Building on New Foundations > New Strategies, New Organizations

New York and New Jersey

Subhash Kateel

and Aarti Shahani

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Families for Freedom

Subhash: Families for Freedom began working in the summer of 2000, sponsoring monthly family gatherings for people facing deportation. Our network is multiethnic, bringing together Latino, Caribbean, and South Asian immigrants from New York and New Jersey. Before I was more involved in police brutality issues and their impact on South Asian and US-born communities of color.

We didn’t want to start a new organization, but to build leadership, to build a process to help organize family members. In the process we hope to develop a different kind of accountability. The traditional model of advocacy is not based on the self-determination of those who are directly affected. The advocacy community has no general assumption that it takes guidance from those who are [directly] affected.

Families need to do the work themselves – car-pooling to the detention center, sharing resources, sharing lists. Family members need support – they need to create mechanisms for mutual support.

There are many gaps of information – for detainees and their families and for the larger community. The laws are really bad, both before and after 9/11. We need a process of self-education, political education, both internally and externally.

Aarti: The need we see is not just for legal education, but for an educational process that is informed by real experiences. When someone is detained and deported, it’s an eye-opening experience. People feel the injustice, but there is no space for them to voice what they’re feeling.

If you go to your neighbor, it arouses their suspicion. Journalists will discount what you saw. Socially and culturally, you are ostracized. But we look at everyone as righteously angry, and we support them to be vocal about it.            My own uncle was deported, and my father is in deportation proceedings.

There are always divisions among immigrants. Before 9/11, the divide was asylum seekers versus legal permanent residents with criminal convictions. We see all of them as people who are being punished for their immigration status. We wanted to work beyond the divides.

We try to reach out to existing organizations in immigrant communities. Our assumption is that the affected communities will use advocacy tools that may be divisive. Undocumented people may say, “we’re not criminals” – and people with criminal convictions may say, “we’re not undocumented.” We try to put everyone in one room talking – to counter the idea, “deport anyone but me.”

Building unity among immigrants is important both strategically and tactically, because of the government’s decision to go after people based on their immigration status. There are a growing number of stakeholders with a vested interest in criminalizing immigrants. Since 9/11, mainstream immigrant advocacy groups have been talking about “understanding the need for national security.”

We are developing an apartheid regime in America, with legal separation between citizens and noncitizens. Undocumented immigrants and other noncitizens are increasingly afraid – to leave their house, go to the hospital, travel; to enter the public sphere in any way. People’s daily decisions are determined by their immigration status.

Our family meetings stopped after 9/11 and began again a year later. At the beginning none of those involved were Muslims; there are a few Muslims now.

Our program has involved organizing with families, engaging them in education and action. We also work on capacity building for existing organizations. We don’t promote the group much, and its services not at all. We are not looking to build a clientele, even though we do help with briefs and so on for our membership. We also help with making phone calls for people – to help them get services, especially legal services; with visiting people.

We are housed at a legal service agency – the Immigrant Defense Project at the New York State Defender Association. We also work with other groups – but we don’t want to veer into service provision.

Subhash: It’s therapeutic, bringing families together to share their experiences – looking at their cases, talking about their experiences, sharing their feelings. It helps to counter isolation. They make calls for one another.

Aarti: It’s also a model of local organizing around federal issues. The Justice Department, and now the Homeland Security Department, have always had discretion for any case, even though the laws are awful. We can organize locally to pressure the local DHS/DOJ offices, for example to reduce someone’s bond or cancel the proceedings. We organize other groups to send letters.

Subhash: Our family meetings are divided among those elements. Sometimes one predominates. People get into arguments about who should be deported – and sometimes also express support for a complete end to all borders or to imperialism. It’s important for us to entertain those conversations, rather than imposing a party line.

For us, deportation offers a lens into broader social justice issues, like the criminal justice system. One of the tools we use for political education is “power mapping’ for the players in the detention system. Identifying all the allies, all the enemies, the laws we’re targeting, the personal and political considerations.

Aarti: People have so much energy – it’s important to know where to focus it, to help people figure out who to address.

Subhash: Some people are at risk – if they leave and return they will be detained, for example because of a prior criminal conviction. It’s the riskiest group to organize with, because they don’t want to bring themselves to the attention of authorities.

We also do external education – with schools, churches, community centers, congressional visits.

Everyone is in “9/11 mode.” The expanded enforcement regime affects everyone, not just those identified as “post-9/11” populations. Jamaicans, Ecuadorians …The focus on Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians hurts the possibility of building broader coalitions. Overall, deportation figures haven’t changed that much after 9/11.

Scapegoating is a piece of what is going on, but it is not all of it. We need to look at all the interests – of employers, in maintaining access to undocumented labor; of unions, in increasing their members.

It’s a fundamental difference of approach, dismantling apartheid versus combating scapegoating. Multiculturalism – celebrating falafel and kebabs – won’t stop apartheid.

One case we’ve worked on is the Hassan family, who are Pakistanis. The husband and wife, Shabih Ul Hassan and Razia Hassan, came in 95 with their one-year-old son. They applied for asylum at entry. Time passed, they were living in Jamaica, Queens, living their life – unsure of the status of their asylum claim. They had two more kids, so now they have a 10-year-old son, a 6-year-old daughter, and a 5-year-old son.

In September 2002, at 4:40 a.m., the cops came to the door and said they had information on an old burglary. The husband was working the night shift, so the wife said, my husband is not home, please come back when he is here. The officers returned at 11:00 a.m. with two others. They asked everybody for their documents, and then took them into detention. The wife and oldest son were identified as “absconders.” The two younger children are citizens.

Families for Freedom investigated their case. Their attorney had been disbarred, convicted, and imprisoned. … We submitted a brief arguing that the family had ineffective counsel.

In March 2003, there was a mass deportation – we sent out action alerts about it. Shabih Ul Hassan was taken back into custody, with one other man. He hadn’t heard anything from BIA [the Board of Immigration Appeals]. We visited Anthony Wiener, the congressman from Jamaica [in Queens, NY] , to let him know what was going on – both of us, the family, all the children, their friends, and other activists. We brought all the papers to ask ICE [Immigation and Customs Enforcement] to offer relief.

We met with Wiener’s staff. The staff were very uncomfortable when a dozen brown people pressed into their office. We wanted to create a fuss over the family impact of deportation. At the very least, Shabih Ul Hassan will go with dignity, knowing he fought it.

We wanted the congressman’s aide to speak directly to Razia, to look her in the eye – not at the advocates. They have two US citizen children – what will happen to them? The 10-year-old was translating for his mother when the aide told me, “The US government provides for its citizens – they can go into foster care.” After that the aide began trying to help some.

A short time ago BIA granted our motion to reopen the asylum case – the husband may be released as early as this summer. [Mr. Hassan was deported in winter 2004; for more information see ww.familiesforfreedom.org/truth/hassan.htm.]

Everything that happened to them was completely haphazard. They were victims of repression at home and scheming attorneys in the US – it’s a completely unaccountable system.

Aarti: Too much work on these issues is focused on services.

Subhash: Or broad advocacy, or traditional forms of activism. Rallies and other traditional activism have replaced sustained base-building. 9/11 pushed things toward more visible responses, rallies and know-your-rights programs, rather than long-term base building.

Aarti: It’s a big challenge of our work – responding to bad laws. When someone is in deportation proceedings, they immediately ask for a lawyer. It’s like a drug – things are weighted toward the myth that the lawyer can help you. The fact is that the laws are so bad that most people will be deported anyhow.

It’s not that we are opposed to working with lawyers – but that we see finding lawyers as being about building trust and doing what is possible through the legal system, while encouraging people to think pro-actively about how they can help themselves.