Photo of the inaugural class  of IJC on a visit to the Federal Courthouse in New York

The Feministing Five: Rachel B. Tiven

For this week’s Feministing Five, we spoke with Rachel B. Tiven, the Executive Director of Immigrant Justice Corps and a leading voice on the need for high quality legal representation for immigrants. We learned more about how gender intersects unjust immigration practices and policies, and what we can do to help.

unnamedRachel joined IJC in 2014 for its inaugural year of its fellowship program. It is the country’s first fellowship dedicated to providing high-quality legal representation for immigrants and has sent fellows to places like Karnes family detention center to fight for the women and children who are held there. Now in its second year, the Immigrant Justice Corp has expanded its reach to the greater New York City area and continues to push for immigration justice wherever it is most needed.

Without further ado, the Feministing Five with Rachel B. Tiven!

Suzanna Bobadilla: Congraluations on Immigrant Justice Corps second year of fellows. What are some achievements that you are particularly proud from this past year? 

Rachel B. Tiven: What I’m most proud of is how many clients our fellows have already served. That’s the core of our program — we are trying to provide more quality and more quantity for immigrants, both for people who are in defensive removal proceedings and for people who need help applying for upgrades in their immigration status. Some of them are so complicated that you could never do them without a lawyer, like applying for asylum or a green card based on having helped report a crime.  There is a lot of demand for these services but not enough good attorneys available to do it. We’ve added a lot of capacity in New York City in our first year, and we are expanding to serve dramatically underserved populations in the lower Hudson Valley, Long Island, and New Jersey.

I’m also very proud of how we recruited a class of people who are committing to serving wherever the need is the greatest and right now, that is in South Texas. It’s where children and their mothers are in jail having committed no crime. They are seeking refuge in the United States because they are afraid they will be killed at home, and they are in jail. This is despite long-standing protocol that they should not be held in jail after having passed a credible fear interview, which is a screening interview for asylum. Also, a recent district court ruling in California says that the facilities where they are being held are clearly in violation of a 1997 consent degree which still binds the government. It says that you cannot keep children in jail.

What I’m really proud of is that Immigrant Justice Corp jumped in. We have 35 fellows who have been traveling down the Texas for two week rotations since the beginning of this summer, and they have succeeded in getting a lot of those women and children out of jail. I’m proud of the fact that we were able to be nimble and relocate resources to that program. I’m also really angry that it’s necessary.

SB: How do you see gender oppression intersect with your work with IJC? 

RBT: I see it in many places. It’s that the law is interested in women as victims but not as women as powerful agents of self-advocacy. There is no way that a woman can apply to the US government and say, “I’ve been in the United States for fifteen years, I have been working hard, paid my taxes, my kids are US citizens, they do well in school, and I should be allowed to become a citizen of the United States.” There is no way that you can apply and qualify by showing that you are a valuable member of our community.

However, some of the mechanisms that do exist are based around women as victims of violent crime, trafficking, or domestic violence. They are extremely important mechanisms and I am very proud that Immigrant Justice Corp is helping hundreds and hundreds of women access green cards, US citizenship, and safety from violence based on those applications.

It seems perverse to me that among the very few ways that you can apply for a green card is to have been a victim, but if you are a self-made woman who has not suffered at the hands of a man, a trafficker, or someone who exploits you, there is nothing for you.

You can also compare the general response to unaccompanied minors who have crossed the border to that of their mothers. Last summer, there was an incredible amount of attention and funding towards these children. At the same time, there was nearly an identical number of mothers of the children who entered at the same time. These are mostly young women with young children, and they have gotten no sympathy and no resources. Why is that people can summon up sympathy for a 16-year-old boy but a 26-year-old woman with a 4-year-old child gets no sympathy at all? There is a weird fetish for children while ignoring their mothers.

It’s important for people to understand that the women who are presenting themselves at the border are not entering the country illegally — they doing exactly what the law tells them to do. They are asking for asylum because they are afraid they will be killed at home. That’s what they are supposed to do, but what they get is jail.

SB: What is the current status on family detention centers? 

RBT: There has been some amazing organizing, particularly done by the women who are in the facilities themselves. There was a hunger strike this spring at the Karnes facility in Karnes City, Texas. But the question we have to ask is: Where is Congress?

There is the aggressive criminalization and deportation machine that the Obama administration has set up and encouraged. There have been more people deported under the Obama administration than any other president ever. People are being taken from their friends, family, and even — as we saw recently — their gynecologist offices. But still, there is no way to change your status on paper to become the American that they already are in their hearts. There is simply nothing that these folks can do. Only Congress can fix the root issue.

What we are after isn’t just a cessation in deportations, but a full citizenship for everyone who lives here and works here.

SB: What are some ways that our readers can continue to push for immigration reform? 

RBT: We have great peer organizations where people can volunteer. Lawyers can certainly volunteer — you don’t have to be an immigration lawyer to volunteer at the pro-bono project in Dilley, Texas. You can follow organizations, like IJC and United We Dream, the National Immigrant Law Center, to see what’s happening in the legal and policy realms.

You can also speak up. Some people have suggested that immigration reform is suffering from the same type of intensity gap that gun control suffers from. If you poll people, most Americans think that if you pay your taxes, pay a fee, show that you speak English, and fill out a complicated form, you should be a citizen. That’s exactly what Congress was trying to do.

You have to elevate the voices of people who believe in fair treatment and equality and they have to out-perform the voices of people who are just haters. I’m totally confident that we will get there. There is no choice. The system will be reformed in the next decade, but the question is how many people will have to suffer?

SB: Let’s pretend you are stranded on a desert island. You can take a food, drink, and a feminist. What do you choose? 

RBT: For physical sustenance, I would take a peanut butter sandwich and strong coffee. For a feminist, I would definitely take Alice Paul with me. My daughter is named for her, and I would love the opportunity to talk to Alice Paul face to face about her vision of full legal equality for women.

San Francisco, CA

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist. According to legend, she first publicly proclaimed that she was a feminist at the age of nine in her basketball teammate's mini-van. Things have obviously since escalated. After graduating from Harvard in 2013, she became a founding member of Know Your IX's ED ACT NOW. She is curious about the ways feminists continue to use technology to create social change and now lives in San Francisco. She believes that she has the sweetest gig around – asking bad-ass feminists thoughtful questions for the publication that has taught her so much. Her views, bad jokes and all, are her own. For those wondering, if she was stranded on a desert island and had to bring one food, one drink, and one feminist, she would bring chicken mole, a margarita, and her momma.

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist.

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