Creating Systems of Support
Silky Shah is the Executive Director of Detention Watch Network, a national coalition building power to abolish immigration detention in the US. An organizer for more than twenty years, Silky has worked on issues related to immigration detention, the prison industrial complex, and racial and migrant justice. Her book project contends that the prison industrial complex and U.S. immigration enforcement policy are not separate, but intertwined systems of repression, and that embracing prison abolition is the only way to fully achieve justice for immigrants.
The Changemaker Authors Cohort, a partnership with the Unicorn Authors Club, is a new, yearlong intensive coaching program supporting full-time movement activists and social justice practitioners to complete books that create deep, durable narrative change, restructuring the way people feel, think, and respond to the world. This interview series features participants in the inaugural cohort.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Narrative Initiative: So tell me about your book project through the Changemaker Authors Cohort.
Silky Shah: I am working on a book that’s considering immigration, organizing, advocacy, and activism through a lens of abolition. So, understanding better the intersections between the immigration system and the prison industrial complex and how that understanding is going to help us actually move closer to some form of immigrant justice. It’s also about the real need to build a bridge between movements, which has been a real struggle within the immigrant rights movement.
Narrative Initiative: Why do you believe there needs to be a bridge between movements between immigration and the prison industrial complex? How do you see they’re linked? And why do you think people fail to see the connections between the two?
Silky Shah: Part of what people sometimes don’t realize is immigration policy, like immigrant exclusion and criminalization, are things that have been around for much longer periods of time. The 1960s is when immigration policy and the “War on Crime” started in earnest. We’ve seen a massive expansion of the prison system and of policing in the U.S. In that context, the way that the U.S. government has treated immigration has increasingly taken on a carceral logic.
We now have this system that has ballooned to over 2 million people behind bars. That is our way of thinking about immigration: our way to control immigration is through the prison industrial complex. A lot of people see them as separate systems, but they’re actually systems that work hand in hand in every way. You can see that in a very acute way with ICE. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, is one of the largest police agencies in the country. It’s one of the largest jail operating systems in the country and connects very specifically to county jails, private prisons, and local police to [carry out] its agenda which is to remove immigrants and deport immigrants from the country.
A lot of the framework around immigration is around deterrence. We don’t want more immigrants. So they’re using the prison system to really reinforce that. Similarly, there is the same framework when you’re looking at incarceration. If we have more incarceration, we’re going to prevent crime, but we know that there’s a lot of evidence to show that there isn’t actually a correlation there. So similarly, a lot of the rhetoric that’s used around immigration, which is very criminalizing, has grown to be more criminalizing in the context of the prison-industrial complex’s (PIC) growth.
Narrative Initiative: What do you mean by immigrant exclusion? Can you explain that term for me, please?
Silky Shah: For a long time, there weren’t actually laws that said, certain people are allowed to be in or people aren’t allowed. Obviously there’s a long, long history of settler colonialism and slavery in the U.S. But in 1882, a law called the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed. It really said, specifically, we don’t want this set of people in the U.S. and we don’t want them to be able to have citizenship. Since then, there’s been more attention to different moments, especially in the 1920s, with the National Origins Quota Act that really pushed this idea that certain people shouldn’t be allowed to migrate to the U.S.
So there’s been a lot of work to prevent people from coming and gaining citizenship. There’s also a long history of criminalizing people, but the [increasing] scale that we saw in the last 40 years has been significant. Much of what’s happening in the immigration system is tied to what’s happening in the broader system of incarceration that we have.
Narrative Initiative: Okay, so then, in tackling those issues in a book, what narratives do you hope to shift? And what are the ones that you hope to surface to get people to think about these two issues in a more cohesive way?
Silky Shah: The narrative around immigration in the U.S. lends itself to a couple things. One is that immigrants are innocent, and they’re not deserving of this harsh treatment. And it becomes a specific immigrant narrative about somebody who’s making sacrifices who has “done nothing wrong” and is hard-working. This reinforces a lot of the frames that have been used to reinforce anti-Black racism in the U.S. What I would like to shift is for the immigrant rights movement . . . to really to understand itself as a racial justice movement. What does that mean in terms of our accountability and how we approach the work?
Then, there are a lot of lessons to be learned from an abolitionist framework. I think the movement is still unsure about how to perceive abolition in the context of immigration. So I hope to surface some ideas about how we can actually make those connections. And for me, it’s been a real journey because I, for many years, saw myself as an abolitionist. I believe that the prison industrial complex should not exist, but it wasn’t until I started working at Detention Watch Network and working on federal policy in 2009 —over the eight years of the Obama administration—that I saw how essential an abolitionist framework was.
The reforms that were proposed only reinforced the idea that people should be detained and deported. And the numbers of people detained and deported went up dramatically. What I hope to surface is lessons on what we’ve done well as a movement, what we could do better, and how we can use an abolitionist framework as a tool for making sure that what we propose is something that actually reduces the number of people who are detained and deported.
Narrative Initiative: I’m taking abolition and an abolitionist framework to mean a model of community care and protection. That’s how I’ve heard it defined a couple of different ways from various organizations – a community care and community protection model. It’s about restorative justice and a transformational way of thinking about the criminal legal system. So, what does an abolitionist framework or model of community care and protection look like for the immigration system? For creating an infrastructure that allows immigrants when they come legally, or illegally, to come in and not automatically be thrown into the carceral system?
Silky Shah: It’s something we’re figuring out. I don’t think we have all the answers of exactly what it looks like. I think what we know is that the systems that exist are only serving to create the conditions where more people are dying as they try to get to the border, or more people are detained or are sent back to countries where they’re not welcome anymore. So, ultimately, there is a lot of the desire to move in that direction, and believe that abolition is not just removing things. It’s about building things.
Some of the reforms, or alternatives, that people will offer to the detention or case management system, still comply with the idea that immigrants need to be surveilled in some way. Our idea is . . . mutual aid networks – people supporting immigrant communities and people who are coming. They want to offer help and they want to offer assistance as much as possible and without having the existing framework [to know] whether they’re complying with the immigration system. That’s essentially how it works right now.
Reducing the scale of the system will actually make the situation at the border not one that leads to premature death. I think there is a broader conversation to be had about the U.S.’s role in other parts of the world, and how that has played a role. In fact, that’s a conversation that doesn’t actually happen in the immigrant rights movement nearly as much as it should.
There’s also this question of abundance. We constantly in a scarcity mindset. We are a country, we have the resources, we have the ability to care for people. We’re not doing that. What does it look like to do that for people who currently live here? And what does it look like to do that for people who want to come and seek safety and support? That’s a bigger conversation. To me, I think that’s where the immigrant rights movement reinforces frames around American values, like being hardworking citizens, etc. It’s important to really think about that framework of abundance and what the possibilities are.
Narrative Initiative: What does a scaled down immigration system look like that is more open to a model of abolition, one that welcomes immigrants into this country and gives them the tools they need to survive and thrive beyond requesting asylum?
Silky Shah: One of the things about the system is that you just have a ballooning of the system – more crimes, more ways that people can be convicted, more ways that people can be mandatorily detained and mandatorily deported. You have a system that has a few thousand people in detention to 55,000 people in detention on any given day over 40 years, and over half a million people in detention over the course of a year. So, when you look at Customs and Border Protection and what’s happening at the border, you have where the carceral state and the war machine meet.
You have a lot of money going to defense contractors, who are creating even harsher conditions at the border. You have a lot of money going into Border Patrol which targets people for migrant prosecutions. Scaling down is cutting the budget of Customs and Border Protection, cutting the budget of ICE, and moving away from the model where immigrants are viewed only as a security threat because of the creation of the Department of Homeland Security.
If you don’t have so many people who are targeted for prosecution spending 30 days or two years in prison and if you have less Border Patrol, you actually don’t have that many more people targeted with you. If you deprioritize certain crimes, then you don’t have that many more people to target. So, that’s one direction that we really need to move in. A lot of folks are looking for XYZ solution, but we also have to do the work to make it safer, actually, for people to come in then support their coming. Borders are very much made up and imaginary, but in this context, I do think one of our best strategies is reducing the role of the carceral state at the border. It could have a real impact.
Narrative Initiative: Doesn’t it cost more to detain someone for two years than to actually help them?
Silky Shah: It’s billions of dollars. It’s not the scale that the Department of Defense is, which is where so much of the federal budget goes, but it’s an absurd amount of money that’s going to CBP and ICE and it keeps growing. Giving more money to these agencies, in fact, is just making everything worse.
Narrative Initiative: Okay. I want to ask the wrong question. And it’s the wrong question intentionally. For the people who say, “I believe in legal immigration, not illegal immigration,” or the people who say we shouldn’t have an open border, what is your response?
Silky Shah: The truth is that all the laws that have been created, especially since 1965, have made it that much harder for people to seek legal immigration. It’s actually much more difficult for people than it was before. So, you saw a lot of Asian migration after 1965. But you also saw a quota on the Western Hemisphere, which actually ignored a lot of the economic migration from Mexico and expanded the number of undocumented immigrants in the country.
In 1996, Clinton passed two really horrible laws. One of them made it so that, if you’re in the country, you can’t adjust your status. If you overstayed your visa or something else, you can’t adjust your status. You have to actually go back to apply for a green card. But, by going back, you have a bar on the amount of time before you can come back, which is either three or 10 years. It’s three years, if it’s under six months, and 10 years, if it’s over a year. All these people who wanted to adjust their status were prevented [from doing so] and were sort of stuck in the country. That grows the undocumented population. So, there are all these ways that US immigration law has made it so much harder for people to gain legal status. And the system is getting worse because we’re putting a whole bunch of money into enforcement. But when you look at the immigration court backlog, there isn’t actually an effort to relieve the system.
Then, on the border question, we do have open borders for people with money and for corporations. We have open borders for capital. In many ways, the border regime that we have now reinforces a sort of Second-class existence in the U.S., and that hurts everybody. And so, again, I think the more we can create a situation that isn’t just intensely militarized, intensely carceral at the border, the better. We’re going to need to have options for people to be saved and not be in these conditions that have led to countless deaths. We have things we can do now to start moving towards a system that isn’t so harmful.
Narrative Initiative: Like what?
Silky Shah: Reducing the budget of CBP and ICE is central to moving away from the system. Not prioritizing deportations of people living here. In many ways the number of deportations of people living in the U.S. has reduced and that’s largely because states and localities have said, No, you can’t keep taking our community members. There’s been a lot of organizing. The Biden administration made some early moves on immigration that were positive, but they retreated on a lot of them. So, initially, they had a moratorium on deportation. So they understood that actually like deporting people from the country is not something that’s actually like helping communities in any way. But then they sort of retreated on that. There are ways that we can move towards something better – reducing the number of deportations, reducing the number of people being detained, reducing the number of border patrol and militarization at the border. I think those are central [steps] toward a more humane immigration system.
Narrative Initiative: You mentioned a couple times that, for those who come to the country without money, access, means, or that it’s like a Second-class status—I can’t say citizenship because they’re not citizens— but it’s basically peonage. Then you also mentioned more closely linking the immigration reform fight to the fight for racial justice. Can you talk more about those two connections?
Silky Shah: It’s hard when you imagine citizenship as the pinnacle of the fight for the immigrant rights movement, and then understanding that, actually, there are whole groups of people in this country who are citizens who don’t have the same rights that citizenship somehow affords you. And specifically the shifts in the immigrant rights movement that happened under the Obama administration are really central to think about because I think two things were happening at once.
The Obama administration really used the criminal legal system to target immigrants. Immigrant rights groups had to start understanding the criminal legal system in a way they weren’t understanding it before. But, simultaneously, the Black Lives Matter movement was growing and uprisings in Ferguson were happening and you couldn’t really ignore that. There was this racial reckoning happening, and recently, we’ve actually seen some reduction on immigration detention in the last couple of years. There’s no question in my mind that, that was aided because of the protests in 2020 during the uprising after the murder of George Floyd. So, in many ways, I do feel that the emphasis on citizenship in the immigrant rights movement has sometimes prevented us from actually having a bigger conversation about racial justice in the U.S.
Narrative Initiative: I feel like there’s a connection here between politics and what’s happening with both Black Lives Matter and the racial justice movement. So, you have the first Black president who uses the criminal legal system to increase the detention and deportation of immigrants, I believe, to appease those on the right, who are racist and white supremacists and who believed that the first Black president was just going to let all these brown people in.
Silky Shah: The one thing I would say is: the immigrant rights movement was pushing a criminal versus non-criminal narrative. Obama just took on a lot of moderate and racist notions that existed within this movement.
Narrative Initiative: So how has the narrative shifted since 2008 to 2016 and how do you see the shift being played out politically?
Silky Shah: I think this shift is on people who are currently living in the U.S. who have maybe been here for years, who are immigrants and who don’t have status. A lot has shifted to support them. Obama was forced to move after the failure of immigration reform . . . he implemented Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), attempted DACA, that didn’t happen, but that’s because there is a movement that’s really supporting people who are immigrants who are undocumented.
But, for people who are coming, there’s a different story. There isn’t the same base of organizing and support for people who are seeking asylum who are refugees. The number of refugees allowed to enter the country every year is so low. So, what you saw in the Trump era was that states and localities, because of pressure from immigrant rights groups, were saying, “Oh, we can prevent the federal government’s strategy of using the criminal legal system to target immigrants.” That started happening more, and that reduced the number of people being targeted within the interior. But, at the same time, despite the family separation crisis, despite the Muslim ban, a lot of people saw those fights as legal fights. There wasn’t an organizing base in the same way.
There was a movement to abolish ICE – and that has actually really helped a lot of our wins on detention – but there wasn’t an organizing base around supporting people coming in. And, of course, the numbers of people who are coming because of climate crisis, economic crisis, etc. is growing. And so it was really shocking to see Biden take Stephen Miller’s framework and say, We’re going to keep Title 42. Title 42 is the obscure public health measure that says, during a pandemic, we can expel any immigrants that come to the border. On the border, everything has moved to the right. The reality is that Democrats don’t have any vision. And so it’s been a huge challenge for the movement. And because those things are equated, any sort of possibility of getting legalization often includes more border security, more criminalization. Those trade-offs are a constant tension within the movement.
Narrative Initiative: Who is your book’s audience? And what do you want them to take from it?
Silky Shah: I’m working on the first part of the book, which is really a history of the immigration system through the lens of mass incarceration. It is very exhaustive. So, that’s been a process. There are a lot of immigrant narratives out there. What I’m really trying to do is have the immigration system be one of my characters, but, in the second part of the book, it’s really the immigrant rights movement. The audience is our folks who have not really seen that connection between immigration and the prison industrial complex and helping them understand it better. As immigrant justice activists, ending the prison industrial complex is going to be central to getting immigrant justice.