This piece was originally published in our We Too Belong report and is part of our work in inclusive practices in immigration & incarceration.
Aparna Shah is the Executive Director of Mobilize the Immigrant Vote (MIV), a statewide, multi-ethnic coalition of community-based immigrant and refugee organizations working to increase their communities’ participation in elections and advance broader community and systems change.
Both of my grandmothers were very strong women. I grew up with stories of these women, one Pilipina and the other Indian, who faced tremendous challenges with great strength and determination to hold their families together and create a better future for their children. I was born in the Philippines, lived in India until I was six, and then came to the US with my parents. In the US, I grew up with family members with mixed immigration status. I knew our different stories from very early on. I also knew that we were all family and that our shared history, blood, and love bound us together no matter what.
Through all these early experiences in my life, I gained awareness of our varied yet shared migration stories. I know the sense of longing that comes with migration. As I’ve started my own family, the US has increasingly felt like home. This is what it can mean to be an immigrant, the daughter of immigrants, and now a mother with a son born and raised in this country. All these truths exist together. In my professional life I’ve worked primarily with immigrant and refugee families within multiracial communities, and over time have focused on where and how our communities can change, lead, and re-imagine systems and structures of power.
I was fortunate to work in reproductive justice, work that gave me a political analysis and theory of change that aligned with my experience and values. In 2009, I joined Mobilize the Immigrant Vote (MIV), a multiracial California alliance of immigrant and refugee-led organizations. Only now can I see the unintended but clear progression of my work from youth organizing to alliance-building and national movement-building to building the political muscle of our communities.
Our work at MIV is aimed at giving communities not just access to the vote but also to governing, with full dignity, self-determination, and freedom for all our communities. We are working to create the vision and infrastructure for a just and inclusive society. We mobilize around progressive political change, and lead with cultural and narrative shifts which are needed to seed the ground for the systemic changes our communities need and want. We execute our campaign and field work set firmly in our shared vision of a country and world that our communities want and deserve.
Last year we launched the Until We Are All Free initiative in partnership with CultureStrike and Black Alliance for Just Immigration, an initiative where we seek to challenge racism, mass incarceration, and mass deportation, in order to create a world where all people are truly free. We build solidarity that centers Black lives across movements. We create pathways and tools for our communities to envision and manifest a world where all communities—Black, indigenous, immigrant, refugee, transgender, differently abled—are visible, valuable, and free. Currently, anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric is extreme, dehumanizing, and in some cases violent. We have to collectively move into a place of wholeness and belonging that includes all of us. A key point in this moment is that “demographics are not destiny.”
We have seen serious demographic shifts. For those with wealth, power, and privilege, there is great fear involved around loss of the status quo and the power and privilege inherent in that. How do we move into a place of really seeing and valuing each other? That question is critical to our analysis of what it takes to create a world in which all our communities can really thrive. Policy priorities we are pursuing focus on mass incarceration, deportation, detention, and the way these systems have broken down the fabric of our communities. There are many places in which the conversation around mass deportation doesn’t include mass incarceration, and vice versa, though the structural racism that underlies one system is part and parcel of the other.
We know that these issues are wedges which are used to separate and divide our communities.
Ending the systems of mass incarceration and mass deportation and detention requires us to move from punishment and isolation towards solutions that are defined and led by those most impacted. This presents an opportunity for us to explore what restorative justice looks like on a large scale. We are stronger when we all have a voice. Our communities are not the counter narrative, we are the narrative. There is something about the spirit and opportunity of our country that has resonated for generations of people coming here to create a better life for the generations that come after, that is very much who we are.
All people deserve dignity and inclusion no matter where we are born and whether we have the right kind of papers. This is what it means to connect with our own and each other’s full humanity. Our policies, power structures, and everyday lives must reflect our shared humanity. If we want to not just recognize but be true to who we are as a whole society, we must fully embrace immigrant and refugee communities. The fight against ongoing state violence, police brutality, profiling, detention, incarceration, and exclusion is being waged on many fronts. A movement is building to end private detention centers and prisons, and to end family detention where mothers and children are held indefinitely, youth solitary confinement, and deportations completely.
In some cities and localities we are starting to see the results of massive organizing efforts to hold police officers as well as border patrol agents accountable for brutalizing and killing our people. Communities and organizers have been pushing back against ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raids which target undocumented communities and leave families devastated. The intersection of immigration and incarceration exists at many levels. Immigration enforcement and law enforcement in this country are becoming increasingly more linked, reflecting increased militarization of our cities and our nation. We are separated from our families, isolated through shame and stigma, and stripped of our humanity. Our communities’ very bodies are in danger and in many cases it truly is a matter of life and death. This intersection exists because of structural racism, and anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment. It exists because of the pursuit of corporate profits and because of state violence on our bodies. It exists because those in power can decide who is valuable and who is not, and who is disposable and who is not.
It also manifests from damaging narratives around good immigrants and bad immigrants, families versus felons, and model minorities. These narratives intentionally create and reinforce wedges within immigrant and refugee communities themselves, between immigrant and refugee communities and Black communities, and between immigrant and refugee and US-born communities. In addition to mass incarceration, deportation, detention, income inequality continues to impact our communities deeply. We must continue to support state and local fights for minimum wage, workers protections and rights including a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights here in California, and renters protection and progressive zoning policy development to address the housing crises and gentrification across the country.
And in the midst of our defensive battles against attacks on female, queer, and transgender bodies, gender identity, and sexual orientation, we have to continue to put forth a vision of a society where we value and hold all of our communities and determine the political and cultural pathways to achieve our vision. We must invest in permanent infrastructure in immigrant and refugee communities to build multiracial power. This has to happen within communities themselves, and at state and national levels. We believe in long-term movement building and electoral organizing as one interwoven strategy. Whether or not there is an election, we go back to our communities year in and year out, in all our different languages, to engage around policies and legislation at community and state levels. We build relationships, trust, and leadership in our communities.
Successful tactics and strategies often start with a set of shared values and a shared vision.
Whether we are fighting a proactive or defensive campaign, it’s ultimately about what we are trying to build over a long arc. We don’t start with data points and policies, but with what we all care about: family, opportunity, the common good. Then from that place we try to understand what is required to build a state, country, and world that does not yet exist and what alternative systems and structures will get us there. When we lead with vision and values we are able to imagine new worlds and build the relationships that will forge that new world together