each of the episode pages to learn more about the individuals, organizations, and educational resources we included in the series. We are grateful for their partnership and vision for a different world. We also want to thank the Four Freedoms Fund for their generous support of the series. Share Indefensible with your friends and colleagues, and engage in the conversation on social media using the #IndefensiblePodcast hashtag. Thanks so much for listening to the series. Please let us know what you thought by rating and commenting on iTunes or dropping us an email at [email protected].
P.S. Will mentions volunteering to visit people in immigration detention. For more information on a volunteer project near you, contact Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC).
WC: You’re listening to Indefensible… stories of people resisting deportation. I’m Will Coley, an independent radio producer. Before getting into radio, I was involved in immigrant rights activism for nearly two decades. This year, I launched this podcast series with the Immigrant Defense Project (or IDP), a name that you’ve heard at the end of each of our previous episodes. For this podcast extra, I recently met up with Mizue Aizeki, IDP’s Deputy Director, to talk about the larger context for the series and how you as a listener can get involved. To get the most out of our discussion, I recommend listening to the previous episodes… So Mizue…
MA: Thank you, Will.
WC: And I thought we’d start out if you could just explain what is the Immigrant Defense Project?
MA: The Immigrant Defense Project is a non-profit legal organization and we work at the intersection of the criminal and immigration systems. Our primary mission is to protect and expand the rights of immigrants who are facing deportation in particular because of contact with the criminal legal system. IDP came about in 1997 in response to the passage of two laws in 1996 that were extremely draconian. These were immigration laws that were passed in the context of a highly punitive War on Crime and the War on the Poor. These laws kind of embrace some of the worst aspects of the War on Crime and that it was very much founded on embracing racially discriminatory policing and punishment, mandatory sentencing and mass imprisonment. And effectively what these laws did was to deny a vast majority of undocumented immigrants a way to get legal status while at the same time making it very easy for the government to deport long time green card holders, by vastly expanding the criminal convictions that trigger deportation but also notably making deportation mandatory as well as immigrant detention in many cases as you’ve heard in the podcasts.
WC: And what brought you into this type of work?
MA: I started doing work on immigration issues in the 1990’s, actually just before these 1996 laws got passed. And I was living in California at the time. And I don’t know if people remember the uprisings around the Rodney King trial. One of the things that happened was when the National Guard came into L.A., there were huge sweeps of certain neighborhoods where people were arrested and if they were non-citizens, detained and then deported. It seems like a moment when this very clear example of brutality, like racialized brutality by agents of the state, the police, the reaction was not to really think about racial and economic justice, and what are the conditions that cause people to rise up. But it was to crack down. At that moment, just thinking back now to a little over twenty years ago, the convergence of these issues really now coming to the fore nationally in our politics and the way that people think about immigration policing. Okay, so how I got involved: I was doing political work around racial justice issues and also immigrant rights issues in Los Angeles at the time. And you know one of the other notable things. Well,the parts of my own political history, but also history around immigration at the time, was one of the first times in the early 90’s where undocumented workers were being embraced by certain segments of the labor movement right. Whereas historically there’s definitely been divisions between valuing workers who are U.S. citizens or born here, and regarding undocumented workers as a threat. And in Los Angeles at the time there was a movement, especially among janitors and hotel workers, of undocumented workers taking to the streets. And I don’t know if you remember this but one of the most memorable aspects of that was when the L.A.P.D. came down on a protest, just a peaceful march through the streets of L.A., Justice for Janitors, and just started wailing on people with their batons. A woman miscarried her baby. People were injured and brought to the hospital and it was mayhem. And I think that this was something that again brought this issue to me in that what tends to be a response, the government’s response, to people rising up and calling for justice seems so out of sync with what one would expect. The other issue that came to the fore in the early 1990s was the buildup of the wall at the U.S./Mexico border. But if you were down at that border two years prior, I think for many people it was considered more just a boundary and…
WC: Like a state line kind of thing?
MA: Kind of like a state line. And so, if people were down at that boundary in the early 90’s, it was kind of considered a state line and communities lived on both sides of these borders and they were contiguous. I think part of what we are challenged with today in this era of hyper policing of immigrants and the hyper policing of the border, is reshifting the frame on what is normal. Because twenty or twenty-five years ago it was not normal to have a huge metal barrier between communities and people that have coexisted for centuries.
MA: So, Will, I know you’ve been engaged in these issues for a long time. What brought you into these issues?
WC: Do you want the long story or the short story?
MA: Whichever one you want to do.
WC: Well, after college I was working with Refugee Resettlement in North Carolina and then ended up going overseas and was studying in England and somehow found myself getting involved with a volunteer group that was visiting people in immigration detention there. And when I got back to the states I started looking into you know what immigration detention was like here. For me it was like a continuation from the fact that you know I’ve been working with refugees who had been pre-selected and brought to the U.S. and then detention was involved with detaining people who were coming on their own and seeking asylum. So I got a job with Jesuit Refugee Service in New Jersey and started creating a program like what was in England here in the states. And you know recruited volunteers to go visit people in detention. It kind of became sort of this sort of incremental advocacy. It was like you’re taking a member of the public one person at a time, inside the facility and once they got to know detainees, their whole idea of the whole situation changed. And when I started this job I should say, it was in 1997 so it was like right after you know the ’96 law had been implemented and you know they were still trying to figure out how long people would be in detention. There was this idea people would be detained only 90 days but that quickly became not true. And I ended up moving to California and it was a time when one of those big marches happened. You know the 2006 march that they did around immigrant rights. And My Space was sort of this big thing that people were organizing. And it kind of started dawning on me that we can make our own media and communicate directly with the public and not have to wait on corporate or broadcast media to tell these stories. And so, I got really interested in video and then found my way to radio.
This project actually started as a podcast to focus on the Anniversary of the 1996 laws. And then with this surprise election result that kind of changed a lot of things. So, the focus has changed a little bit to be more about people who are supposed to be deported but are resisting it or standing up. And I know resisting has gotten kind of devalued over the last couple of months but I think it’s about people who are finding ways to stay with their families no matter what.
MA: One of the lines that I found just so compelling was when Eddy said, “This is the land of the free, but only for some.” And I’m wondering, because you had the opportunity to engage with these people and think about how to tell their story: Are there other lines or moments that really stand out for you as really embodying so much of what we have to fight against and change in the system?
WC: Yeah, I think. Well, you know I always come back to what Patrick Thaxter says in Episode 4. He said, “You know I’ve been fighting this long before Trump came along but I’m going to keep fighting.” And that’s what struck me was that so many of these stories have lasted for so long.And I think also what struck me about the illegal reentry story about William, is just the fact that. That 50% of all federal prosecutions in the United States, not just immigration but everything, are people for. For migration issues that are coming into the U.S. unauthorized. I mean that’s crazy.
MA: For me the theme of this podcast series is really a moment to look back on the impact of what’s happened over the past twenty years. If you look back at what the world was like twenty years ago, these people were not considered a public safety threat. They were not considered people that it was worth spending billions and billions of dollars to police, lock up and exile. And I think that’s the challenge that we face today right. And it’s the challenge that was faced by people fighting against mass imprisonment in the 1980s. As how has something so unjust and something so extremely punitive become what seems like a reflex of like, “Of course that is what ought to happen.”
WC: The thing I was going to ask about was about our new Attorney General. Jeff Sessions is saying that he wants to have even more prosecutions of people right – that’s part of the plan – with the toughest sentence possible.
MA: Attorney General Sessions also has a very aggressive and punitive agenda and that in addition to ramping up the prosecutions of people for illegal entry and reentry, he’s also calling to reinvigorate the War on Drugs, to prosecute people as harshly as you can for drug offenses. So, you know I think that there’s been a lot of work at the grassroots and through advocates over the decades to undo the harms of the extremely punitive War on Drugs and similarly we’re doing the same type of fight against the War on Immigrants. History has shown us that punishment doesn’t exist to actually correct harms. Punishment exists to control certain groups of people and to retain the power of other people. And so, you know part of what is so challenging in all forms of political change is to denormalize and challenge what has become a normal reflex. And I think in terms of immigration the particular challenge we face today is centuries and centuries of the idea around exclusion: who deserves to belong in this territory, or you know a territory built on occupation, genocide but also expansion; and who doesn’t deserve to have access to the same level of rights on the one hand. And then you have the history of criminalization. Where certain people, you know because of the color of their skin, because of their class position, occupy forever a position of being a threat. So, I think you know the recent testimony by the acting ICE director really reinforces both of those ideas, which is kind of like there’s a law that you can’t cross the border so what else can we do but enforce that law. And he even in his testimony references like, “I feel bad for those people from Central America, but that’s not our problem.” But what is he doing in that statement? He’s erasing you know decades of history of U.S. intervention in Central America, which has very much created the conditions of poverty and why someone would believe that their life could be better somewhere else. It’s very much tied to U.S. foreign policy and the U.S. economy. But those conversations never get foregrounded and it’s basically like, “Well, if we don’t control our border, you know what’s going to happen?” And it’s never articulated like, “Well why does the border have to be policed in the first place.” We fought in the 1980s, 90s, and many people before then to end apartheid in South Africa. So, what were the features of apartheid that the ruling class was a very small group of white people. You know the dominant class, the dominant people they’re repressing were black. Their movement was controlled by passes. They were told they could only live in certain areas and work in certain jobs. Now how can one look at that situation and say, “clearly that’s unjust,” and not apply a similar lens to what I would call global apartheid. So, if you think about the idea of the freedom of mobility. What percent of the world do you think has that? Yeah, and this is what the podcast brings to the fore is that these are human beings.
MA: And I think that the cruelty of the system is that it diminishes that these are human beings. It puts them into labels. So, I can call you an “illegal.” I can call you a “criminal,” and I can punish you with such an extreme punishment, but somehow it ends up still being your fault. And I think that this is the logic that we have to challenge and deconstruct.
MA: So, Will, you’ve worked on detention issues from as you said like right after the 1996 laws changed. And it’d be helpful to provide some kind of context both what you think has changed in terms of the scale of detention but also the nature of immigrant detention.
WC: I mean it’s expanded for a long time. Right now there’s a mandate in this. Well, as you know here in the U.S. there’s a mandate that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detain 34,000 people every day across the United States.
WC: I think a lot of people are surprised that there are companies that are making money off the fact that people are being held in detention.
MA: You know the scale of it is almost unthinkable that you know you would not know any police agency that had an explicit quota that I’m going to go arrest 30,000 people in this period of time. That’s something that they’re not allowed to do, right, but the government has a quota that they’re required to maintain, 34,000 beds for immigrant detainees every day. And so, what does that do to a system right?
MA: It creates an incentive or a requirement to arrest as many people as it can to fill these beds.
MA: It creates a requirement that if you’re a family, a mother and two young children who are crossing the border from Central America escaping violence, that the government is going to say, “Well, we have to hold you in detention facilities.” I’ve been working on this issue for a while and I had a very profound experience with someone who after spending a good amount of time in prison, seven years, came out and did everything he was supposed to do. He went through probation. He got a job. He completed college. He started a family. He was about to get a master’s in social work and then ICE came to his house, lied to get inside, and basically took him away from his family without warning. And this was during the Obama Administration, this didn’t happen under Trump.
But he said to me two things that always stick with me. One of them was that he said, “You know I spent seven and a half years in a state facility. And I spent eight months in a detention prison.” And he said, “Those eight months were worse than my seven and a half years in prison.” And why? He said, “I had no idea what was going to happen to me. I was completely ripped away from my family and saw their lives falling apart with no knowledge of when it would end.” And he said, “The only thing anyone ever talked about when they’re locked up is what’s going to happen to my family.”
MA: The other thing that he said to me that I thought was so telling is, “You know the system never lets you go.” This political moment that we’re fighting against, is that we cannot allow people to be perpetually punished.
MA: And we can’t allow a system that devalues certain lives because they happened to have been arrested and convicted or they happen to not have the privilege of being born in the country in which they live. I think that there’s a lot of cruelty that surrounds us every day. But what these stories show us is that there’s also a lot of fire and hope and struggle.
I think if you look at the history of social change, it’s always been because people despite all odds, have held onto what we know to be just and fair, and at the core fighting and valuing the lives of all people.
WC: Yeah, I mean that’s what I was kind of hoping in doing this series and working with y’all on it was that when people would hear these stories and think about. That people would hear these stories and understand the complexity of immigration law and that we need to have more empathy about what they’re going through. But what do you think people should do when they hear this? For the listener. Beyond just understanding, what’s the next step for them to do something about it?
MA: Each one of the people that were highlighted in these stories is involved in some kind of political advocacy. We have Eddy, who is a member of United We Dream and people who fought for DACA and were “undocumented and unafraid,” really stepped out on the streets and really forced a lot of change. In terms of how people view the rights of undocumented people, one thing that history will always teach us is that there’s just really such little accountability for the powerful. There’s a lot of historical amnesia and a lot of exclusion, and very rarely do we actually get to foreground the stories of those who have been on the front lines of that. This is what Indefensible and the role of storytelling can really do. I think that given the current power alignment in the Congress and in the administration, a lot of us who’ve been working on these issues have pivoted to really focusing on local and state initiatives. And in particular, IDP. You know we’ve had to develop an analysis and kind of a strategy for dealing with ICE involvement in almost every phase from arrest, through prosecution, through imprisonment. You know there are many things that state legislators can do. I think for many jurisdictions the fight against 287(g) is going to be a frontline fight. And I encourage people to learn more about what’s happening in their local jurisdiction around this. In terms of the state level, there’s a lot of work that’s been done with sentencing reform and ways of thinking about how the harms of the criminal legal system have harmed both citizens and non-citizens alike. And so, you know we are active in collaborations with the reentry movement and people who work with people in imprisonment. There’s a policy that we are trying to move to have probation to not cooperate with ICE and also to protect people from ICE arrests at courthouses. But I think also the bigger fight that we all have to engage–and be really clear that we’re not going to move towards justice if we continue to devalue certain immigrants over others. I think that the goal of Indefensible was to give a little more texture to the lives and the humanity of people who ICE would casually and callously just label as a so-called “criminal alien.” And I think the impact of the ideas around criminalization is very deep. To the point of if you committed something that’s considered a crime, that the logical consequence ought to be that you’re arrested. And I think it’s important to identify that this is not a universally held idea. I think the challenge that we face is to not universalize everything. But also identify that even in some unexpected corners we’ll find more progressive ideas for change. But that’s just a small sample of the types of things people can do and obviously this is a moment that calls for a lot of action on many different fronts. So, Will, why don’t you wrap us up by talking about some thoughts you have in terms of things people can do.
WC: Yeah, well, I think for me, my life has been changed from getting to know people who have been through these systems and have lived. For me, I know that my life has been changed in my understanding by getting to know people who’ve gone through these systems. And I think my challenge to listeners would be to get involved and to do something. Around the country right now there’s a network of programs that are pairing people with volunteers to go and visit people in detention. It’s a way of boosting their morale but it’s a way of you understanding directly from someone who’s experiencing it, what it’s like to be in detention. But I guess what I’ve taken away from this project in listening to these stories is that immigrants and their families are standing up for themselves. They are not taking this lying down. They’re figuring out ways to make this unworkable and broken system work for them. And if anything, I think their stories are a challenge to the rest of us that we should as well stand up for them, support them through this process, and figure out ways to make a system that really lives up to the values that we believe in as a country. If we believe in due process, if we believe in fairness, if we believe in family unity, we should actually do something about it and make it happen. And I just wanted to say thank you to the Immigrant Defense Project. I’m glad you were able to have this chance to talk with me today. And I think y’all are doing amazing work.
MA: Thank you, Will. It’s been great working with you as well. The struggle continues?
WC: yeah yeah yeah. La lucha sigue.
MA: La lucha continua.
WC: Yeah Exactly the struggle continues. You’ve been listening to Indefensible. I’m Will Coley. This series has been brought to you by the Immigrant Defense Project and the Four Freedoms Fund. Our editor is KalaLea and our composer is Andrew Ingkavet. Anne Pope has been our audio engineer and special thanks to Brooklyn Free Speech Radio which hosted us in their studio for this episode. Thanks again.