by Monisha Das Gupta
I first heard of Families For Freedom (FFF) in 2003 in the context of the deepening crisis in detention and deportation in New York’s South Asian community as a result of the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, initiated in 2002. Based in New York City,FFF is a multi-ethnic group formed in 2002. In fighting deportation, it brings together those who are directly impacted by the U.S. federal government’s escalating immigration enforcement in the name of national security.
Even before I formally approached the organization in 2009 to learn about its work, I felt uneasy about the invocation of “families” in the organization’s name. I wondered whether it was an attempt to produce deportees and their loved ones as those who most deserved relief from deportation because they subscribed to the nuclear, heterosexual family form. But, when I started to look at FFF’s organizing, I learned about the gendered enforcement of deportation policies and how, in responding to the fallout of these gendered techniques, FFF has developed methods of resistance that reveal and transgress the gendered and racialized scripts of the normative family in an immigrant context.
The FFF activists foregrounded their clear rejection of the division, common in the immigrant rights movement and its demand for immigration reform, between innocent, hardworking family-oriented and, therefore, ‘deserving’ immigrants and those with criminal convictions, and, consequently, unworthy of such advocacy. Among a handful of anti-deportation organizations that include members with criminal convictions, FFF reveals the ways in which the criminal legal system and immigration enforcement work in tandem to render the kinship ties of criminalized men unintelligible. This construction rationalizes the indefinite separation of these men from their loved ones through deportation. As one FFF organizer pointed out, migrants with criminal convictions in deportation proceedings mirror the prison population, in that they are overwhelmingly men. Families For Freedom, in putting the experience of men with criminal convictions and of their families front and center, exposes the centrality of criminalization in oiling the mechanism that connects criminal courts, prisons, detention centers, immigration courts and deportation. Its activism rests on the recognition that deportees and their loved ones are the targets of deportation policies precisely because they cannot and do not conform to heteronormative prescriptions as working-class migrants of color who live in impoverished, crime-ridden and hyper-surveilled neighborhoods of New York City.
One of the most striking elements of FFF’s organizing was a series of testimonies carried on its older website from deportees and their partners, mothers and children. In reading through the testimonies, many of which were orally delivered in public settings, I was struck by the emphasis not on the deported men’s breadwinning but on their caregiving. The testimonies lovingly detailed a range of these men’s caregiving activities. Used to arguments in the immigrant rights movement about the economic impact of men’s removal from their families, and the valorization of motherhood framed in terms of caregiving in the case of deportable women, one incentive for writing this article was the need to explain the representation of criminalized men of color as caregivers.
The accounts highlighted the reality of migrant men’s caregiving work in their families. They publicized the multidimensionality of men of color who have been criminalized. They served as a crucial organizing tool geared as much to garner public sympathy as they were to build a sense of solidarity among its members, who are divided by their immigration status because FFF brings together undocumented migrants, asylum seekers, legal permanent residents, and those with and without criminal convictions. Analytically, the testimonies helped me trace the ways in which immigration enforcement itself depends on gendered tactics of removal that single out men and leave behind women and children, who are not only dependent on the deportees’ income but also their carework in their families. Deportation, then, led to a crisis in the social reproduction of migrant families that included the elderly, biological and non-biological children and extended family members.
Families For Freedom and the other anti-deportation organizations with which it is allied are unique in that they articulate immigrant rights with the prison abolition movement, and, in doing so, engage the gender dynamics of punishment and deportation. But, their insights into the reorganization of kinship, gendered division of labor and sexuality do not shape their larger analysis of immigration policies and the proposals to reform them. As a feminist who is active in the immigrant rights movement and as someone who has written about feminist and queer analyses of immigration policies arising out of activism, I found the silence around gender and sexuality as constitutive elements of immigration regulation a barrier in developing a thoroughgoing anti-oppression framework. Here, I have developed an analysis that hopefully, on the one hand, will provoke organizers in the immigrant rights movement to make explicit the interface they tackle between the intimate lives of migrants and immigration policies. On the other hand, I hope that this work will inspire feminist academics to look closely at the multiple ways in which the family as a “political subject,” to use Amalia Pallares’ words, is deployed in immigrant organizing.
By Monisha Das Gupta, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, on her article, “‘Don’t Deport Our Daddies’: Gendering State Deportation Practices and Immigrant Organizing,” published in the February 2014 issue of Gender & Society.