"Why aren't we gone?": On imprisoned migrant families in Texas.
Part 2 of our interview with Julia Valero at RAICES; and some reflections on anti-Asian violence, plus links for the week.
This was a tough week for us. With the rising COVID numbers in France and the recent killings in Atlanta, we’ve struggled to stay motivated to work. Rereading this interview with Julia Valero, though, was a reminder of how it’s possible to create solidarity even in the bleakest situations.
We all want to know how to live meaningfully. Julia’s is one path. She lives in San Antonio but drives frequently to an immigration prison an hour away in rural Texas. She’s an American citizen but thinks of her work as part of a global struggle; her father is Basque, and her clients come from all over the world, from Guatemala to Haiti to the Congo. Through her work and her imagination she tries to close the gap between the urban and the rural, the free and the imprisoned, the citizen and the deportable. Her politics—and her hope—arise from having worked alongside people who’ve been to hell and made it back. And through it all, she’s trying to learn how to value her own health, taking time to nourish herself with cooking, rest, and things like Lord of the Rings, which she describes as nerdy. We don’t think that’s nerdy, but maybe that’s on us.
This week we present part II of our interview with Julia of RAICES Texas. (You can find part I here.) We ask her how families in detention sustain their spirit. She tells us about a report that she helped write, collecting stories of separated parents. (Read the report and listen to audio of parents recounting their stories here.) She describes the horrors of Customs and Border Patrol custody, where guards have been known to punish people for asking for a paper towel. These conditions, she observes, “essentially lay the groundwork for people to not expect to have their rights respected or their needs met in ICE detention.”
We also work through the recent spike in anti-Asian violence and more broadly the place of Asians in America, with some help from friends Avi Singh, Eunice Cho, and Scott Lee.
Michelle: We wanted to ask you about self-deportation and voluntary departure. When we worked with you, people were in such despair at being separated, or worried that their children were going to be taken away again, and RAICES was trying to make sure they fully understood their rights before they made an impossible decision. Do you still see that? Do you see subterfuge from ICE to persuade people to voluntarily self-deport?
Julia Valero: That still regularly happens. It was happening a lot at that time because of the brutality of family separation, because families were stuck in indefinite detention with no clear end in sight due to pending litigation, and because so many of those families had already been in detention for three to six months, in horrible conditions, for the fathers in particular. I remember some telling me how they would be chained at the waist and feet and hands when they were eating, and food would be thrown to them. I don't know how long they were in those conditions for, but that was their welcome to the U.S.
We still do regularly encounter that phenomenon, especially with people who have been through just CBP [Customs and Border Patrol] custody, not even ICE detention yet. I've met people who were in CBP custody for over a month, when the legal limit is supposed to be 72 hours. CBP custody is brutal. ICE detention is awful and dehumanizing and deadly, but CBP custody is a different beast in terms of the outright openness of the human rights violations.
I'm working on some CBP data right now, actually, reviewing what they’ve told and physically done to people in their custody, including physical aggression. The scale of the verbal abuse, the scale of the threats just for asking for something as simple as a paper towel—it’s incomprehensible. People get skipped for meals because they asked for food when it wasn't mealtime. It's punitive. And it essentially lays the groundwork for people to not expect to have their rights respected or their needs met in ICE detention either, as people are still in the hands of the government that treated them like animals, even if the veneer is just a bit shinier.
I've met so many people who, after going through CBP custody, have no trust that the government will actually process their asylum claims. They have no trust that the government will prioritize their safety or humanity in any way. So they’re disillusioned with the process, fearful for their lives due to the conditions of detention, and they may ask for deportation. In summer 2018 I knew multiple parents who were really, really afraid to return to their country of origin because of threats of torture—people who had previously been tortured or beaten or subjected to sexual violence—but who decided to opt for deportation because of how deadly detention was becoming for them.
I remember, around when you volunteered with us in 2018, a few parents whose kids had really severe medical situations. I remember one child in particular who was losing weight, in and out of the medical unit, and nobody would tell his dad what was going on. But he knew his kid was really sick, watching him physically waste away before his eyes. This was a very young child.
The medical staff at Karnes wasn't helpful. So that dad in particular asked for deportation because he thought his son was going to die if he kept trying to fight the case in detention. And he opted for the situation where he would at least have more control in protecting his child and getting him medical care—even though it might mean persecution in his country of origin.
MK: That’s just so devastating.
JV: I’m sure it's not lost on you that the U.S. paints itself as this beacon of hope. It’s been propagandized since its inception as a colony as a place to seek refuge. For the U.S. to meet people with this kind of brutality when they get here is so messed up.
MK: When we met and worked with you, we were mentally exhausted after a single day’s work. How do you survive dealing with these horrifying stories for years?
JV: I mean, I definitely don’t have it all figured out. I’m still trying to learn what works for me, how to do this sustainably. It will be three years this June that I’ve been an employee with the family detention team.
One thing that’s really helped is being able to have group therapy as a team. That’s something we as a team advocated for and finally got from our organization. We get to have that group support with somebody who has done this type of work, a social worker who gets it in terms of the constant emergencies of expedited deportation proceedings and the brutality of detention. And she’s brought an emphasis on community care that has been a really good thing for our team culture. I also go to solo therapy, though it’s been challenging to find a therapist I can talk to about work, because so often therapists don’t understand how the carceral state works or how systemic justice issues work.
Beyond that, I don’t know. I try to figure out what feels right or good, so to speak, in terms of honoring my own experience. I do have PTSD partially related to work; I get nightmares and flashbacks of things I’ve witnessed in Karnes or that people have told me about their past experiences. And I’m experiencing this as a white, U.S.-born cis woman. I don’t necessarily have to contend with what clients tell me reminding me of my own personal traumas related to systemic injustices in the way colleagues may.
And I love my teammates. They’re awesome. We’ve built a really great community in that regard. No one comes into this work just for fun, though I have many fond memories of blaring Bad Bunny, Run the Jewels, and other jams on the highway between San Antonio and Karnes. The team makes this work survivable.
The families themselves are also so inspiring. I’m sure you guys saw it too when you were at Karnes. They take care of us, too. I remember running the client list. It would be 4 p.m. and I hadn’t eaten lunch due to the emergencies of the day, and I would be speaking in Spanish with my colleagues, and one of the dads would turn around and be like, “What are you doing here? Go, go and eat your food, have a good lunch.” So, to say the least, I also get a lot of validation and support from the people I work with.
Beyond that, I try to do stuff that really makes me joyful. I cook a lot. I enjoy nerdy things like Lord of the Rings and reading lots of sci-fi books. [Laughter] I love Brandon Sanderson.
I also try to be honest with myself about what this work is doing to me. I try to notice if I’m buying into any ideologies that may be dehumanizing. I sometimes see in other advocates, in the way they talk, that they’re dehumanizing their own clients or lacking empathy for why they might say or do a certain thing. There are so many completely valid reasons that can lead people to do or say something that might seem unreasonable if one is only looking at the process from a legal point of view.
MK: What do you think sustains families’ spirits?
JV: Whenever I talk to parents, it’s always about their kid, right? It’s almost always what the child needs. Or they’ll say, “My child is asking me, when are we going to leave here?” I’ve heard that so many times. I’ve heard from so many folks that it’s a daily question. One of the things about detention is the not knowing—not knowing what’s going on, not having access to information about what proceeding you’re in and how it’s going to work, the lack of consistent processing for people in the same type of situation. You might get there the same day that another family does and they leave after three days but you’re still there after three weeks.
And then other families are saying, “My kid knows a kid who’s gone. Why aren’t we gone?”
But I think parents have told me they find strength in their kids. I interviewed some families for a RAICES report about family separation and prolonged family detention, The US Government Kidnapped My Son, which the family detention team published in the summer of 2020. It was a very emotional experience to work on that, but I wanted to do it because I’m one of the only people on the team that’s still here from that time. Many of the families have been outspoken about wanting something in the public record about this.
It’s imperfect, because our data wasn’t in a place where we could give a lot of quantitative information, but it does qualitatively discuss what some families went through. And it includes audio recordings from some about their experience. I really recommend listening to those, because they kind of address the question you’re asking. One dad talks about how his son gave him strength to get through the experience. Many families also talk about faith. They hope for further strength from God.
I’ve also heard people say that their families in the U.S., if they can afford to call and talk to them, give them strength. Of course it’s tricky because phone calls are monitored, so people are often really scared to be honest about how they’re feeling in detention. You know, going back to what we talked about with CBP custody: if you get yelled at for asking for a napkin, how do you know if it’s even safe to talk about the brutality you’re experiencing when you’re on the phone with your family?
Albert: Can we ask about the other piece of your work, managing outside volunteers like us? More broadly, how can the public continue to support your work?
MK: And you don’t have to be nice! We understand volunteers can be annoying. I used to manage volunteers at a homeless shelter and I didn’t exactly love everybody who came. [Laughter]
JV: It depends how they’re engaging. Like, you all are wonderful. But yes, it is difficult when people come in and are like, “I’m going to save everything and I have no idea how the system works.”
I’ve had volunteers at Karnes threaten to not represent somebody in their IJ [immigration judge] review. Those are for people pending deportation and the volunteer came to represent them, and then threatened to back out because we couldn’t get the client in to meet with them beforehand. There was never an agreement that we would connect them prior. And they’re seeing me not being allowed by GEO to connect them! Anyway, there’s all sorts of stories like that when it comes to this work, especially when volunteers center themselves instead of the person in detention.
So yes, I have a love-hate relationship with volunteer management. Because if people are open to showing up in whatever way is helpful, are willing to do the work to educate themselves and minimize the harm they cause when engaging, and are open to having their beliefs challenged, that can be awesome.
I remember some of my favorite volunteers: one was a former psychiatric nurse who was doing the legal work. We don’t necessarily need you to be a lawyer—that’s something I want to scream from the mountaintops. This person was able to help us support a suicidal father. And RAICES was more limited then, in terms of our resources, so that partnership was invaluable. So I love it when folks from other backgrounds come in, because there are impactful opportunities to utilize non-legal skills in this work too.
AW: So you probably have some ideas about what we can do now to abolish ICE and, you know, end family detention and private contracts.
JV: People need to plug in to their local communities. One way of doing that is to find grassroots nonprofits in their area by searching with keywords related to immigrant justice or by using a search tool like www.immigrationlawhelp.org, and then seeing what they can do to support the work community members are already doing locally.
Beyond that, there are a few different organizations I would recommend checking out.
I’ll give the RAICES spiel first. RAICES coordinates something known as the Migrant Justice Warriors. It’s a network of folks who sign up to receive texts about things like a phone zap or a Twitter zap or other advocacy support as needed. Phone zaps, for example, can put public pressure on ICE to release individuals or change certain policies.
I would also shout out Sueños Sin Fronteras de Tejas (SSFTX). They are awesome. They’re a local San Antonio organization doing work in the intersection of reproductive justice and immigration. They provide assistance to undocumented women and families, such as housing assistance, birthing resource assistance, and even commissary money so that people still inside detention can purchase basic goods to help survive or use the money for phone minutes to speak to loved ones on the outside.
And I’m a big fan of Freedom for Immigrants. They have a national detention hotline, and it’s one of the only national-level hotlines for detention abuses. They do visitation programs and publish letters that people write from detention as well as art they create about their experience. And they have statistics and maps on their website about the detention apparatus in the U.S. Their website is a great place to go for a 101 on the immigration detention machine, including the involvement of private prison companies. I really admire their work.
AW: Last question: if you had the ear of President Biden, what would you tell him?
JV: The first ask would be to shut down family detention. But the ask needs to be more than that—it needs to be prisons in general. We’ve talked a lot about the human cost. I don’t want to diminish that. But I also want to acknowledge the huge financial costs—around $300 per person, per night, to detain somebody in family detention. The U.S. government is literally spending millions of dollars on prison abuse that could otherwise feed and care for communities.
Family detention is an initial ask because there are children there and it’s a pretty attainable goal. Numbers of people in family detention are pretty low at the moment. It’s an easy moment for the Biden administration to close these places down. But again, the ask needs to go beyond that. At a minimum, there also need to be financial reparations for people harmed by the deportation and detention industrial complex, as well as free, public defender–style attorneys provided for anybody in deportation proceedings. It’s completely messed up that people are being tried for life-or-death matters in asylum cases without being provided a government attorney.
Stopping AAPI Hate
Like so many others, we’ve been closely following the rise in anti-Asian violence in the U.S., and were horrified by the recent shootings in Atlanta. Jeong Pak’s entire Twitter thread rounding up the Korean media’s reporting on the shooting is vital, but these two tweets struck us in particular:
We mourn for the dead: Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Ae Yue, Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Tan, and Daoyou Feng. We support organizations like Stop AAPI Hate, which is collecting more comprehensive statistics on anti-Asian violence, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice, a longtime progressive Asian-American advocacy group.
Our friend Eunice Cho, who worked in Atlanta with the Southern Poverty Law Center, writes:
I'm supposed to be working on drafting motions against ICE and GEO right now. But I can't because I've been thinking of Atlanta all day, feeling weepy and exhausted. We lived there for only three and a half years, and it's been three years since, but it's the place where we buried two Asian American women friends and colleagues, each killed in random acts of violence in that short time. It is where API friends from out of town said that they got funny looks that they hadn't gotten in years; it is where my infant son's first doctor blamed his neonatal jaundice on my race as I held him in the NICU, hours after giving birth. It's the place where the police and ICE and the whole prison and detention system and the courts get away with the most blatant abuse.
But it's also the place where I saw the most beautiful organizing happen; where I learned not to be afraid of all southern accents, just the mean ones; where people based your solidarity on the time you spent actually showing up to do the work and your heartfelt intention instead of your posture or professed analysis; where people open their doors and invite newcomers over for dinner; where I learned to do pushups on sweaty Saturday mornings in the park; where the Korean food OTP is even better than in LA; where you show up at the International Market and see Eritrean American kids tell their moms to buy gochujang because it's good; where everyone, even the cops, listen a little deeper when preachers speak at rallies; where faith blooms in the smallest, most humble rooms; where undocumented youth stay up all night locking arms in college classrooms where they are banned to take their rightful seats; where there's this one older white dude who always waits at the police station for hours to be there for protesters released at the end of the night or the early morning; where disorganized Korean drumming is tolerated, even welcomed with curiosity; where people despair and wonder why do they treat us this way, so bad, and then hold each other to move mountains, step by step.
Our friend Scott Lee recalls recently biking through a snowstorm in Nashville, Tennessee—he was on the way to the hospital, where he works as a physician—and hearing people yell, “Go back to China!”:
One day during the recent snowstorm that crippled half the country, I found myself biking to the hospital where I work as a physician. It was the morning after the first snowfall, so the roads were still pristine and mostly devoid of traffic. Lumbering in my direction, however, were two college-age men riding in a Jeep Wrangler, decked out for an incongruous joyride: top down, doors off, shirts off.
I felt a sense of amused camaraderie but otherwise paid them little heed, as I was focused on navigating a straight line on the slippery road whose two lanes had narrowed into one. Just as I was about to look over to wave hi, though, the driver accelerated towards me and shouted, “Go back to China!!” I flinched, and my straight line turned into a wobbly squiggle, my legs splaying out for balance. The two men hooted, victorious in their dominance display, and went on their way. And so did I, to the hospital where I’ve been working for the past year to help fight the very plague they likely thought I had a hand in unleashing.
What does it mean to live among people who think you should go back to a country that you’ve never been to—that you have not even a genealogical connection to—in the only country that you’ve ever known as home? How does one exist, both socially and symbolically, in such a predicament? One gets a feeling of being interred, as shape-giving lexical structures such as “Asian” and “American” and “citizen” collapse around you, until your very existence starts to feel like a contradiction: neither here, nor there, nor anywhere. The non-Asian, non-American, non-citizen. At its worst and bleakest, the non-person.
Scott reflects on the eight-year-old Alan Kim’s acceptance speech for his role in “Minari”:
But Alan’s 40-second speech reaches further into me, into a place that feels at once familiar and strange […] Watching Alan’s uncontrolled, uninhibited weeping, we are reminded that even young children carry these longings and hardships within them. And yet, at that age and for many years thereafter, that interiority was largely hidden to me. For people of all stripes who grew up in families or cultures that taught us to suppress this core part of ourselves (which I daresay is all of us), seeing Alan allow himself to “go there”—watching him open the small music box of vulnerability in his heart that sings of pain and sadness and fear—we see in him the child we wish we could’ve been, the childhood we wish we could’ve had.
And last, we worry that some attempts to address anti-Asian violence may strengthen our prison-obsessed state. Our friend Avi Singh, a public defender in Santa Clara, California, has told us that more people are calling for new units in prosecutor’s offices, probation ineligibility terms, and increased sentences.
In light of the widespread calls to “stop hate crimes” against Asians and Asian elders, we want to pin down and respond to two things. The first is the goal of raising public consciousness around violence against Asians and recognizing when it’s racially motivated, which we of course support. Doing this helps us understand who is committing violence and how they justify it; it also begins to make Asians less invisible.
But the second, the goal of having this violence classified by the state as a hate crime, also means increasing the power of police, prisons, and prosecutors. It means adding years to sentences. It means reinforcing the biases of criminal legal systems that disproportionately punish people from marginalized groups.
It can be appealing to get involved in the politics of recognition by the state, and we’re not immune to the temptation. But ultimately this moves us away from long-term, transformative, restorative change. Hate crime enhancements can increase a prison sentence by two to ten years, as well as make a crime punishable by death. But studies show that these penalties don’t actually prevent crimes motivated by hatred of a particular group. Moreover, they give police and legislators the power to define what hate and crime are. (For instance, various state legislatures have attempted to classify attacks on police officers as hate crimes.) We need solutions that don’t increase the power of a police state: restorative and transformative justice, public education and consciousness-raising, increased compensation for victims.
Finally, there’s been a great deal of thought-provoking writing prompted by the recent rise of anti-Asian violence. Here are several valuable pieces: Heidi Shin writes in the New York Times about how she is helping her daughter embrace her Korean-American identity; in an interview in The Atlantic, Cathy Park Hong talks about why this wave of anti-Asian violence feels different; in The New Yorker, Hua Hsu writes about “The Muddled History of Anti-Asian Violence;” and in the New York Times Jay Caspian Kang argues that “we need to put a name to this violence.”
Some other links for the week
In an article for New York called “How the West Lost COVID-19,” the indispensable David Wallace-Wells works through political, social, and cultural arguments about how western countries bungled their initial COVID response so catastrophically. In a consistently nuanced piece, the most provocative argument is his critique of a patient-centered culture that has in turn paralyzed broader public health responses:
“One of the common features [of countries that fared poorly] is that we are a medical-centric group of countries,” says Michael Mina, a Harvard epidemiologist who has spent the pandemic advocating for mass rollout of rapid testing on the pregnancy-kit model — only to meet resistance at every turn by those who insisted on a higher, clinical standard for tests. “We have an enormous focus on medicine and individual biology and individual health. We have very little focus as a group of nations on prioritizing the public good. We just don’t. It’s almost taboo — I mean, it is taboo. We have physicians running the show — that’s a consistent thing, medical doctors across the western European countries, driving the decision-making.” The result, he says, has been short-sighted calculations that prioritize absolute knowledge about everything before advising or designing policy about anything.
We loved this conversation between Vinson Cunningham and the historian Robin D. G. Kelley, who has godlike status in the Kuo-Wu household. Here’s Kelley’s answer when asked about how to combat fascism:
Internationalism is the Raid for the cockroach of fascism. Because fascism, it’s always about using nationalism, and the nation, as a bludgeon to generate support for death policies, on behalf of death governments. For violence and repression and exploitation, internationalism is the antidote, always.
Our friend Sebastian sends along this heartbreaking story in the L.A. Times about the human rights lawyer Wang Yu, who was imprisoned in China for a year, and her son, who sought asylum in the United States:
Only one thing could make her compromise: her son.
Wang was the first of more than two hundred swept up more than five years ago in a crackdown on human rights lawyers and activists in China. After more than a year in secret detention, where she was subject to shackled interrogations, isolation and sleep deprivation, she made a forced confession.
She went on state television and blamed foreign forces for indoctrinating her with “ideas like Western universal values, democracy and human rights, to attack and smear the government.... I am Chinese. I can only accept the Chinese government’s leadership.”
In return, her captors promised, Wang’s teenage son Bao Zhuoxuan would be allowed to travel abroad.
Last year, he sought asylum in the U.S. But — as if he were a case from one of his mother's old files — Bao landed in a detention center in the desert northeast of Los Angeles. He spent a month there, among hundreds of other asylum seekers and immigrants, before receiving parole.
We love that Charles Yu and the TaiwaneseAmerican.org have launched a creative writing prize for high school & collegiate writers. The deadline is coming up in 10 days (March 31st). If you know young people of Taiwanese heritage, as well as anybody with a significant connection to Taiwan or subject matter related to Taiwan, please do share.
A bit on the origins: Charles was a summer high school camper at the Taiwanese American Foundation (TAF), where he and Ho Chie Tsai, the current head of TAF, first met. After winning the National Book Award, Charles approached Ho Chie to create the prize. As Ho Chie told us, Charles hopes “to inspire and nurture the next generation of Taiwanese American writers.” We especially love that Charles is naming the prize after his parents, who have a long history of service to communities like TAF. Among other things, his parents co-founded the South Bay Taiwanese-American School, the first school in the United States specifically for the purpose of Taiwanese language instruction.
We somehow missed this news announcement, but our friend Jia Lynn Yang was recently named the National Editor for the New York Times. We honestly can’t think of somebody more deserving! She’s brilliant, empathetic, and nuanced. Congratulations, Jia Lynn!
Latest music rec from Alice Kao
Our friend with impeccable taste, Alice Kao, recommends this concert by Alexi Kenney. We’re hoping to interview him at some point! Here’s the program:
Dvořák: Violin Sonata in F Major, Op. 57
Ko: Plush Earth in Four Pieces
Dancigers: Skyline for Solo Violin
Poulenc: Violin Sonata
Clarke: Midsummer Moon
Book Club: Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters
We’d love to see you at our book club on this coming Friday at 2:45 PM ET. Tanizaki’s classic novel was released in serialized form during wartime Japan. It’s a fully immersive world of Vitamin B injections, fading Japanese traditions, and rejected male suitors. Email us for the Zoom link =)
Checking in with the baby
She’s currently obsessed with magnets, lemons, and light switches. She also likes closing doors and uncapping pens. At present, no pen in our home is capped.
When Michelle’s grandmother passed away in November, your newsletter provided an opportunity for people to share in your mourning while reflecting on their own experience of loss. I had hoped after what occurred in Atlanta that you would offer a similar opportunity for the Asian American community to process the trauma and grief of this tragedy. I had expected a pause of your usual content, that you would pay more respect to Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Ae Yue, Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Tan, and Daoyou Feng instead of merely listing their names. I had expected you to hold a place for collective grief instead of moving quickly to tell the community what solutions not to pursue in response to this tragedy. As a queer person who remembers the significance of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act and who celebrated the passing of marriage equality, I think you should avoid sweeping claims about why we should avoid the politics of recognition by the state. This week in particular your academic banter and references to your friend’s “impeccable taste” was like salt on a wound. Your talk of long-term, transformative, restorative change rings particularly hollow in the absence of any concrete proposals to address the loss of basic physical safety the community faces right now. No one wants to live in a police state, but as Andrew Yang has pointed out when his speech against these hate incidents was interrupted by calls to defund the police: “when people are getting stabbed, you need the police.” If you don’t share in the material conditions of the most vulnerable members of the community and cannot even hold space for their grief, please have some humility and do not tell them what they should or should not want.
I think the dissonance I feel reading your newsletter is ultimately rooted in class difference. While you share the experience of your friend, Scott Lee, who is a physician, as he ponders the “shape-giving lexical structures such as “Asian” and “American” and “citizen”, I just really want to know how Asian Americans who have to take the subway deal with the possibility of being gravely injured in a racial attack. Acts of creation and solidarity so that we all become free sound nice, but what I’ve gleaned from your newsletter has mostly been a demonstration of how much social and cultural capital one can accumulate in association with academic institutions and how much freedom and autonomy that the very privileged few have.