Activist Violeta Munera talks about the recently held People’s Tribunal that seeks to expose the injustices committed by US immigration authorities
By The Dawn News / April 24, 2018
In recent months, the narratives and policies around immigration in the United States have taken a turn for the worse. At the centre of many such oppressive measures is the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE has been responsible for the imprisonment and deportation of many and the disruption of the lives of millions.
However, members of the migrant community have been organizing to demand an end to the detention and deportation of migrants, as well as transparency and accountability from ICE and the US government. On April 21, a People’s Tribunal was held in New York City to raise awareness on the issue, as well as chronicle the cases of those who have been victims of ICE.
Zoe PC talks to Violeta Munera of Families for Freedom, one of the key organisations behind the tribunal that is part of the National ICE on Trial Campaign.
-Could you tell me about the work your organisation does and its objectives?
Families for Freedom is spearheading the New York City efforts for the National Ice on Trial Campaign mainly because it resonates with our ARM principles, which are ‘We Assist Ourselves, ‘We Raise Awareness’ and ‘We Make them Bleed’. By assist ourselves, we mean that we have to do so because nobody else will. The people that we defend are non-citizens, particularly those with criminal convictions. So they are usually the most marginalized. Secondly, we try to raise awareness and that is what this campaign is doing. It kind of also ties into one of the big issues for us ie. we want to name the oppressors, who make our members bleed, especially those non-US citizens who are not able to sleep due to anxiety and mental health issues, the threat of deportation and later on, the reality of exile. Our reasoning is that if they make us bleed, we make them bleed too. We aim to do this by making in this particular case, ICE Deputy Field Office Director Thomas Decker and the Field Assistant Director Scott Mechkowsky publicly known for the abuses they carry out against our New York people and the New Jersey community under the name of ICE.
In terms of movements, we see our role as that of a guide because of the experiences of our people on both ends of the criminal and immigration system. Our members know what the system does because they have lived it. So in the movement, even when the lawyers and legal-minded people do not want to call out these officials for carrying out abuses, we would rather have the difficult conversations with the people that are imposing these policies instead of talking about reform in immigration law. So we’re saying stop them, repeal the laws and bring about change to make sure laws like these do not come back again. We don’t want reform; we want change. We understand that the system is built on slavery and genocide and is rooted in racism, white supremacy and capitalism. And we also see that the movement has settled for what we call bitter fruits and we want to uproot the system and call it out for what it is.
-Can you talk about the event that took place on April 21 and its objectives? Which are the organisations that are taking part?
The event on April 21 took place at Foley’s Square in Thomas Paine Park, New York City. It’s just a few feet away from ICE’s ERO office, which is the office of removals. It is also a space that is built on an 18th century African American burial ground. For us, it’s important for us to make these connections. The goals of this campaign are broadly to abolish detention and deportation, but also specifically to get accountability from ICE. By accountability, we mean that we want them to give us records of everything. They basically go about with impunity and they have this culture of secrecy, where there are no records of things. They don’t want to be transparent about what they are doing. So we often don’t exactly know what is happening. Thus, there is a need for more transparency. Another demand is that we want all people, who are currently detained, to be released. We were also trying to visualise what the system should look like.
As part of this campaign, we have several other community groups. From New Jersey, we have the First Friends of New York and New Jersey and the American Friends Service Committee. They have been pushing for the last two years for the creation of an independent medical oversight board for Hudson County in New Jersey. Hopefully, this campaign can bring visibility to those efforts and push for that to happen there. In New York, we are also trying to highlight the campaign for ‘ICE out of the Courts’. One of the community-based organisations that has been involved in this campaign – The Immigrant Defence Project – has been heavily involved in that as well. Other community groups include the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project, as well as the Detention Watch Network – a national coalition, which has been highlighting the medical conditions in detention centres across the country.
Also, we have the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights, the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and DRUM – Desis Rising Up and Moving as part of the campaign. Those are some of the groups that have been heavily involved in the People’s Tribunal. And of course, an overall goal for Families for Freedom is to name the oppressors, to name the people who are hiding out in what we call the white towers.
-Where did the idea for this People’s Tribunal come from?
The idea for the People’s Tribunal basically came from Families for Freedom, which is why we are naming our oppressors. At the same time, this specific Ice on Trial campaign is inspired by people’s tribunals organized by NWDC Resistance, which is a group led by Maru Mora-Villalpando and is based in Tacoma, Washington. And the way they have been organising their people’s tribunals over the past three years is that they go outside the Tacoma detention centre and highlight the specific conditions of the centre. They have people who have can access the centre and interview those who are detained inside. After collecting those testimonies, they conduct a people’s tribunal and present the evidence. The tribunal does not judge or convict anyone but we put forth suggestions and decisions by the people. The reason for the tribunals is that the justice system often times discriminates. We know that the system – in this case ICE – is one of the components of political control and stifling of dissent. So we know that it is a system that has been set up to control. In the case of the immigrant community, they have been stifling dissent by targeting activists. Such is the case of Jean Montrevil, who was recently deported to Haiti. His former wife Jani gave testimony at the People’s Tribunal. We have also seen the targeting of Maru Mora-Villalpando, as well as Alexandra Pablos, who is a community activist and was recently released on bond, which is a small victory for the movement. All of this goes to show that ICE is really vindictive. The power and the past of people’s tribunals have been this form of reconciliation for the people.
-How has the panorama changed for migrant communities in the past year? What are the current biggest challenges facing your organization and members of your organization?
The immigration narrative is much more prominent now than maybe a few years ago. And that has come with this administration. This is not to say that abuses were significantly fewer or things were that great before. But what we have seen with this administration is a massive expansion of the deportation machine. So there has been an increase in funding for building more detention centres, more beds to accommodate people and more money for staff. They have approved funding for hiring 10,000 people. In fact, when Donald Trump won the elections, the stocks of private surveillance companies like GEO and other private contractors in detention and incarceration shot up through the roof. So that is the panorama we are working with right now. At the same time, this has forced people to see that there is an issue. It is becoming more and more clear to the groups in the movement that we need to come together.
Among the challenges for us as an organisation is cohesion in the messaging, as well as the fact that our members and our staff have criminal convictions. That comes with stigma and marginalization. They are already marginalized because they are non-citizens.. Added to this is the stigma of criminal convictions. This stigma is not only relevant to the US but across the world. In addition to that is the fear and reluctance of people and organizations to link with those who have criminal convictions, which is necessary so that our word is taken with the value that it deserves.
-What gives you hope for 2018?
Being out in the streets and listening and talking to people in the community, there is a sense of increasing awareness and outrage because it is just becoming too much. Even with all the fear and terrorising, people are becoming more inclined to participate and agitate. So one thing we are hoping to do with the people’s tribunal is to get people really hyped up. And we have already seen such a sentiment in the immigrant communities. In terms of the movements in the United States, as policies become more reflective of the white supremacist and capitalist agenda for political and social control, it is again shedding light on the need for movements to come together from across the whole spectrum, from the citizen and non-citizen platforms. So we see possibilities for real change and we believe we need to build [links] – not just for immigrant rights but also against mass incarceration, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement – so that we can have a more inclusive and diverse movement.