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Fighting for Freedom From Surveillance: Redefining “Sanctuary” for Trans, Queer and Immigrant Communities

Can cities with jails call themselves sanctuaries?

Protesters drape themselves in the LGBTQ+ pride flag and Trans pride flag at a dance protest celebrating trans youth in Washington, DC, February 24, 2017. (Photo: Ted Eytan)

One of the leading strategic movements after the installation of Donald Trump’s administration has been the sanctuary movement. Yet, as many critics have asked, what’s a sanctuary with jails? Though cities have been quick to claim the mantle of sanctuary, a surveillance apparatus that disproportionately targets poor communities of color runs contrary to that claim. The matrix of broken windows policing, anti-immigrant policies and online tracking lead to presumptions of criminality that, in many cases, keep no one safe. In my own home of New York City, you can be deported for something as simple as jumping a turnstile. How do we reconcile claims of sanctuary with a crisis of over-policing that leaves us all more vulnerable — particularly those rendered invisible under the state, like transwomen and undocumented immigrants? I’m joined by Jennicet Gutiérrez of Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement (Familia: TQLM), and Hamid Khan of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition. You can watch this conversation — and many more like this — on the Laura Flanders Show, or subscribe to the free podcast: @lfshow

Laura Flanders: Sanctuary and surveillance this week on The Laura Flanders Show. Can any city really be safe? We talk with Hamid Khan, campaign coordinator of Stop LAPD Spying about the data-mining programs that are proliferating under the Trump administration, and hear from Jennicet Gutiérrez about what the trans queer migrant’s movement can teach people about how to protect those most vulnerable. Jennicet, Hamid, welcome to the program. Glad to have you. Let’s start with you, Jennicet. We don’t hear much about what is happening in the trans community. Sometimes we hear the numbers, statistics — like when I heard recently that the average life expectancy for an African American trans woman was 35 years old. Is that possible?

Jennicet Gutiérrez: Correct. Yeah, that’s very sad and unfortunate that we have to deal with those horrible statistics, right? The life expectancy of a Black trans woman, 35? How can we allow that to be right, as a society, as a community, as a movement? The violence that transgender women of color specifically face — it’s alarming. In the US alone, last year we lost 26 trans women. Most of the victims were Black trans women.

And trans men?

Gutiérrez: I believe there’s been one or two that have been reported that we know about, but the majority continue to be Black trans women….

Is it possible that the trans men are just not getting reported?

Gutiérrez: I’m not really sure why that’s the case, but it’s alarming to me that perhaps they’re not being reported as much as the trans women of color…. I think … the fact that trans women challenge the [gender] binary, the norms … plays a role in why trans women of color especially get murdered at a higher rate.

And what does Familia TQLM do?

Gutiérrez: Familia Trans Queer Liberation Movement, we are a local, a national-based organization. We are building still. We’re only three years old, and specifically working with the Latinx community. We are working in issues of immigrants’ rights, LGBTQ rights and racial justice, because we understand that here there are issues impacting the trans community, including undocumented trans women, but also there are connections with other communities, that we need to feel solidarity.

So, you represent one of those other communities, Hamid. Last time we spoke to you, you were talking about the work of your organization, Stop LAPD Spying. It’s been about a year. How have things changed or not changed since the last time we were in Los Angeles, Hamid?

Hamid Khan: Well, while the playbook remains the same, I think enforcement of the operationalization of that playbook is definitely changing. Particularly, I think post-Trump’s election, how all these practices are getting much more enhanced, much more severe, and I think speaking about particularly in the immigrant community, while there’s a lot of focus on ICE — the Immigration Customs and Enforcement — what’s really missing is the much bigger ISE, the Information Sharing Environment, which has been established … for over a decade now, post-9/11, and how data collection has really become the major tool for enforcement, for investigation, for tracing and tracking and monitoring people.

Now, you use the phrase Information Sharing Environment. Other people talk about surveillance. Is it the same thing?

Khan: Well, it’s bringing together surveillance and data collection from various parts. This came on the heels of [the] 9/11 Commission Report. Congress passed a law, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, and in that — in 2004 — they mandated the executive branch to create a massive environment where … various agencies and private contractors and corporations, [and] local, regional, international, national [organizations] would be sharing information about people where it would be uploaded into various databases and then the outflow of information would happen.

And how is that intersecting with the immigration agenda of the Trump administration especially? Not that there wasn’t a problem beforehand.

Khan: Well, let’s look at some of the people that are working with Trump…. Peter Thiel owns Palantir. Palantir is a data-mining firm, which is valued over $25 billion, and Palantir got a contract with Immigration Customs Enforcement for about $45 million. But when you look at Palantir itself … it was developed by a CIA venture capital arm, In-Q-Tel, and Palantir has become the primary data analytics … engine … to gather information and develop that into predictive algorithms. So, Palantir is being used by ICE, Palantir is being used by LAPD in their Suspicious Activity Reporting program, Palantir is being used in predictive policing — so Palantir … kind of becomes this common thread where information is being shared, information is being collected.

“We cannot allow a city to call itself sanctuary, yet have direct collaborations with ICE.” —Jennicet Gutiérrez

So, in essence, when they talk about sanctuaries, when … cities are speaking out and political leadership is speaking out against the partnership between police and immigration, I think what’s really missing is that there’s a lot of misinformation and misleading information, because immigration doesn’t have to wait for a police phone call. They’re not waiting for LAPD or the LA Sheriff’s Department to pick up the phone and say, “Hey, we have somebody here.” They can go into the Information Sharing Environment and identify anybody and everybody and go after them.

So, how is this a trans issue? Why are you here sitting next to Hamid here?

Gutiérrez: Oh, obviously there is a clear connection with law enforcements and immigrant detention centers throughout the nation. Familia has been involved directly in the campaign to end trans detention here in Santa Ana, California…. Some of the women who are detained get contact with the police for not having a license, for some type of minor violations, and they get turned over to an immigration detention facility. So, that’s been … critical for us to uplift the community, the issues, the struggles that … we are facing, and how for many of us, the first contact is through law enforcement, and now that the new administration has made it clear that they’re going to invest more money in law enforcement … it’s critical for us to be able to say, with the pressure that [they] are putting, we’re forcing ICE to get out of Santa Ana.

Santa Ana was in the news not long ago around this question. How come?

Gutiérrez: Santa Ana was perhaps the first city to call itself “sanctuary,” but immigration has been holding business in that specific facility for the last 10 years. It’s important for us to challenge the notion of sanctuary, because again, we cannot allow a city to call itself sanctuary, yet have direct collaborations with ICE. We have a number of our LGBTQ undocumented people inside this facility, including undocumented women. Immigration wanted to expand the contract, because the contract expires in 2020, so they wanted to renew it for an additional 10 years, let’s say. But by having two direct actions, we have forced them to get out. That is the direction that we need to go. If we’re really gonna embrace fully the term “sanctuary,” we need to … cut all ties with ICE and put pressure to go further and shut it down completely.

Do you see a model in the struggle around the Santa Ana facility that could be expanded?

Khan: Absolutely…. I think there’s so many different ways, and it’s a work in progress because it’s not only about ICE and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, because the way our data is moving … it’s a vast, vast apparatus — the Information Sharing Environment, as I mentioned earlier — but I think this is definitely a first step towards really dismantling this whole apparatus.

So, that whole discussion around whatever they called it — Safe Communities Law — the collaboration between immigration officials and policing — what I’m hearing [is] it affects trans people disproportionately because you have more run-ins with the police.

Gutiérrez: Yeah…. We’re a small population, yet our numbers are highly represented in the criminal justice system … exposing us to further violence … so that should be completely unacceptable and the … LGBT community needs to really center and uplift the leadership for trans women of color specifically.

Are you a documented immigrant?

Gutiérrez: I’m undocumented at the moment.

And what would be your path to quote unquote “legalization?”

Gutiérrez: It’s a very complex, lengthy, pricey process … if, in the process, you missed any minor information, your application can be pushed back.

And is it different for trans people?

Gutiérrez: It’s more complex for trans people because no government … at the federal level recognizes our trans identity that I’m aware of. Right? So, we have to provide our birth-given information that we really don’t connect or identify with. That makes it more difficult for us to get through the process without being humiliated, harassed or dehumanized in doing so….

So, if the process wasn’t difficult enough for most people, it’s even more difficult for you?

Gutiérrez: I would say so, that is the case, and that’s why, to me, it’s extremely important to let people know that we are being impacted at a higher rate — more than the regular population — and in order for us to truly be free in this society, again, we have to center our trans woman leadership.

“Where there’s a lot of oppression, there’s a long history of resistance as well.” —Hamid Khan

And how is that changing the work that you’re doing, Hamid, this new coalition kind of, this new expansion of the communities you’re working with?

Khan: … When you triangulate the tactic and programs that they have — because now increasingly what we are also seeing is this expansion in real-time facial recognition technology, real-time biometrics technology, as well with the use of body cameras. So, body cameras, while people have been speaking about them as like, “Well, they will result in more officer misconduct,” well more than that, it’s gonna expand the surveillance state, because body cameras are going to be picking up the information. It’s almost a 24/7 surveillance tool.

We had a conversation not so long ago with Eric Adams, the [borough] president of Brooklyn, and he was talking about cameras as possibly a way to document positive interactions with the community. You’re saying even in those positive interactions, data’s being captured?

Khan: Absolutely, and all the … footage becomes evidence. Then when you look at … how the “[If You] See Something, Say Something” programs have worked out, now we have evidence based on LAPD’s own inspector general audit that over 80 percent of the suspicious activity reports have come through See Something, Say Something, which comes from private individuals. So, they’re basically providing a license to profile people, so when you look at transphobia and how deep transphobia runs, who is a suspect person? What is a suspect body? Why would they be called in? Then when you bring in predictive algorithms and you start looking at how those algorithms would be used against trans sex workers, for example, and who’s a suspect in there? So, I think it’s not only necessary, we are obligated because these are the level of vulnerabilities that we need to expose.

So, what kind of activities are you up to? What are you all doing together?

Gutiérrez: We really are mobilizing, building coalition with other communities, especially the ones that the new administration has openly and heavily attacked — the Black community, the Muslim community, the LGBT community — but also in the LGBT community, we need to let them know, “Hey, there are undocumented LGBTQ people that are also being impacted….” That has to be one of the strategic ways for us to move forward, and how do we engage in difficult, uncomfortable conversations … for instance, there’s been moments when I’m told I’m undocumented but I’m not part of the LGBT community, I don’t see the connection, so you shouldn’t even be part of the conversation, much less decision making, so we have to really go hard after our own communities and say, “Hey, we can no longer be silenced. We can no longer be thrown under the bus. You need to trust the leadership of trans women of color.”

Khan: The one thing if I can add is that I think the other piece that we are doing is … really challenging the movement itself, because I think what is happening is that as people of color, we who are not Black, all of a sudden there’s this mobilization that happens as if the assault started yesterday. I’m originally from Pakistan, but I also challenge the movements in South Asian communities as well, because of the failure to draw parallels and to be there when the Black body is being assaulted on the street…. I think one of our goals is really to continually challenge that we need to ground ourselves in Black liberation and really just to challenge our own anti-Blackness.

Are we going down a helpful track here with this talk of sanctuary?

Gutiérrez: I do welcome the idea of sanctuary cities and municipalities, and colleges and universities and spaces for protection, but I do believe that it is important to redefine what does sanctuary mean, what does sanctuary look like? We cannot just heavily concentrate on one community while other communities have been heavily attacked, for instance, like the Black community, the Muslim community, the transgender community, so we need to really be more broader in our definitions, so when we talk about protection, we mean all people, including those immigrants with criminal records.

Khan: And I think just on the flip side to that, I think this whole conversation can become a slippery slope as well, because sanctuary, as we are reminded by particularly elders in the Black community, is also a containment zone where you are sort of confined within a certain zone, and if you step out of that zone, you or your body’s in danger … what is happening is that there’s not really solid information being shared about … how information gets shared, how it’s not just a matter of seeking sanctuary in a place of worship or in your house — that unless we really are able to move freely around, so I think we have to really just frame this in the bigger conversation of liberation.

Gutiérrez: So, how can you really call yourself sanctuary when you have this facility here that is collaborating with ICE and holding people in cages and putting them through so many human rights violations…? Here we have an opportunity to not only shut down the immigrant detention part of it, but also the entire city jail, and I think instead of having that space to put our people through so much harm and pain, how do we use that space to be able to allow people to be themselves and thrive and be productive people to society and be respected in a very dignified way?

So, I think that is the way we need to move, and yes, it is extremely difficult and complex, because sometimes there will be very hard disagreements with the community, but in the end, the long-term is to abolish all detention centers and prisons and find alternatives. How do we handle these type of conditions that are happening that to me are inhumane and are not working for communities of color?

Last word from you, Hamid.

Khan: Well, I think ultimately, where there’s a lot of oppression, there’s a long history of resistance as well … how do we strengthen this culture of resistance, how do we share knowledge with our communities, how do we learn from the elders who have been fighting this system of oppression for so many years? I think at the end of the day, it just comes down to that, however we look at sanctuary, liberation and freedom really comes along as communities are building power together. It’s about food, it’s about shelter, it’s about safe streets, it’s about access to health care. It’s not only about immigration rates.