Immigration Markets Podcast

Why We Must Dismantle Unjust Institutions, Not Reform Them


Martin McKinney serves as the executive producer of Stories Connect 

We started this series to advocate for Jose Juan Federico Moreno, a man who is in Sanctuary at University Church, to be allowed to stay with his family. We wanted to seek new ways to share immigration stories from multiple and diverse communities. We found that the stories that were being shared were often stories that elevated troubling narratives and sustained messaging around white supremacy. As a result, we asked our participants to think of the beauty found in the family story, but also the pain that we are often told to forget. Black and Brown communities are consistently faced with the beauty of the story, but the pain is never hidden, and cannot be forgotten. This, we hope, may lead to a new vested interest by those who want to join the effort to dismantle our current immigration (and “justice”) system.


By Martin McKinney
with Yaxal Sobrivella of Organized Communities Against Deportation (OCAD)


Many years ago, I traveled to Alabama with Suzet’s dad to visit the many family and friends who remained. Alabama is his place of his birth, but he had moved to Chicago many years earlier. Tom was among the many black people in the southern United States that had moved north during the Great Migration, a forty-year period when more than 5 million people moved from rural southern communities to urban cities, such as Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and Seattle in search of economic opportunity, equal protection and a fundamental sense of personal safety.

Years later, I sat with him as the life slipped from his body, his mind still sharp. He recounted that while economic opportunity was a benefit of his leaving Alabama, he was also fleeing an accusation that he had whistled at a white woman. Such an accusation was as good as a death sentence to black men well into the 1950’s and 1960’s.  His fleeing Alabama exemplifies the push factors that often create the need for human movement. I learned in his final days that a lack of context creates a lack of perspective and serves only to reproduce what I should want to disassemble.  

As I sat with him, I recalled during our trip to Alabama how this friendly, yet, acerbic man, who believed in all the cultural cues of what it meant to be masculine, arrived in Birmingham and reverted to childhood as he encountered his family and friends of old. At one point, he stopped and called out, “hey, sweet baby” as he hurriedly parked the car and climbed out to greet his friend who stood, mouth aghast, in disbelief that this reunion was occurring. This occurred repeatedly as he encountered people whom, I’m certain, he never thought he would see again.


“Tom’s fleeing Alabama exemplifies the push factors that often create the need for human movement.”

After a few days, Tom returned to Chicago and to the life that he had built there. He died peacefully in 2014.

Recently, as I landed at Benito Juarez International Airport in Mexico City, I began to connect the story of Tom to that of Jose Juan Federico Moreno and the many historical events that resemble these stories. I began to think of how Indigenous people in the fledgling United States were forced away from the land that sustained them. I thought of how the world’s first creation of a race-based system of slavery meant a total disregard of families and communities in order to further economic goals. And, I thought of how patriarchy meant that adolescent white females had to be stripped of their identities and pursuits in order to care for the needs of the same white master who stole the land from the inhabitants, and beat the backs of the slaves.

I began to wonder how Jose Juan would respond if he were on that plane, either in shackles or assuming his freedom to move about the cabin. What would he do if he saw his friend, as memories of childhood flooded his mind?

How might it feel to see that loved one just before they died to say he loved them?

None of these were activities in which he could participate. But would he trade the family that he created in Chicago for the opportunity? These are the choices that certain immigrants in the United States are forced to consider each day. While Mexico is Jose Juan’s place of birth, it is not his home and there are many, including my co-essayist, who are advocating for people like Jose Juan and calling us to reject a system that sees human beings as perfunctory. We are also called to reject thinking that minimizes the ways that we each expulse our roles in sustaining this system.

In our immigration system, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) requires that individuals seeking to avoid deportation lay out all of the factors for which they should not be deported, and then claims to wager such factors against their arbitrary guidelines for priority enforcement. Consequentially, ICE’s power to make such determinations creates a subdivision of bad and good immigrants. It is a blatantly divisive practice that places the blame on immigrants and people of color in general for the ills created by an incarceration and deportation system that benefits from the currency of black and brown bodies.

For those of us who know our community is made of people whom are not linearly good or bad, because human beings are complex, we refuse to validate the characterizations created by a system against us. Six years ago undocumented youth were told to blame their parents for placing them into the limbos of an undocumented status, similarly ICE and the Obama administration calls for blame to now be placed on people with criminal records as well as immigrants just arriving. It did not make sense six years ago to blame our parents nor does it now make sense to blame certain members of our community for the struggles we face as oppressed people.

This criminal justice system and ICE think of countless ways to justify the torturing and profiting

Jose Juan is representative of the members of our community whom are currently being scapegoated by ICE.  For Jose Juan, ICE is singularly using his DUI charge to target him. For others it might be a result of targeted policing that aims to create criminality, being placed into a gang database base of unknown factors while others include women and children fleeing uncertainty.  

This criminal justice system and ICE think of countless ways to justify the torturing and profiting off of people we love, our community, us. To publicly and loudly refuse to cooperate with their line of thinking we chip away at the dichotomous narrative such systems have created to keep us isolated. In fighting deportation cases publicly and calling attention to the ugliness of ICE, the police, and other institutions built upon the basis of white supremacy is to switch focus onto the people who need to be closely watched and the institutions that need to be dismantled. Every case, every single person we fight with to seek justice, serves both as a reference of the way in which the system operates and the ways in which we as an organized community need to break it apart into nonexistence.

As recently as 45 years ago, black people in the United States were unable to turn to the justice system to protect them. Today, that very same system has made itself into a machine with black and brown bodies as cogs. This is replicated in a deportation system that reflects back to the nation’s history of disregard for the complexity of the lives of black and brown people.

Beatriz Ramirez Santiago, Jose Juan and millions of others, including their families, have had to endure under the psychological torture of a system that constructs policy around otherizing people. We are enjoined to call this system blind, but it is not blind. It is a system that seeks to justify its existence by continually entrapping people, and terrorizing them in its snare.

It is a system meant to frustrate so intently that we fall away in frustration.

It is crucial to highlight the struggles of our most vulnerable community members and demand that justice be attainable for each of us. Despite the varying trajectories of each deportation case that arises, the root of our oppression stems from the same white supremacy, racism, misogyny, patriarchy and so much more. We must not give up.

You can listen to Jose Juan and Berenice Moreno’s personal conversation here. This interview was recorded in Spanish. Their daughter, Maria, translated the story for Stories Connect and you can read the transcript in English, here. View the Moreno family photo album below.

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[…] by extension me, but had done almost irreparable harm to other countries. If anything is to change the system must not be incrementally reformed but overthrown. Yet I participate in this system and benefit from our place in the world. I’d rather be black in […]