Excerpted From: Amelia Wilson, Force Multiplier: An Intersectional Examination of One Immigrant Woman's Journey Through Multiple Systems of Oppression, 38 Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law & Justice 1 (2023) (320 Footnotes) (Full Document)


AmeliaWilsonRace interacts with gender, mental health challenges, and the criminalization of undocumented status such that it is virtually impossible for many immigrants to thrive in the United States. Black noncitizens especially encounter barriers to accessing services, wealth, and security that collude to diminish their ability to flourish in this country. Implicit bias, disproportionate policing, and higher rates of detention contribute to this maelstrom, which in turn influence case outcomes as Black immigrants navigate our immigration system. Their prospects dim further when disability, lack of status, and gender are added to the equation. Movement lawyering can assume an intersectional and cooperative approach to understanding and dismantling the co-constitutive systems of oppression that punish, exclude, and exploit disfavored groups. We can then aggressively pursue changes in our laws and policies to resist--and reverse--the status quo.

The experiences of one immigrant woman--Mbeti Ndonga for an in-depth examination of the overlapping identity axes and their effects on immigrants' access to security, dignity, and equal opportunity in the United States. Mbeti is a member of multiple disfavored groups: she is Black, an immigrant, a woman, living with serious mental health issues, and now undocumented following a life as a permanent resident. Mbeti's narrative careens tragically through the mental health care system, the criminal justice system, the immigration courts, immigration detention, the federal courts, Congress, and our society's treatment of women's health and women's bodies. Her path through these institutions is a constant erosion of safety and justice, punctuated with catastrophic events and heartbreaking circumstances. Multiple people and agencies failed to protect her--even after her experiences became publicly known--while others sought to punish and erase her.

Just as oppression is multi-faceted, so must be the solution. Immigrant justice, racial justice, gender justice, and health justice share many reform priorities that can benefit and serve one another. This article offers four policy recommendations that could have ameliorated the wrongdoing Mbeti and similarly situated undocumented immigrants experienced. First, providing counsel to all immigrants facing deportation cures significant due process concerns while mooting arguments used to justify detention. Providing counsel is economically feasible, and successful public defender models already exist. Second, immigration detention must be abolished; doing so does not require major overhaul of our immigration laws. Third, creating an independent immigration judiciary frees the courts from political control and partisan bias, and gives immigration judges the tools to directly protect immigrants like Mbeti who have mental health concerns. All communities will be safer if the current administration ends cooperative agreements between U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and local law enforcement. Fourth, guaranteeing mental health care for all persons regardless of immigration status supports multiple social justice movements.

Part I of this article engages in a transversal investigation of Mbeti's life as she interacted with different agencies and systems. It slows down certain pivotal moments in Mbeti's life to dissect how patterns of subordination buttress one another. Part II situates Mbeti in the wider immigrant population to show how the proposed recommendations that follow will impact a large number of individuals. Part III then asks what changes could have been in place to alter the outcome at each juncture, or could be in place moving forward to prevent the outcome's replication in others' lives. The four policy recommendations offer much-needed opportunities for enduring change.

Other scholarly pieces have turned a racial justice lens on immigration issues, or have separately sought discrete answers to problems in our immigration system as related to mental health. What makes Mbeti's story unique is that it provides a rich opportunity to explicitly show the interconnectivity between different modalities of oppression, as well as ways to stitch together interdisciplinary solutions. Her life story is a persuasive argument for this precise kind of change.

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Mbeti's story lays bare how oppressive systems interconnect and reinforce one another. It also provides a unique vehicle to envision interconnecting solutions.

As for Mbeti herself, she needs immediate, concrete relief. That relief is possible. Mbeti and the women of ICDC are owed damages; settling the Oldaker and Federal Torts Claims Act litigation could bring them that financial stability. Second, Mbeti meets the qualifications for a visa based on her having been the victim of a crime; investigators into ICDC and Dr. Amin could sign this certification and put Mbeti on the path to regaining status.

ICE has boasted of a “force multiplier” effect that benefits its mission. At the time this term was used, it referred to improvements in technology, cross-agency information and resource sharing, and coordinated enforcement efforts coming together to supercharge the deportation machine. But ICE's force is multiplied by much more than that. It is multiplied by racial animus, corporate greed, willful disregard, and cruelty.

We have force too. Uniting our purposes across racial justice, immigrant justice, criminal justice reform, gender justice, and health justice multiplies that force--and makes it indomitable.

Assistant Clinical Professor at Seton Hall University School of Law; former Research Scholar and Clinical Instructor at Columbia Law School, Immigrants' Rights Clinic.