The Asian Prisoner Support Committee speaks about internationalist abolition and strategic interventions to stop deportations of all those caught up in the crimmigration system –the crossroads of criminal and immigration law– and what it takes to bring back those who have been deported.
Image credit: Olga Kherber
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Alejo: My name is Alejo, here with Jasmine, and you’re listening to Rustbelt Abolition Radio: an abolitionist media and movement building project. Today we have the wonderful opportunity to speak with two members of the Asian Prisoner support committee, APSC, Nate Tan and Ny Nourn. Welcome to the show.
Jasmine: Thanks so much for having me Alejo, and thank you to Nate and Ny for also guesting.
Nate: Yeah, thanks for having us.
Alejo: So both of you, right, along with you, Jasmine as well, have long been involved in this extraordinary organization, the Asian Prisoner Support committee based out of the Bay Area and California. So can you both tell us a little bit about how you got involved with the APSC?
Nate: Ny, do you want to go first? You going to take this question on for this?
Ny: So how did I get involved with APSC? I think definitely because APSC, when I was in ICE detention and facing deportation to Cambodia, I knew that they were coming out to my court hearings, supporting me, you know, for my freedom, for my release. So they were just amazing in that. And I knew that once I got released into the Bay Area that I wanted to connect with APSC. Not only thanking them but doing the movement work with them and, and supporting others, like how they’ve supported me.
Nate: Yeah. My story’s a little bit different than Ny’s. I got involved with Asian Prisoner Support Committee largely because I think my community has been, I think growing up has felt really underrepresented in a lot of Asian American media I consumed, like I don’t think my experience growing up as a child of Cambodian refugees was reflected in popular culture or I could relate to people. There wasn’t a lot of people outside of the Cambodian American community that can talk to you about incarceration, deportation, and donut shops and all these things. And I met Asian Prisoner Support Committee at a school, when I was in college over five years ago. And they gave a presentation on the incarceration of Asian Americans and deportation. And I stuck with them ever since.
Jasmine: Thank you so much for sharing that. So we’re just going to dive right into sort of the bigger questions about APSC and, and where APSC sees itself fitting into larger movements. So it seems that one of the key targets of APSC’s work is what some would call crimmigration, right? And so a portmanteau of what– this sort of prefix, crim and immigration, right? And so one of the pieces of legislation that continues to structure immigration struggles is the 1996 IRAIRA or Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, while, sort of, the 1994 crime bill is what generally structures most people’s understandings of prison expansion in the US. So with this in mind, can y’all explain what crimmigration is and how, what does crimmigration as a term mean for APSC?
Ny: The word crimmigration, if you separate it is criminal reform and immigration, right? We have a closed system and the immigration system, and of course immigrants, they end up just like any other person, when they end up charged or convicted of a crime, they end up the legal system and they end up being sentenced to prison or jail. And after serving their time, they are criminalized, being punished further because of their immigration status.
Nate: Yeah. So how I think –to add to Ny’s point– how I came to understand crimmigration is this really interesting cross section where this really unique population falls, and that’s people who are highly carcerable, and highly subject to the forces of immigrant police or immigration police, which I don’t think is unique to Asian Americans or Southeast Asians or, but nonetheless, it affects Asian Americans who do fall into uh, the incarceration system and immigration system. And I think there’s, I think society often separates criminal justice system and the immigration system as these, these two separate systems that don’t talk to each other, that have no relationship to each other, but in reality, these things inform each other and work together to build this really robust machine that really harms our communities.
Alejo: We’d like to get a sense for how you all think about crimmigration as both of you are saying, right? That’s sort of, we tend to separate out these terms and in particular we’d like to think about how you all are thinking also about abolition and how abolition intervenes in this sort of crimmigration complex as it were. Right? So you all probably saw that during the 2018 prison strike, there were explicit connections, right? Explicit expressions of solidarity between, for example, the hunger strikers in the ICE detention centers in Washington, as well as Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, right? This prisoner-led organization from the inside, uh, who stood in solidarity with the hunger strikers in the ICE detention facilities in Washington. So how does APSC sort of see itself as part of the abolitionist movement more generally?
Nate: Yeah, I can speak a little bit to that and then I can tag Ny in. But I think for Asian Prisoner Support Committee, our work has to be rooted in abolition in that reform hasn’t gotten us out of this mess to date, right? Like, I think, um, as we come to understand reform is changing a system, you know, changing the system as a race structure, it’s uh, it’s hurt our communities and impacted our communities. And abolition is kind of the longterm term vision, right? And when I think of abolition and APSC’ work, I don’t necessarily think of it like this kind of immediate thing that happens, but what do we need to do to decarcerate the prison system to the point of its extinction? And what do we need to do in the immigration system where, uh, we can rid the United States of, you know, ICE? And I think about how that abolition is also a structural and like the abolishing of a structure but also abolishing of some social and cultural beliefs that we have. Right? So like, could prisons exist if racism didn’t exist? If slavery didn’t exist in the United States. If colonialism didn’t exist, could ICE exist without racism as well, or sexism, patriarchy, xenophobia — and that an end to the prison system and immigration system also means an end to these systems that are so deeply embedded into US society.
Ny: Adding to Nate’s point, it all starts with the shifting of the stories being, uh, reflecting on that uplifting everybody’s humanity. That’s part of the, you know, abolition, abolitionist practices and, um, and we’re created in a way — you know, because society, they want to play into like, um, you know, fear. And is it fair for those that say, you know, interning immigrants because of the serials, you know, they’re rapists and murderers, whatnot. Um, but yet for us, we counteract that we, we share the history and the underlying needs. Like how to, you know, instead of trying to explain like, how did the person end up — Like, what did I do with what they did is what let them, you know, behind these decisions that they made or get involved in, you know, these types of behaviors. Right? I mean, without talking about, you know, people’s stories, uh, we can’t talk about like mass incarceration, how to end it. And we’re, you know, in a society that’s built on punitive justice or even reformative justice, like Nate said, doesn’t work because, you know, we still have a mass incarceration crisis. We’re still battling it and the only way we know is to, how can we slowly like dismantle it.
Jasmine: That was great. And then Nate, I’m wondering, can you talk a little bit about what are some of the concrete strategies that APSC takes to organize against the crimmigration system? I think Ny mentioned some of the campaigns that are about sort of restoring someone’s humanity after they’ve been sort of cast aside and disposed because of a crime that they committed. So I’m wondering like what is it that APSC does to sort of organize against this?
Nate: Yeah, I think half jokingly APSC does everything that it can and our partners do everything they can in their power to stop a lot of deportations mostly, but do everything we can to get people out of prison, not deported. And most recently do what we can to bring people back. And some of the strategies — well I want to say that all of the strategies center impacted families as the key organizers to getting this work done because, uh, aside from the impacted people or the people who are directly affected, I think families are also affected by incarceration and deportation. So we had our #PardonRefugees campaign in 2019 that where we gathered all of the families in Northern California who were impacted by an ICE raid that targeted the Cambodian community. We got them together, in all one space. And it was like almost this really sad, mournful moment that like smoldered into this raging fire for freedom. And the, and then we got to organizing, I mean they talked to everyone they could in the highest places, our partners at the city and state level, uh, they went on new stations and radio stations and they went everywhere to share their story. And while they were doing that, our partner center for empowered, empowering refugees and immigrants held space for the families to talk about their, talk about the struggles that they were going through. And then while all that was happening on the legal end, we had attorneys trying to fight the cases in court. So there’s almost this three-pillar strategy that all the families are involved in that takes almost this huge mass mobilization effort that I don’t think any of us could have anticipated but became the model in which we prevented deportations here moving forward.
Jasmine: Yeah, I think that’s something that, as a volunteer with APSC, um, I always found really inspiring was that there was this sort of attempt to organize people, not just sort of already-radicalized people who already know that prisons and in jails and detention centers are all like part of the same sort of fucked up system. But that there was a real attempt and I would say, and I would say it’s successful, of including the families of the people who are being affected by these, these structures. Um, and that I think that one of the most, um, one of the places where all of these communities are coming together in sort of like a unified fight against, against prisons and cages and deportation is in the sort of court support that APSC has organized for campaigns. Uh, like I know I was present at a lot of Ny’s hearings. I think that that’s like a really key strategy is like using court support as a way to, or as the space to bring families and radicals and prison abolitionists and lawyers together.
Nate: I think for what has been super amazing and thank you Jasmine for, for bringing that up. We had this incredible strategy. So my earlier days when we started this work was with the #KeepPJHome campaign, and PJ was a former lifer in San Quentin, and he was facing deportation. He was incarcerated at the age of 14, did 19 years behind bars. And I think more than anything, PJ is my friend. And then being that he was my friend and I like really cared for him and I was really willing to do anything to not see him go. And the only thing I can think about doing was packing the courts every single time. And we packed those courts. I mean they had sitting room for, like, 35, 40 people and we always brought out 60 to 100 people depending on the day. But I think once more people started hearing PJ’s story and once PJ’s story started garnering sympathy, uh, and his, his case isn’t like a easy case, to swallow right. It was like a murder case. And very rarely in this, in this work you hear people trying to fight for people who are actually convicted of serious crimes. But I think from PJ’s case and from other cases that we’ve supported, we knew that if we can convince people and show people that even people who are convicted with serious crimes deserve freedom, then everyone else can deserve freedom. Right. And I think now we go from packing the courts to packing the whole capitol of Sacramento in California to packing court rooms eight hours away in Southern California. I mean, it’s been such a phenomenal journey. Yeah. Wow.
Alejo: How do you, how do y’all think you managed to do that? I mean, part of it, as you’re saying, is the narrative in a way, but it’s, it’s so hard, it seems at times to kind of be, go beyond these kind of very punitive moralizing, uh, narratives, right? That we’re always pushing back against. And I think sometimes that’s the challenge, right, between the kind of, this crimmigration nexus, right? Because in the one hand, at least in my experience, the immigration reform movement has always tended to create the sort of like the good immigrant, right, of this perfect law-abiding, uh, subject that goes to work, goes to church, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And so that it’s always this friction, right, between those who are deemed worthy. So, and yet you all also, as you mentioned, Nate, you also brought people back. You managed to bring people back, right, as well, from after deportation, right? That’s kind of part of the work that APSC does. So I’m just curious if you could sort of tell us a little bit about that. That part of the work.
Ny: I think with the good versus bad, we know that there’s no good or bad immigrant, no good or bad person. Like we all make mistakes, you know, because of xenophobia, they wanted to say, Oh, let’s see, you know, the bad immigrants keep the good ones, you know, those that don’t come into trouble with the law and you know, those, um, you know, those are, they considered no DACAs. You know, um, children never brought over to the, you know, to the US by parents, you know, they, they’re focused on their school, in their education. They stay out of trouble, but then they don’t, but they want us. Then those that are, you know, have went into the, um, prison system, the jail system to say that, you know what, you have an opportunity to remain in the US, but then you do this X, Y, and Z. Therefore, you know, you’re willing that you should be deported. Um, because, you know, you don’t make America safe. You know, you should’ve never be, you know, in this country. And also the fact that they want to say, well, if you came here like illegally, you know, that means, you know, you shouldn’t be here the first place. So leave! Because we know there is not an illegal immigrant, you know, they want to use those kinds of lingo. But we want to say, you know, they came here and you know, as undocumented, and, and they want to say, you know, deport all the bad ones. That’s what we’re trying to do, dismantle those, um, you know, that that type of language and that narrative.
Alejo: Can you tell me a little bit more how you all were able to do that for PJ? Right. Cause PJ was undocumented if I, if I understand that correctly.
Nate: Yeah. So PJ isn’t, um, undocumented per se because of what Jasmine spoke about earlier, the IRA, IRA bill, Illegal Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. Even if you came here legally as an asylum seeker, as a green card holder, a permanent resident, uh, once you commit a crime, you get that revoked and you, after you serve your time, you become deportable. So what we find is I think there’s this common belief that immigration police or ICE only goes after people who are um, undocumented, but they go after– their primary focus and people who are most likely to be deported are immigrants who came here legally with who committed a crime or who were convicted of a crime. And that’s what PJ is. That’s what, actually, a lot of Southeast Asian prisoners face– a lot of Pacific Islanders, um, face is that they come here with legal documentation and get caught up in the systems of poverty and then incarceration and then find themselves subject to deportation.
Jasmine: Yeah, I think like that’s one of the things that I’ve always appreciated about APSC’s outward education is sort of saying like, look, there are these, there are people who, because of these varying structures of white supremacy and capitalism and patriarchy are getting caught up in say, I mean like the big one for Southeast Asians as we’ve talked about in APC and also in roots, which is the education program in San Quentin and Solano is that, you know, people who are living, who, who may have legal documentation but are living precarious lives because of white supremacist cisheteropatriarchal capitalism, um, get caught up in like gang life and in other sorts of things that are deemed criminal when really they’re just trying to survive, right? And then they get put into prison and then they find themselves suitable for parole. But as soon as they’re let out on parole, instead of being freed, they’re handed over directly to ICE because you know, even though parole says, well now you’re a good citizen and you won’t harm the community, ICE says, well, we still don’t want you because you’re an immigrant. Right? And so that particular, that particular narrative is so overwhelming and applies to so many people. And I think that, that, that work of sort of saying, well, you know, actually this question of documented undocumented is really kind of missing the point. Um, and sort of doesn’t think about the ways that, you know, the US legal system and the US immigration system are working to always create criminals and also get rid of them.
Alejo: Yeah. Though I think also, I mean, so I write her as you were mentioning, you know, expand the ways in which people were criminalized. I, you know, I, I think you’re, y’all are right in trying to argue that maybe the undocumented documented division should be less, uh, starkly contrasted. I think they are still kind of, uh, gradients of precariousness. Right? And in a way, almost, uh, it seems as if, for a lot of folks, right, if ICE has your address, it’s almost more difficult, it’s almost easier for them to come get you in a way, right. Because the moment they catch you, they can also, they have your address. Uh, I mean, I know that’s, that’s something that happened in my family as well. I mean, I was undocumented for a long time and it almost felt many times that not having, not being on the address books of DHS, the Department ofHomeland security was, was better than being a, I mean, I’m saying that half joking, right? But there’s a way in which, of course, being part of the system makes you also precarious in a different way.
Nate: Yeah. Yeah. And I think, you know, just briefly, it’s, it’s almost a little like facetious, like when we go into, go into, uh, San Quentin and people face deportation after they served their sentence, a lot of the rhetoric or a lot of what they say is like, “Oh, but you know, I didn’t come here illegally. I didn’t come here undocumented.” Right? And then when we’re doing work out in the community, folks who are undocumented say, “Oh, we never committed a crime. You know, we’re the, we’re the good citizens.” So, you know, they’re both pointing the fingers at each other when you know, we can all be pointing the finger at, uh, ICE and DHS, right? Who, who are actually really helping feed this, this good/bad immigrant narrative. Right?
Alejo: Yeah. And that sounds, it’s so important to kind of frame this in terms of, of how you all are doing it as well in terms of crimmigration, right? It’s a way to undermine this sort of crisscrossing fingers to actually point to the fingers to the real systemic problem, which is, as we were saying, racial capitalism, uh, as a whole, which is always already global, right? And I think, so here with Rustbelt Abolition Radio, we’ve sort of been grappling with this constant necessity to kind of translate abolition right across walls and cages. And by translate here, I mean, not just like literal translation, but the translation work of transforming strategies, right? Rather than merely do kind of copy and paste them, right, across walls and borders. So for instance, we have done some interviews, comrades in South America write about the prison resistance movement there. And this is kind of also a crucial element of, of abolitionists organizing, as you all can see above it, right? That is that it must be international, that in order to attack crimmigration as such, we must kind of think of as international or intercommunal sense of abolition, right? And that’s kind of the only real way to take seriously the ways in which crimmigration criss crosses state borders. Right? So I want to kind of know what you all make of that, how you imagine APSC’s vision of the sort of transnational or intercommunal abolitionist movements.
Nate: I think for Asian Prisoner Support Committee, not only do we try to get people out of prison, not only do we try and get people out of ICE, and not only do we try to not get people to deported, but for whatever reason they are deported, we’re going to try to bring them back. So I guess that is what makes our work kind of internationalist in that regard. And I think for APSC, abolition is less so much of this, this, this, uh, entity or framework. But, uh, it’s like a practice, right? And I’m gonna use a very Asian, uh, Asian context, but abolition is almost like martial arts, right? Like you have to keep practicing it to be better at it. And I think, you know, when we put our — for for us, you know, the ultimate freedom we have to, we, we, we think freedom has freedom fills our senses, right? It has a touch, it has a smell, it has, uh, it has an emotion and it’s like this thing that can physically exist. And for us it’s when we keep families together and we get to reunite families together. And when we launched #PardonRefugees at the end when we protected, uh, 11 Cambodians from deportation, I think that a group of us were like, what would it have looked like if this work was being done like five or 10 years ago? Could we have stopped more deportations? And then the later question became, what if we do this work now for people who were deported? And then we looked across the globe to folks who’ve been deported. And a group of us went out there [to Cambodia] and we did a presentation on #PardonRefugees, uh, strategies. We did, how we, how we stop deportations. And then when we flew back after meeting like a hundred or so deportees we, we were like, we’re going to bring, we’re going to bring someone back. And then eight weeks later we brought someone back. And I think, you know, it’s a start of our new campaign though, the #RighttoReunite campaign where we’re looking internationally to see how we can really end these physical boundaries that separate families. Right. Yeah. Wow. That’s really amazing. I mean, I wish we could talk more about this. I wish we could maybe talk about abolition as a martial art later, as a practice, as a, as a practice.
Jasmine: So, yeah. I’m just gonna ask one more question and that’s: are there any last things that either of you want to share?
Ny: I’m thinking like in longterm, um, how does this work sustain us? Um, it’s definitely a sustained like, um, community, you know, power movements and empowering not just individuals, but collectively, you know, families and communities. And we celebrate and honor it and that’s what like, sustains us. And we know like the work is really hard, right? It’s never easy to fight for someone’s freedom, especially against, you know, what we’re facing. So I think we definitely want to encourage other communities to do the same, um, to, you know, to try it out, to seek help, to ask for help. That’s why we’re like doing outreach. You know, we’re going to do outreach in Southern California, you know, if the next round of raids should happen in SoCal that, uh, we should have, you know, another organization or community members down there that’s able to help, you know, support. Um, we definitely want to, you know, build power all across the nation, you know, to trend it. Right. Um, because I think that’s the only way to dismantle ICE, you know, to keep families together.
Nate: Yeah. And I think the last thing I want to add is, as much as abolition is a martial arts as well, uh, abolition is also, uh, or to get to abolition is, is very much a feeling. And I think a lot of the work that APSC does, we go in a little half-blinded. But I think in the end, our hearts and the hearts of the family members that are impacted and the hearts of people behind bars and the hearts of people in Cambodia, they beat for freedom. And I think that’s what keeps us moving towards that direction. And, you know, we, we, as much as we’ve had wins, we’ve also had losses, but that doesn’t stop, um, this work because we know that how necessary this work is, um, for our communities.
Jasmine: Well thank you so much for joining us on Rustbelt Abolition Radio. This was such a lovely and illuminating conversation and an important one to have as we continue to fight for a world without prisons and a world without cages.
Kaif Syed: Thanks for tuning in. You can listen to past episodes on our website at http://www.rustbeltradio.org. This show was co-produced by the Rustbelt Abolition Radio crew: a Maria, Jasmine Ehrhardt, Kaif Syed, and Alejo Stark. Original music by Bad Infinity.