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5.4.08

The Pitfalls Of Trusting The System

Jessica Hoffman writes a stinging rebuke of the privilege exercised by the mainstream feminist movement and hence its failure to address -- or even perpetuation of -- injustices against women who are less privileged*. What makes her article especially interesting is that it points out one important mechanism by which this privilege operates: mainstream feminism assumes that on some level, the system works. Thus, for example, the great feminist triumph of VAWA is only a triumph insofar as the law enforcement agencies carrying out arrests and prosecutions under it can be trusted to do so responsibly -- and people in positions of less privilege in our society would certainly not extend that trust.

In the comments at Feministe, Brooklynite tries to argue that mainstream feminism has taken the interests of the less-privileged into account more than Hoffman allows:

In recognition of this dynamic, VAWA created a path to legal status for immigrant women who are abused by their husbands or partners [U visas -- ed.] — if they can demonstrate that they have co-operated with the prosecution of their abusers, undocumented women can gain legal residency. My wife is the (white feminist) general counsel of a domestic violence organization, and in the last few months her agency has processed the residency applications of dozens of such survivors of domestic violence.


My response was that this very example illustrated Hoffman's point that even when mainstream feminists think they're thinking outside their privileged box, their efforts can be undermined by their unquestioned faith in the system:

Let's go for the battle of dueling wife anecdotes -- my wife is a (white) immigration lawyer, and what she says has led me to form a much less optimistic picture. U visas are great in theory, as the above quote explains. The problem is that they quite often don’t work in practice. The key is the requirement to cooperate with law enforcement. This means that 1) the woman has to be willing to work with a system that’s brutally racist and unaccommodating toward her and toward people in her community, and 2) law enforcement has to want to work with her — to prosecute her abuser in the first place, and then to use her aid in the prosecution, and to certify that to the immigration authorities (which may be difficult due to resource constraints and organizational priorities, plus the various forms of systemic and individual bigotry enacted by law enforcement). So while the U visa system started to try to think intersectionally in the way the article wants, it was hobbled by the persistent white assumption that law enforcement is basically a force for good that people can rely on.


I mentioned this exchange to the wife in question, and she pointed out an additional factor that demonstrates how hollow the offer of U visas is: almost nobody has actually gotten one. Getting a U visa is not automatic -- you have to affirmatively apply to CIS (Citizenship and Immigration Services) and bear the burden of proving to their satisfaction that you deserve one. Then you have to wait for CIS to make a ruling. What has happened in practice is that CIS has taken the U visa applications and sat on them. They're not even getting denied, they're just hanging in limbo for extended periods of time. There's actually a class-action lawsuit being prepared on behalf of the U visa applicants because of the delays.

In this case, there's an answer that allows us to do an end run around reliance on the system: open borders. If there was no fear of deportation in the first place, the problem would be solved -- with a lot less paperwork. Obviously that's not "politically feasible." And I wouldn't condone making unwilling martyrs of those who seek small relief now, so I'm glad the U visa law is on the books and wish the class action suit the best of luck. But we need ideals like this as guides for which way to push against and within the realm of political feasibility, and as reminders of what we really are compromising.

*I recognize here that I'm in the position simultaneously of being both more privileged, and hence more privilege-ignorant, than Hoffman's intended audience, yet also not a member of the feminist movement and hence both more ignorant of what it's done and less emotionally invested in its current incarnation.

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