New book questions how we view migrants

“Migrant Crossings: Witnessing Human Trafficking in the U.S.” by Annie Isabel Fukushima, an assistant professor in the Division of Ethnic Studies in the School for Cultural and Social Transformation, recently received a 2020 book award from the American Sociological Association’s Section on Asia and Asian America. An online launch party for the book will feature a panel discussion with Fukushima, Carolyn Kim, Hediana Utarti and Cindy Liou on July 26 from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Kim is the managing attorney at Justice At Last, a non-profit law firm that specializes in legal advocacy for survivors of all forms of human trafficking located in the Greater Bay Area of Northern California. Utarti is the anti-trafficking program coordinator/community advocate for the San Francisco Asian Women’s Shelter. Liou is the state policy director at Kids in Need of Defense, a national non-profit working to provide legal counsel to unaccompanied refugee and immigrant children in the U.S. To learn more, click here.

What is your book “Migrant Crossings” about?

It’s about witnessing migrants who’ve been trafficked. How does the migrant cross into visibility as a trafficking subject? They are essentially the living dead, ghosts, zombies. They’ve been dehumanized. My goal is to have readers question how we see and witness migrants who are crossing the border or have come into the United States. It really is about seeing migrants differently, seeing the complex personhood through what I call an unsettled witnessing, which is challenging normative narratives that have been curated by the media and in the law based on racism, heterosexism and nationalism. It’s about shifting dominant narratives so we can begin to see migrants differently.

It looks at how we understand victimhood, criminality, citizenship and legality. The book takes readers on a journey of witnessing in the court systems, through laws and media representations, through ways we understand migrants as part of our social life, such as domestic workers, and the informal economy.

What do you mean by that?

“Migrant Crossings” by Annie Isabel Fukushima

The informal economy includes industries that are unprotected by our labor laws, which includes many service industries. And I am looking at a specific group of migrants—Asian and Latinx.

What was the inspiration for this book?

The kernels of the idea for this book grew out of my dissertation at Berkley and from the community nonprofit casework I did during graduate school. Between 2009 and 2011, I was a staff member at a nonprofit in San Francisco that helped migrants access social services, such as housing and other basic needs. I also worked on cases of migrants who had been trafficked. The first chapter covers a human trafficking case in which I was an expert witness. I was called to testify on a criminal case, educating the jury that the migrants committed crimes out of necessity. But I saw contradictions in how people who had experienced a crime viewed themselves and how the court system was criminalizing them.

I was haunted by how the system and its structures worked to prevent the complexity of these cases from being seen. I began thinking about witnessing and the modalities required to see migrants beyond criminal, illegal and as non-citizens.

“Migrant Crossings” was also inspired by my family, who are immigrants, and my experiences growing up. I’ve been migratory, too. I was raised in the United Kingdom until I was 8-years-old and then moved to Hawaii.

Share with us an example of the cases you write about in the book.

My hope is that readers see the cases not as individual complexities but connected to the systems and structures impacting migrants. I want them to focus on the larger context of laws, systems and colonial processes.

But, I’ll give you an example with a case I worked really closely on, the United States vs. Dan case, which is chapter four in the book. This case was about a woman who had been trafficked into servitude for two years in Walnut Creek, California, and her trafficker had not paid her. Court records and media reports detailed how her food was rationed and portioned to such an extent that she really wasn’t being fed. When she walked the children to school she would pick fruit from trees to sustain herself. She was being starved. And she was forced to wear these horrible outfits.

She was a really good example of someone who is part of the community, visible to many. She walked the kids to school daily, teachers saw her, the janitor saw her, the gardener saw her. Neighbors. People knew her. They all knew this woman.

She was clearly afraid.

Over time, a teacher started reaching out to her, as did other people who spoke Spanish. These people—the teachers, a gardener, a neighbor and the janitor—helped her see her situation and to leave it. She had committed VISA fraud, but she had to because her trafficker, who like the migrant survivor was also Peruvian, made her do it. What are the conditions that compel somebody to participate in abuse of their own? Her case shows the blurry lines between criminality and victimhood.

Once you see that blurriness and the mechanism that support how we witness, it becomes a question of how do we see these individuals differently?

What is your goal for the book?

I think we are in this moment where there’s a lot of spectatorship and long-distance witnessing. What I’m hoping is folks think about how we witness migrants and that troubles the reader, because I think that there isn’t enough discussion about the complexity of the migrant experience.

The book traces laws about immigration, labor and borders, which have always been a U.S. preoccupation.

We’re all seeing migrants at the border right now, migrants being displaced whether for environmental, economic or other reasons. And what we see quickly happening is the casting of migrants as a threat, as dangerous and as deportable, and a reason to tighten our borders.

We’re all watching, and the question becomes what are the ways that we are seeing things, what are the actions that we as spectators are going to be called to? The book doesn’t give you a template for action, but it starts the questions and the conversations about what kind of witness we want to be.