Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Alumna Kristina Shull (GSAS ’06) on Giving a Voice to Individuals in Immigration Detention Centers

Kristina Shull is a lecturer in the Department of History at UC Irvine and an activist who shared with us how her education shaped the work she does to bring attention to the problems facing immigration and immigration detention centers in the United States.

Photo credit: Axel Dupex for the Open Society Foundations
Can you talk about your experience at NYU and how it helped shape what you do now?

I am so grateful for my time at NYU.  The interdisciplinary Master’s Draper Program in Humanities and Social Thought was foundational in several ways.  It allowed me the flexibility to pursue and hone my intellectual interests, and it introduced me to theories and methods for understanding issues like immigration detention within the larger frameworks of global histories and human rights.  The program’s rigor prepared me well for doctoral work, and its opportunities for community engagement helped me envision a career in academic activism.  I think it’s most important contribution in shaping my career path was providing a model for a “hybrid” approach to making academia actionable in the world, where history can be marshaled as a catalyst for change.


How did you decide to pursue a higher education degree in History?

I had always loved reading and writing, but struggled to settle on a major/discipline that would be a proper container for all of my varied interests: from art, music, and literature to politics, human rights, and racial and environmental justice.  I was studying abroad in Ireland as a UCLA undergraduate when 9/11 happened.  It was both eye-opening and fascinating to be, on one hand, somewhat sheltered from the range of powerful domestic responses in the US, and on the other, more exposed to the range of international responses—all of which highlighted the import, and consequences, of US action in the world.  At the same time, I was enrolled in a history course on the troubles of Northern Ireland and reading daily headlines of its tenuous peace agreement crumbling in the streets.  I began to make connections between these disparate but parallel histories of political violence and public response, and I began to see history, especially from a global perspective, as a necessary vehicle for untangling these issues and drawing inspiration to forge solutions.

When did you start to become interested in working to bring attention to the problems with immigration in our country, specifically in our use and dependence on immigration detention centers?

As a US-born citizen, I was exposed to these issues in a cursory way through my studies.  However, they suddenly became intensely personal and I realized how many aspects of our broken immigration system were unknown to the general public, myself included.  Ten years ago, I was a recent NYU graduate living and working in the city.  I fell in love with and married a man who was undocumented—he had lost his case for political asylum and had been ordered deported.  When we tried to adjust his status, we were denied and he was immediately detained in a for-profit immigration detention center in New Jersey and deported.  As I visited him every day for three months, my eyes were opened to the conditions in detention and the suffering inflicted upon thousands of families subjected to this arbitrary and vast, yet largely hidden, system.

As I met more affected people and learned more about the features of the detention system, I began to see how much the anti-immigrant rhetoric floating around our society (and recurrent in our nation’s history) is disconnected from reality, and how much of immigration detention’s growth in recent years has been driven by a profit motive.

What hardships do immigrants face when they are detained?

Immigration detention is a “civil” procedure; people in detention are not serving a set sentence for any crime, but are merely awaiting or appealing outcomes on their immigration or asylum cases.  There is no time limit to how long a person may be detained, and as a result thousands of people are detained for months and even years.  This unknown factor contributes to additional hardship in detention. Even though it is not considered a form of punishment, in practice, immigration detention looks and operates exactly like prison or jail, and many immigrants are held in the same facilities as citizens (such as county jails).  People in immigration detention can include asylum seekers, victims of human trafficking, and legal permanent residents with long-standing community ties.

Advocates, scholars, and human and civil rights groups have long-documented the many abuses that occur in immigration detention: a lack of due process and legal aid, inadequate medical care, limited visitation rights, squalid and cramped conditions, poor nutrition, lack of access to recreation and library/educational materials, exorbitant commissary costs, frequent transfers across the country, and physical and sexual abuse.

Only 14% of immigrants in detention have a lawyer (there are no public defenders provided as there are for citizens), which greatly increases their chances of winning their cases, but the vast majority end up being deported.  Immigrants may be eligible for parole, usually on bond, which may range from $1500-60,000+, and monitored supervision, and then are allowed to pursue their cases from outside detention.  To be released, they must convince a judge or deportation officer that they have strong community ties and support, and pose no threat to their community.  

How does the work you are doing now bring these issues to the public’s eye? 

As I visited my husband in detention, I developed a strong belief that if everyone in this country could be a witness, and to know this was happening (especially how and why), it would not be happening.  But I also saw how detention and deportation practices spread fear and trauma throughout communities, effectively silencing those affected.  Barriers of language and privilege have also created a dearth of migrant voices, especially first-hand accounts from detention, in the mainstream media.  My fellowship work with CIVIC [Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement]  in immigration detention “storytelling” aims to challenge this pattern of silence by uplifting migrant voices in traditional media, and by creating new media spaces for these voices (such as our blog, IMM Print, on Medium.com that features detention stories).  The anthology we did, Call me Libertad: Poems Between Borders, and our other stories projects are led by those directly affected, and have grown out of people’s mounting desires to have their stories heard—whether for their own sake, to educate the public, or to enact change.

Many people have sent their stories: writing, poems, and artwork from detention to CIVIC’s network of visitation programs across the country, and part of my role at CIVIC is to begin building an archive of this material. There is a crucial role that humanistic storytelling can play in the immigration debate.  Literary language and expression has the capacity to express complex realities and generate public empathy in different ways than data and social-scientific analysis.  It is also the work of “doing” history, or collecting testimony in all forms.  This is a form of activism because it is capturing experiences that may otherwise be lost, which can then be used to correct the record, and effectively challenge the narratives that gave rise to and sustain systems of oppression.  (Such as, the notion that immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants, are inherently criminal when studies across the 20th century have repeatedly shown crime levels to be lower among immigrant communities than among citizens).

How do you collect these stories?

Many stories are sent to CIVIC’s members (our network of visitation programs, serving 43 facilities in 19 states, run by 1500+ volunteers) through the mail.  We also run a national hotline and maintain a database to track people in detention and use it to connect people to their family members, monitor abuses, generate advocacy campaigns, and gather stories.  We also partner with community and university organizations, including NYU’s School of Law’s Immigrant Rights Clinic, to develop stories projects.  CIVIC and NYU have produced the innovative website www.prolongeddetentionstories.org this year, with an annotated amicus brief, to highlight stories that relate to the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision on the case Jennings v. Rodriguez on the right to a bond hearing after six months in detention. Partnerships such as these work to facilitate collaboration between academics, practitioners, advocates, and affected communities.

What are some challenges you have faced in doing this kind of work? 

Frankly, storytelling can be dangerous.  There are real instances of retaliation that can occur when someone speaks out from detention—they may be threatened with deportation, denied visitation or other privileges, and even subjected to solitary confinement.  People may also face persecution in their home countries for speaking out.  Whether real or perceived, these dangers add to the culture of silence surrounding detention.  It is a real challenge.  We make these concerns clear to anyone wishing to tell their story, and we can also work in many ways to protect people’s identities or wait until they are in safety before sharing their story.  However, you may be surprised how many people wish to speak out despite these potential dangers.  And storytelling has proven to be very effective in mounting campaigns for people’s release, protecting people from retaliation, increasing accountability in the system, and in pushing for policy change.

Finally, it is a challenge for me in doing this work to “check my privilege,” of citizenship, education, and race, and to strike the right balance between using my privilege to create more spaces for migrant voices, and stepping back to allow those voices to be heard, in their own right, without mediation.

What steps can we make to help change the way immigration is viewed, and alleviate the issues that plague detention centers?

Immigration is an issue that may have some of the strongest misconceptions surrounding it—and many of these go centuries deep in this nation’s history.  We need fact-checking now more than ever. There are many angles from which the immigration detention system can be exposed and understood—from politics economics, through the lenses of racial, economic, and environmental justice, to the personal. People who are interested in CIVIC’s work can learn more at www.endisolation.org, read or contribute to IMM Print’s blog at www.medium.com/imm-print, volunteer to become a visitor of someone in detention, or answer calls on our national hotline.  

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