In this episode, Amelia travels to the Twin Cities in Minnesota and speaks with a number of feminist activists working on very different projects. Tune in to learn more about feminist podcasting, yoga in academic settings, trivia for reproductive justice, and immigration in the Trump era.
In this episode, we hear from Raechel and Melody of the Feminist Killjoy, PhDs podcast, Professor Beth Barila, Cheeky Kitty Minneapolis, and immigration attorney Julia Decker — all feminists in the Twin Cities who work on different projects surrounding gender justice. This episode is jam-packed with ideas and inspiration for feminist activism and a great portrait of how much work just one (or really two here) city can hold.
- Support Fifty Feminist States with a donation or buy a t-shirt
- A nuanced take on whether Minnesota is really a “blue state”
- The Feminist Killjoys podcast website + DIY podcasting course
- Cheeky Kitty’s Touchy Subject Trivia + Erotic City Walking Tour benefitting SWOP Minneapolis
- More information about FOSTA/SESTA here and first-hand accounts of it’s impact on sex workers here
- Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota
- The Syracuse TRAC database for statistics on immigration in the US
Beth Barila’s website
[music plays in background]
Amelia: This is Fifty Feminist States a roadtripping, storytelling podcast visiting all fifty US states to interview feminist activists and artists about their work for gender justice.
I’m Amelia Hruby, and this week we’re in Minnesota.
How do we hold this empowerment in our bodies in deeper ways so that it’s not just one level of us that’s becoming empowered? How do we heal from the traumas of oppression in order to create communities in which we can all thrive and what does that look like? I think that anti-oppression work that stays only on the level of the intellectual misses three-quarters of the conversation.
Amelia: Hi everyone, Amelia here, your intrepid Fifty Feminist States guide, and this is the last episode of season one! I can barely believe it. I can’t believe we’re already here. Seven states in to this fifty states and then hopefully some territories and protectorates journey.
While you all have been hearing these last few episodes, I’ve been back on the road, traveling and recording interviews for season two, which will, I’m excited to announce, feature states in the north east and New England! I’ve talked to some amazing feminist activists there, and it’s been really interesting to dig into the differences between feminism in the wide-open-space states of season one and in the mostly-tiny, former-colony states of season two. There is so much good stuff to think about it in that comparison and you’ll get to hear all about it in season two which will launch in early 2019!
I want to thank all of you so much for listening to and supporting season one of the Fifty Feminist States podcast. If you want to keep supporting it off-season, please consider buying a Fifty Feminist States t-shirt or tote bag that you can wear or tote around town whereever you live. You can buy those at fiftyfeministstates.com/shop. That’s fiftyfeministstates.com/shop. I get compliments on my tshirt all the time, from strangers who have no idea that I have to do with this project, and I promise that it is also like the comfiest shirt I own. Comfy-with-a-capital-C, so again that site is fiftyfeministstates.com/shop. Get yourself some Fifty Feminist States merch and help me finish season two!
For this final episode of season one, as you’ve already heard, we are in Minnesota, more specifically the Twin Cities, and this one is an all-out feminist grab-bag of amazing activism and awareness. So for the last time this season, let’s get back on the road!
In season one of this podcast, we’ve visited a lot of quote-unquote “red” states — meaning states that tend to vote along conservative values and with the Republican party. As I’ve traveled across those states, I’ve found plenty of quote-unquote “blue” pockets of liberal and progressive activism in their midst, but Minnesota is the first, what we might call, bona-fide blue state that we’ve visited on this feminist road-trip. With a long history of voting for Democratic candidates for President, Minnesota even has some particularly blue street cred, because along with the District of Columbia, it was the only state to vote against Ronald Reagan in the 1984 presidential election and cast its ten electoral votes for Democratic candidate Walter Mondale.
What does this mean for feminist activism in Minnesota? Well, it means that the state is a fertile ground for feminist activists to create experimental, embodied, academic and artistic projects — all of which we’ll hear about today.
Minnesota also has a uniquely diverse population that I think also supports the fertile ground for its activist projects. Minnesota has the most refugees per capita of any state, and houses 13% of all refugees in the US. As of 2015, Minnesota has the largest Somali population in the US, and the second-largest Hmung population, both of which groups have thriving communities in the Twin Cities. On top of that, nearly 1 in 6 children in Minnesota have at least one immigrant parent, suggesting the state will only become more diverse over time.
This episode will feature interviews with six activists about four projects that are all equally interesting and impactful but just scratch the surface of the feminist work being done in Minnesota. We’ll hear from Raechel + Melody who run the podcast Feminist Killjoys, Phd and dig into feminist theory and praxis from an academic and activist perspective; we’ll hear from Professor Beth Barila about embedding yoga and mindfulness in education settings; from Cheeky + Kitty who run Cheeky Kitty trivia nights to benefit Planned Parenthood and recently started a series of walking tours to highlight the history of sex work in Minneapolis; and finally, we’ll hear from immigration attorney Julia Decker who will emphasize shifts in her work that have happened since Trump was inaugurated.
This episode is jam-packed with feminist goodness, and I hope you’ll take inspiration from these folks that I did. There’s so much to learn here and even more that could be translated into other communities and causes as we build further feminist grassroots efforts across the country.
Let’s start by hearing from some feminist podcasters that aren’t me. Raechel and Melody are the hosts of the Feminist Killjoy Podcast. Their name is an homage to feminist theorist Sarah Ahmed who writes about the idea that feminist are often killjoys because they have to call out so much patriarchal oppression in everyday life, and their podcast provides feminist commentary on pop culture and current events and also interviews with radical activists about a number of topics. I tend to think of their lineup as a who’s-who in really radical, on-the-ground, often under-the-radar grassroots organizing.
I met Raechel and Melody at a radical bookstore in Minneapolis called Moon Palace Books, so you’ll hear some cafe noise in the background, but here’s Melody talking first about how they started the Feminist Killjoys PhD or FKJ podcast.
Melody: We started fkj because we had become long distance friends after being in Grad School for four years in our phd program. Raechel moved to Boston and I stayed in Minneapolis and we missed talking to each other, so we did a, we kept up a weekly conversation. And then we had been listening to some other feminist podcasts and we thought that we could do a similar thing but have it be a little bit more detailed and the feminist discussions like not so surface level. So we dug in a little bit deeper to feminist issues and we love talking about current events, pop culture, anything media-related, any kind of like super left activism stuff and so we just decided to start recording it and experiment with being media makers ourselves.
Raechel: And our original mission was to make not only go deeper into feminist issues but also to make feminist theory accessible. So we’re, you know, trained in academic feminism. We also have a background in activism that proceeded our knowledge of feminist theory. So we were trying to basically like make feminist theory accessible to the masses and like kind of meet people where they were at and not overwhelm people. So pretty early on we switched to, we introduced interviews
Melody: And the interviews, the reason why we started doing them as partially because at one point were like, ‘do people actually want to just like listen to us all the time?’ Like we were just getting some kind of weird like self is not self esteem, but like
Raechel: maybe a little… not imposter syndrome, but like that same place where that comes from of like ‘do people actually care what the two of us thing exclusively?’ And then we also realized it can be a platform to share voices of people who aren’t often heard. Um, and we’ve kind of, I think under um, oh, what’s the word we haven’t really strived to, to get super like big name famous people, which sometimes is what helps like grow your audience. Um, we’ve had a couple of bigger names but primarily we’re just like, we want our friends who are doing really cool and important stuff, and I think that’s still true. And also I think it would be fun if we pushed ourselves to get a little bit, you know, bigger, bigger people doing with, with wider audiences I guess. Um, but that was definitely a goal to like uplift other voices, other than ours that were also marginalized in particular ways.
Amelia: And who are some of those favorite people they’ve spoken to or favorite episodes they’ve done? Hear them shout-out a few faves that I’ll link to in the shownotes.
Melody: Well I always liked it when our friend John from Black-Out Improv comedy came on the show, because him and I are extremely hilarious. And so we would just have a lot of fun. We got a lot of really good feedback on, well we also enjoyed doing this episode as well as: the Selfie Culture episode, where we took an article that a listener actually recommended. She, she was just like, ‘hey, you should check this article out, you might enjoy it.’ And it was like this high theory academic piece on selfies and Raechel and I already have divergent opinions on selfies and so it was just like this amazing moment where we could have an academic article and then Raechel is opinion and my opinion and so that was really good. What about you, Raechel?
Raechel: I really enjoyed our interview with the founder of one of the founders of Queer Appalachia. Um, I really, I just felt like a lot of personal connection so that interview, um, and I. Yeah, so I really liked that interview. Um, and I like our, I love our analysis in like when we dig deep into like academic theory and dig deep into topics, but I also really have enjoyed like our best of the year and like, um, we did like a throwback AOL survey once where we just had like the kinds of surveys we used to do and children of the, of the nineties will remember um doing like all surveys so we did one of those and just like fun ones are also I think like a nice break from the heavier stuff.
Melody: Yeah, I would say on a more personal note, I really enjoyed just talking with Raechel about current events. We tend to have rage-fests on the, on air sometimes, and just like going back and forth, teaching each other about news articles that we’ve read I think personally is really awesome. And that’s one reason why we keep doing the, well I should say that I keep up, wanting to do the podcast because it keeps me intellectually stimulated, aware of issues that I might not dig into otherwise. And it’s always good to get listener feedback. But it’s also been really helpful just for my own personal growth.
Amelia: And while Fifty Feminist States is mostly about how activist work impacts local communities, it’s also important to emphasize how media can give work and ideas a wider audience and long-distance impact. Hear them reflect on the community that’s developed surrounding the Feminist Killjoys podcast.
Melody: We get a lot of feedback from people that say I’m just glad that you exist because ‘I’m the only feminist or I’m the only whatever, identifying marker in my town.’ And it’s just really nice to hear other people that have the same opinions as me. I know not everybody grew. We live in a bubble, a liberal political bubble where we don’t get looked at for how we look or we don’t, you know, our opinions are not marginalized as much as in other spaces. And so I think it’s also really important for our podcast to continue just to be like a community space, which is so weird as it being like a one way medium, but it does develop a community and it’s been nice to know. I just don’t even realize sometimes how important it is to hear those voices.
Amelia: Having grown up in a small town in the Southeastern US, I definitely wish I’d had access to more radical voices like Feminist Killjoys podcast to help bolster my feminist consciousness and open my awareness to systemic injustice in the world. If you’re interested in starting your own feminist podcast, Raechel and Melody have also recently wrapped their first session of a course on DIY podcasting and you can find more information about that at their website, which I’ll link to in the shownotes.
Next on our tour-de-feminist-activism-in-the-twin-cities, we’ll hear from another badass feminist duo based in Minneapolis — Cheeky Kitty. I’ll let them introduce themselves and talk about their work.
Kitty: My name is Kitty
Cheeky: And my name is cheeky, cheeky kitty and together we are Cheeky Kitty. And we are a minute sort of organization that looks to modernize kitschy events for good. So we kind of flip events on their head, kind of like walking tours and trivia events and we support local causes in the meantime.
Kitty: So we actually met in Grad School for arts and cultural management and we were looking at all these things and we’re like, okay, yeah, there’s pub trivia everywhere in Minneapolis. There’s all these activities going on, but it’s kind of the same old thing all the time, and we’re like okay, but we know we can do it better and we know we can make it fun and actually bring something to it that’s more than just getting a beer and rattling off useless trivia. Like how can we actually educate people while raising money for a good cause and calling people to action at the same time. So we actually are activists for Planned Parenthood action fund as well and kind of use that to be like, all right, well here’s something we can rally behind, let’s take on pub trivia and use that to support them through the elections and things coming up.
Cheeky: And it is just the most fun on a Tuesday night you’ll ever have.
Kitty: So we have six rounds of trivia every month. Our first one is ripped from the headlines where it’s all about just current events in the past month about things around reproductive health or sex ed news or anything like that. Then we go into, so you think you can sex ed, which is like our grab bag of random things that you probably hopefully learn in sex ed class, but maybe you didn’t. Our next one is the flasher round, which is our visual one where we show different things and ask people to name them and it’s kind of morphed into a pop quiz format. So it typically is like, here’s your anatomy sheet and you have to label what the different things on their art. So we’ve done like the penis, we’ve done, um, the vulva, we’ve done the breast, which a lot of people really excited because they’re like ‘I’ve never actually learned about the different parts of boobs before!’
Cheeky: Um, and then our next round is um, history-gasm, which is a deep dive into a historical topic. Um, and then the next round is sexual health grab bag, which is literally just terms from the planned parent, uh…
Kitty: the Planned Parenthood health glossary. So I give them the definition and then they have to give the .. it’s sexy jeopardy’s yes. Sexy Jeopardy is the one where we give them a definition and they have to say what term we’re describing.
Cheeky: And then our last round is bangers, which is music. Um, so we have six, six songs, and they’re all sex positive gems, five songs and you have to give us the artist and the title and it’s awesome. Every month is a different theme. In the past we’ve had, um, We’ve had nineties. We’re doing disco this month. We’ve had nineties pop. I mean it’s awesome what we can come up with, but it is challenging every month for us to come up with things that are on topic. Interesting. And we also want to make sure that everything is factual. Nothing that we’re giving you is going to be like false information. We try to vet our sources because that is important to us that you can go online and make sure that what we’re saying isn’t just a load of garbage.
Kitty: And I think it’s cool, because like I’ve learned so much. Like I thought I knew my stuff from school before, but every time we do this I’m like, “What?! I had no idea.”
Amelia: After the success of their Touchy Subject trivia nights, Cheeky Kitty wanted to do another event to support reproductive rights in the Twin Cities, this time promoting awareness and advocacy for sex work and sex workers and protesting the FOSTA/SESTA bills that shut down a series of websites, most prominently one called BackPage, used by sex workers to find work safely. This fall Cheeky Kitty launched the Erotic City walking tours to highlight the history of sex work in the Twin Cities. On walking tours in August and September they raised more than $1400 for Minneapolis’ Sex Work Outreach Project or SWOP. Hear them talk more about those walking tours and how they got started.
Kitty: So then from there, we were talking with our friend Beth Hartman and she was working on her big dissertation about the ethnomusicology of strip tease in Midwest. She had this amazing research where she did first hand interviews with people who were dancers back in the sixties and she’s done a deep dive into all the buildings around here and any time I’d be walking or driving with her, she’s like, oh, well this is actually the story behind this place or so and so was there. And I was like, you’re holding onto all this knowledge. Like it’s amazing that it’s in your thesis, but the world needs to know like, we all live here and have no clue this is happening. So for years I’ve been nagging at her being like, when are you going to do it? We should do a tour. What if we just drove around and point out things, like somehow we had to bring it to the public. So finally we’re able to do that through our next venture, which was Erotic City, a walking tour to benefit the sex worker outreach project branch of Minneapolis.
Cheeky: And the reason we did this tour is because, especially right now in this timely, like very harsh governmental environment SESTA/FOSTA is something that’s very dangerous to sex workers, and people misinterpreted what that meant. So a lot of lawmakers and legislators to not know what the long term effects. It really infringes upon basic human rights and it really puts safety at risk for people in the industry, their family and their friends. So in order for us to do this, we wanted to make sure that people knew the history, that this isn’t something that just happened. There is a deep, rich history of sex work in the city and everywhere. And these people don’t need to be underground. They need to be celebrated, because what they’re doing is admirable, it’s amazing and it is work and it is important that we keep them safe just like everybody else.
Kitty: I think our tour really, um, one of the struggles was trying to figure out how to do a walking tour and most things don’t exist anymore, like talking about how people don’t know what’s going on. A lot of those artifacts either were never recorded or the buildings were totally demolished. So we go around and Beth does a great job of asking people to imagine what things could look like or what could have been there and try to bring those to life. And I think she does a phenomenal job.
Cheeky: I would agree and I think that the sex industry in Minneapolis is so interesting because we do have such a large music and entertainment scene still happening in Minneapolis, but we kind of tried to push this under the bed, so to speak. It’s just something that we don’t really want to talk about. It’s in one area, people don’t think of the historical implications or the necessity of it. And it’s really something that we should be talking about because it has implications, um, like we talked about in our tour, it affects everybody. It affects the Internet, it affects privacy laws, it affects how we communicate, how people have basic interactions with each other. And it really does affect everyone.
Amelia: This last point is particularly important because the implications of FOSTA/SESTA do stretch beyond their immediate life-or-death implications for sex workers — as if those weren’t enough that we should already care about this. In addition to shutting down websites like Backpage where sex workers could better screen clients and share information, the bills amended a quote-unquote “safe harbor” policy that allowed sites to hold user-generated content without being responsible for the content itself. Now, sites will be held responsible for their content if they host ads or other content promoting prostitution or sex work.
We’ll talk a lot more about FOSTA/SESTA and sex worker advocacy in an episode next season, but for now I want to turn to our next conversation of this episode in which Beth Barila offers some practical advice for self-care for activists and anyone living in marginalized bodies.
Beth is a professor at St. Cloud State University and a certified yoga instructor who researches the use of embodiment and mindfulness practices in the classroom. Hear her talk about her journey to yoga.
Beth: I have practiced yoga on and off for the past twenty-some years. In the beginning it was something that I did really sporadically and each time I came to my mat I found something I was really deeply hungry for, but I couldn’t sustain it. Right around the time I got tenure, it was sort of like a become embodied or suffer the costs, right? I’m the tenure process is often a horrific process, um, and at the same time. So that was sort of my own personal trajectory. I needed healthier practices to, to be embodied and in healthier ways, simultaneously. I was teaching gender and women’s studies classes, and regularly finding my students, you know, politically empowered, personally empowered, finding their voice and simultaneously having eating disorders or in abusive relationships or all the things that we struggle with, right? The costs of systems of oppression. And I became, began to feel like there was an embodied piece of wholeness and, um, community care that was maybe missing in, in some of the ways we were teaching gender and women’s studies in higher education. And so right after I got tenure, I became a yoga teacher with the 200-hour program. And that was my path because yoga had been what had spoken to me. There are many other paths, right? But it, for me, that was the conversation that helped me raise questions about: How do we hold this empowerment in our bodies in deeper ways? How do we integrate mind, body, Spirit, right? So that it’s not just one level of us that’s becoming empowered, right? How do we heal from the traumas of oppression, uh, in order to create communities in which we can all thrive and what does that look like? Um, how do we have conversations across difference, right? Where privilege is disrupted and internalized oppression is invoked and be able to sit with, if we happen to be privileged, the discomfort that rises from that and not just to have the gut defensive reactions, right? Or if we are traumatized by the conversation because we’re marginalized, um, what are the resources we can go to, right, to heal. I think that I’m oppressed anti-oppression work that stays only on the level of the intellectual misses three quarters of the conversation, right? Or three quarters of the process that needs to be dealt with. And so the mindfulness and yoga where their paths to raising some of those questions, they’re certainly not flawless paths. Um, and one of the things that I’ve found in my work, because first of all, lots of people are doing this and for awhile it took us awhile to find each other. Um, but also one of the things that I’m finding is that in academic spaces I have to advocate for the importance of embodiment. And in yoga and mindfulness spaces, I have to advocate for the importance of social justice, right? Because a lot of yoga and mindfulness spaces reproduce conditions of oppression and really problematic ways. And so, integrating the two has meant bridging the conversations that are missing in each space.
Amelia: But what if you’re not in a classroom setting often but need a bit more embodiment and mindfulness in your own life? Beth has some advice for that too.
Beth: Finding a centering practice that’s really helpful for you. It’s going to be different for each of us, but, um, you know, taking some deep breaths, feeling our groundedness, whatever’s connected to the earth or the chair, taking a breath before we speak, connecting to what our overall, um, motivation is in the conversation, right? Is it to be right or is it to connect? Is it to understand? And being really mindful of what’s healthy for us in that moment, right? It, this advice means one thing. If we’re privileged in that conversation, it means something very different. If we’re marginalized, right in marginalized groups are always asked to do the emotional labor. Um, so maybe that isn’t the conversation for them to have right then, right? That’s a conversation for an ally to have, or have self care practices around you that you can go to an and by self care, I don’t just mean the individualistic liberal spa day. I mean the community of people who can uphold you in that process. Right? I like that in a lot of communities that conversations are shifting from self care to community care, actually have been community care for a long time, but that’s an important part of the process. Some healing justice movements are really using that phrase, and I think one of the things I also recognize is that because of colonization and cultural appropriation, many communities in addition to having the costs of colonization, you know the racism, the land being taken away, the distraction of their civilization and their families. They’ve also been denied the very healing practices from their communities that could help them cultivate resilience in the face of that and not only have they been denied that, but it’s been cherry-picked, repackaged, and sold back to them, in ways that they don’t profit and in ways that misrepresent. So one of the ways that communities of care happen is to, for some communities, to reconnect them to rituals, traditions, legacies in their own cultures and their own communities. That can be deeply healing. And that depends on the positionality of the person, and which practices resonate with them. But that could be one of the ways the community care is very different than what we tend to see in mainstream.
Amelia: I love this focus on community care, and I think it’s so important to push back against what the over-priced, individualistic modes of self-care that we often find in the capitalist-infused mainstream wellness culture tell us that we should be doing. After talking to Beth, I also thought a lot about what it means to be part of a community that you care for and with, and how we can each make our own communities more inclusive and diverse, so that they becomes spaces that hold difference as well as similarity and welcome discomfort along with comfort in care.I think these ideas are so important when we consider the discourse surrounding immigration and refugee populations in this country, and our last conversation of this episode is with Minneapolis immigration attorney Julia Decker.
Julia: So my name is Julia Decker. I am an immigration attorney. I work at immigrant law center of Minnesota, which is a nonprofit legal service provider in St Paul. Uh, we also have offices in Worthington, Morehead and Austin, Minnesota. We provide free legal services and I work specifically in the removal removal defense unit, which is a defense against deportation. So people who are in removal proceedings facing deportation for whatever reason, and my docket is primarily people who are detained. So primarily people who are in detention who are in jail, not because of any criminal, not necessarily because of any criminal background, but just because they have allegedly committed an immigration violation.
Amelia: If you’ve been clued into the news at all this year, you’ve heard about immigration detention centers, most likely the ones where children and families are held across the country. The media coverage of these centers and immigration news is complex (much like immigration laws themselves) and one of the reasons I was so excited to talk to Julia is to learn first-hand from her what immigrant detention means and looks like. Hear her explain:
Julia: Removal proceedings are for anybody who did the Department of Homeland Security previously the INS and now department of Homeland Security, you know, believes has committed in an immigration violation. They can issue what’s called a notice to appear, which is basically like we think you committed an immigration violation, we’re calling you into immigration court to answer those charges and for us to decide, you know, for immigration judge to decide if you are getting deported or not. Um, immigration judges, so department of Homeland Security is the department that sort of does enforcement, arrests, removals, um, they, uh, and specifically immigration and customs enforcement. And the immigration judges, so the adjudicators in these removal proceedings are not Article Three judges, they are in fact an administrative tribunal in what’s called the executive office of Immigration Review. They are in the Department of Justice. So the immigration judges answer ultimately to the attorney general who at this point in time as Jeff Sessions. So it’s not what you would call an independent judiciary. Um, it’s just a different branch of the government that is the adjudicator. So people get into these proceedings in any number of ways. It used to be, or at least sort of the rhetoric was in the prior administration, was more focused on people who have committed serious criminal violations, which can be a ground for somebody to get deported. Now what we see is lots of traffic stops people getting pulled over for a broken tail light. And then when the police see that they maybe have an accent or they don’t speak very good English, asking for, you know, some sort of documentation. And when realizing that they’re not, or they can’t produce documentation calling ICE and they get end up in ICE custody. So that’s sort of how people end up potentially getting into removal proceedings. The detention piece of it is a related, but sort of a separate and equally sort of distinct piece of the whole thing. Somebody who’s, who’s arrested by ICE or ends up in ICE custody, um, generally will be detained at least for some amount of time. Particularly now. It used to be that there were times where I would look at somebody, they had sort of a discretion to say, “we, you know, we don’t think you’re dangerous. You don’t have a criminal record. May you’ve got small kids at home, you have a health issue. We will just issue the notice to appear for you to go to court in six weeks, you know. Okay, fine.” Um, what we have seen post election is very much detain everybody, put everybody in jail, and force them to fight for a bond. Which is sort of similar to criminal custody, you know you have to pay a bond to get out, and they then hold that money to ensure you show up to court for your immigration proceeding. So the people who are detained are in that realm of, you know, first they’re trying to figure out can they potentially get out of jail and if they can’t, then they have to fight their entire case from inside jail. And these cases, I was just looking at the numbers yesterday actually. According to TRAC at Syracuse University, keeps, does, uh, does, uh, ongoing sort of FOIA requests of statistics. And I think the most recent statistic was that there’s over 700,000 pending immigration proceedings across the country. You know, even with the, and I don’t even, I don’t know the exact number of immigration courts, but there are tons of immigration courts cost the country and, but there’s seven over 700,000 cases pending and those continue to rise, the number continues to go up.
Amelia: I double-checked these numbers, and according to TRAC (which I’ll link to in the shownotes) there are almost 765,000 pending immigration cases in the US in 2018 alone. That’s 765,000 cases across 58 courts or approximately 350 judges. This means that each judge would have an average backlog of 2000 cases — that’s 2000 people, each with families and stories and lives of their own, per judge.
Julia: Because the immigration judge, because immigration judges in the adjudicators and immigration proceedings are in immigration court, proceedings are part of the DOJ, there is a process by which the Attorney General can certified decisions to himself and basically override what the appellate body that would otherwise have the authority to issue presidential decisions in immigration, which is the board of immigration appeals. In the past it’s been used very rarely, and it was where there was clearly an issue that no, they were not agreeing on and they needed it to be clarified once and for all. Um, but what the, this new administration has done the job AG Sessions certified several major decisions to himself all dealing with… Well, one dealing with substantive law, which was is called Matter of AB, it was a domestic violence asylum decision, um, and he certified that to himself and basically canceled the presidential decision that said domestic violence can be a ground for asylum. So basically wiped that out with that decision, which was a major change in asylum law. We had been seeing there had been previously a presidential decision, which was the result of years and years and years and years and years of litigation and settlements and back and forth with the government to come to the conclusion that yes, in certain circumstances of domestic violence can be a grounds for asylum. And that was only, what, 2014, so maybe four years of that. And then the, they got rid of that. So that sort of through a whole bunch of cases into chaos. And so, you know, for those of us who work exclusively in the immigration court, it’s, it’s this constant like, okay, he just did this, you know, which of your cases are affected? Which cases? What’s your argument that this shouldn’t apply to your case? You know, how being ready for an argument that, well, you’re screwed, you know, now what do you do? How do you advise your client, you know, what are these sorts of ethical implications of advising not advising, doing something versus not doing something, making an argument versus not making an argument, you know, all of those questions suddenly become very, very relevant. We also had a, uh, a Supreme Court decision, so immigration cases, if they get far enough up on appeal can end up in the Supreme Court. And there was in fact a supreme court decision called Pereira v Sessions, which we came down, I’m losing track… it was within the last few months, um, which was actually a very good decision. Surprise, surprise. The Supreme Court did something good on our front, however it through the immigration courts into chaos. Because it was potentially very wide reaching implications and without getting into substantive details, but basically it called into question many, many, many of the pending cases that are currently before the courts and threw really up into the air whether a lot of these cases were actually even validly filed before the court. So there was this mad rush by advocates to sort of figure out what to do. Lots of stuff ended up before the court and what ended up happening was judges, immigration judges even within jurisdictions, but across the country, just split down the middle. So you got judges saying, “yeah, we agree we’re, you know, this case is invalid, we don’t have jurisdiction, we’re, we’re ending this case, we’re terminating this case.” And then you have judges, maybe even the same court, you know, saying, “no, we think this case is properly before the court, you know, we, this, this SCOTUS decision only applies to a select group of cases.” So you’ve got just this complete wild sort of wild west landscape at the moment where, you know, we have a positive decision in many in many respects, but the way it’s being implemented is total chaos and complete diametrically opposed sort of decisions. And in depending entirely on which jurisdiction you’re in, which state you’re in and then which judge you’re in front of, on the day that you go to court. It’s incredibly like, you know, a confusing and stressful, you know, when you’re right in the middle of it. Um, and it’s been like that pretty much ever since the Trump administration took office. There have been a lot of other sort of regulatory changes in terms of, you know, adjudications and sort of standards of or trying to change those types of things. Of course courts, federal courts have pushed back pretty hard on the administration, but, you know, it requires somebody who has a lawyer who can get them into federal court in order for them to get a federal court to try and hold the government’s feet to the fire in any meaningful way. You know, and that, this is, of course not even touching on, you know, of course the DACA stuff and TPA, temporary protected status, which is ending for so many countries. The system as a whole. I mean, there’s so many things that are under attack. Um, it’s, you know, you just, just in the courtroom..
Amelia: The reversal of the asylum decision concerning domestic violence illustrates just one of the many ways in which immigration issues are also feminist issues. And the difficulties Julia just outlined are the ones that emerge once people have already entered legal proceedings in immigration courts. The Trump administration has also produced chaos in terms of how people enter the proceedings to begin with, as well.
But what we have seen with this administration is just a complete lack of restraint. What you have now is pushing the boundaries, the limits of the law as far as we can go and really taking off the constraints on the enforcement mechanisms and the enforcement agencies. I mean, what we have seen is, it’s sort of a low hanging fruit approach, you know, you just get the ones who are the easiest to pull in, which, you know, it sort of flies in the face of any sort of public safety argument. And of course we’ve seen some of these really big, um, you know, uh, employment based raids, you know, where they go into a place and pick up a bunch of people. There’s been these widely publicized ice arrests and really bad circumstances, you know, whether it, it’s at schools or in otherwise sensitive locations. We’ve seen ICE enforcement really hamper the criminal justice system and a lot of ways, which, which generally did not happen with the previous administration. I mean, that was a big change. People who are just going to pay a ticket, they’re going to a sentencing hearing, they’re going to deal with whatever criminal issue they have. Um, you know, ICE pops in whatever grabs them before they can finish their criminal process, and the criminal case then just sits there and can’t be dealt with. You know, and the state courts are really, I think, quite frustrated with this because it’s then once they’re in immigration detention, then ICE has generally, in many cases, has refused to allow the person to be transferred to state custody for them to deal with the, the criminal case. And so the state court processes are being stymied because they can’t finish the process if the person doesn’t show up in court. And we’ve just seen a wholesale, I think changeover, you know, the rhetoric of the Attorney General in terms of enforcement and adjudication of these cases has really turned away from this idea of due process of law and very much to a strict enforcement, you know, rule of law type argument, which is clearly aimed at like remove as many people as possible. Um, and that’s just, for what it’s worth, is a total change in rhetoric and has a huge impact on people’s willingness to, you know, call the police, people’s willingness to engage in sort of public life, and people’s willingness to seek services that are, you know, that they need for them or their families. Um, so the atmosphere is very different. Um, of course the legal arguments that we’re making and the substantive stuff that we’re doing in court changes every 24 hours practically. You know, and we’re just, you know, we’re seeing more and more detention. We’re seeing more people in the jails. Um, you know, where the jails. So these, in Minnesota, it’s all county jails. You’re seeing people, the county jails who contract with ICE to hold ICE detainees are full up with ICE detainees. They’re shipping out their county inmates, because at least in some instances the contract, they get more money for ICE inmates than they do for the county inmates.
Amelia: There are so many important points in what Julia just said, but I want to reiterate a few of the latter ones: primarily that ICE officials often hamper the criminal justice system by detaining people when they go to court for criminal proceedings. Criminal proceedings often just means a traffic ticket. So if ICE detains someone when they go to court to deal with a traffic ticket, they hold them in custody and then when the criminal courts request that the person be brought to court to deal with a traffic ticket, ICE refuses to take them. This means that when the person goes to civil court to deal with their immigration proceeding, the immigration judge there can consider the ongoing criminal proceeding in their immigration considerations. So that traffic ticket that they weren’t allowed to deal with because ICE detained them and refused to transfer them back to court to handle it can negatively impact their immigration status. Julia also emphasized the way that our carceral system of for-profit prisons and jails can benefit from increased ICE detention when they are paid more to hold ICE detainees than criminal detainees. In these instances, the detainees become chattel being traded between the highest bidder for their detention. There are so many levels to these issues and they are so complex, so I asked Julia what she hoped that folks trying to understand immigration law outside of these proceeding would take away from listening today.
Julia: Yeah, I mean it’s really hard though. Immigration law is one of the more complex areas of law that there is. I think even just trying to explain it, a lot of times you end up in the weeds really fast because there’s just so many things to try and sort of piece together and make sense of, which of course begs the question like, there’s no right, there’s a right to an attorney in immigration proceedings, but there’s no public defender mechanism so it’s not like the government will pay for it. So, you know, the people who are pro se like good freaking luck, with your 80 million requisites for this one type of relief that, you have such a high burden to prove any ways that you’re going to lose. Oh and it’s all in English. You know, there’s no sort of mechanism for getting your application in Spanish or something, you know, or whatever other language. And I think being, understanding that immigration proceedings, even if even if somebody has a criminal record, a lot of people don’t have or they have a, they have a traffic ticket, um, but also understanding that immigration proceedings are not criminal proceedings. And so even if somebody is detention, they’re not in, they’re not in jail because of their whatever crime they committed, they’re in jail because immigration wants to deport them. And it’s, so, it’s a civil proceeding. It’s civil detention. Uh, it’s, you know, there’s no criminal aspect to any of these proceedings or the detention, um, and yet they are treated like criminals. And so just understanding that like they’re being treated like criminals, but that does not mean that any of this is criminal.
Amelia: One of my biggest takeaways from my conversation with Julia was precisely this final statement: Immigration proceedings are civil proceedings and not criminal ones. So even when the justice system brings detained immigrants into court in shackles and keeps them in jail cells and treats them like criminals, none of their charges are criminal, and we have to look past the deeply ideological imagery here to remember that.
I hate to end season one on such a grim note, but I think this episode perfectly illustrates the way that feminist activism in the United States takes on so much and can involved so much joy and so much suffering in the face of many of the oppresive political realities here. In season two, we’ll explore more resistance to oppression and be sure to highlight some of the joy that comes from organizing with other feminist activists.
Thank you so much for listening to season one, please keep sharing episodes with friends and sending suggestions of folks I should interview. You can also still buy t-shirts and support season two with donation. Details on all of that are at fiftyfeministstates.com. That F-I-F-T-Y feminist states dot com. I’ll be back in 2019 with a whole new season of interviews, and until then, I’ll see you on the road!
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Thanks for tuning in to this episode of Fifty Feminist States. You can follow Fifty Feminist States to stay updated on episodes and roadtrip happenings on Instagram at @fiftyfeministstates that’s @f-i-f-t-y-feministstates.
Our opening music is by Lobo Loco and this wonderfully sexist song that you’re listening to on our way out is a recording by Billy Murray from 1916.
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Until next time, wild ones! We’ll see you on the road.
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