By Hyejin Shim, a core organizer of the Stand With Nan-Hui campaign, based in the Bay Area, and Soniya Munshi, a member of the INCITE! National Collective and a professor of Sociology and Asian American History at the CUNY Borough of Manhattan Community College based in New York City.
Nan-Hui is an undocumented Korean survivor of domestic violence. Her former partner and father of her child is an Iraq War veteran who has admitted to being physically abusive towards Nan-Hui. In 2009, fearing the safety of herself as well as her child, she fled the U.S. At the time, she was also receiving letters from the US government telling her to leave the country immediately as her visa was expiring. After their departure, Nan-Hui’s ex-partner used a retaliation tactic that can be deployed by abusive partners when threatened by their victim’s independence: he reported her for child abduction.
In July 2014, Nan-Hui returned to the U.S. on a visitor visa. Upon landing in Hawai’i, Nan-Hui was arrested and taken into custody in an operation that involved International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Honolulu Police Department, and Yolo County Child Abduction Unit. Nan-Hui’s daughter has since been in her ex-partner/father’s custody, and the mother/daughter have not had any contact since the arrest. After being convicted of child abduction, Nan-Hui is currently awaiting a sentence that could result in additional jail time, immigration detention and/or deportation.
In Nan-Hui’s case, we see the intersectional relationship between intimate violence and state violence. Nan-Hui took action to protect herself and her daughter from her violent partner, and he was able to employ the state to criminalize her behavior. This tactic of abuse occurs within a larger and historical context of colonization and racism in which the state enacts violence that directly polices and punishes as well as excludes and neglects women, gender non-conforming and trans people of color. Here, because Nan-Hui is also an undocumented survivor, she is criminalized and made vulnerable to punitive measures through immigration enforcement. In this case, multiple forms of violence occur simultaneously: intimate violence, state violence that is directly connected to the abusive relationship, and state violence that targets Nan-Hui as an undocumented immigrant mother of color.
Nan-Hui’s case is yet another illustration of the harms that are produced through a carceral feminist approach to intimate violence, an approach that supports policing, prosecution, and imprisonment as the best responses to gender-based violence. The mainstream anti-violence movement in the U.S. is built upon a premise of carceral feminism that advocates for criminalization of interpersonal violence as the solution to this social problem. By holding up strategies that strengthen the criminal legal system, carceral feminism invests in a binary structure of victim and criminal in which a domestic violence survivor is recognized only through her victimhood and the person who has been abusive is necessarily criminal. The mutually exclusive construction of domestic violence victims and violent criminals makes illegible the experience of being victimized and criminalized at the same time.
However, as scholar-activists working in these intersections have found over decades of research, domestic violence survivors are often themselves criminalized. And, research shows that women of color including trans women in prison are generally there because of a direct or indirect result of intimate violence— because they were forced to engage in criminal activity, committed a violent act in self-defense, or participated in other behaviors to resist and/or survive their violent relationship. Invoking the state criminal legal system to respond to intimate violence further puts women, gender non-conforming, and trans people of color at risk for policing, punishment, and violence within the prison system. For example, Black and Latina and low-income survivors are disproportionately affected by mandatory arrest policies. The intersections of social identities that are targeted by state violence only serve to increase these risks.
Yet, the links between domestic violence and state violence in Asian immigrant communities remain obscured; to date, there is very little information about the criminalization of Asian survivors. For undocumented survivors, this information may be further hidden because they may be convicted of crimes seemingly unrelated to domestic violence, then deported as a result.
Supporters of Nan-Hui have been organizing around her case for the last ten months. The organizing began in the Sacramento Korean community, with a focus on gathering support from the local Korean-speaking population. As the situation worsened, organizers reached out to Korean domestic violence activists in KACEDA . KACEDA members mobilized a larger organizing effort immediately in the Bay Area, reaching out to local domestic violence advocates, im/migration justice activists, and radical organizers. In the eight days of Nan-Hui’s second retrial, the organizing quickly escalated to become a national campaign autonomous of KACEDA. Most of the core organizers identify as having been impacted by domestic violence in their own families or intimate relationships themselves.
Since then, the Stand With Nan-Hui campaign has connected with undocumented youth organizers, the Free Marissa Now campaign, and prison abolitionists to build solidarity towards supporting not only Nan-Hui, but all criminalized and incarcerated/detained survivors of domestic violence. The core organizers know that their work is strongly informed and made possible by the work that so many others had done before at the intersections of domestic violence, criminalization, race and immigration. They especially looked to the powerful work that the Free Marissa Now campaign organizers had done to advocate for Marissa while simultaneously building a larger analysis of the conditions within which her case was located. Free Marissa Now situated their organizing work in a deep historical and political context that showed this type of state violence is not so unusual for Black women survivors.
In a similar vein, Stand With Nan-Hui organizers felt that while Nan-Hui’s case had many of its own particularities, her criminalization and re-victimization by legal systems was not an isolated incident. Instead, the intimate violence that entrapped Nan-Hui in a web of criminal law, family law, and immigration law was actually symptomatic of racialized and gendered systemic violence towards women, gender non- conforming and/or trans people of color, that is even more harmful to survivors of domestic violence whose very ability to survive is criminalized.
The Stand with Nan-Hui campaign shows us the power of community organizing to support survivors of intimate and systemic violence. It challenges community complicity in isolating survivors of domestic and state violence by building community as part of the work of the campaign, demonstrating the power of community-driven accountability to survivors of violence. By building strategy that holds Nan-Hui’s complex experiences of violence at the center of the work, this campaign shows the possibilities that emerge through the interaction between theory and practice.
For more information about the Stand with Nan-Hui Campaign, please go to: http://standwithnanhui.org/