When Systems of Oppression Intersect: Mental Health and the Immigration System

By Special Correspondent Thea Lim

Angry Asian Man reports on the story of Xiu Ping Jiang, a 35 year-old Chinese illegal immigrant diagnosed with a mental illness who has been stuck in immigration limbo for over a year. From the New York Times:

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[Jiang] has spent more than a year in jail, often in solitary confinement, sinking deeper into the mental illness that makes it impossible for her either to fight deportation or to obtain the travel documents needed to make it happen, according to a pending habeas corpus petition that seeks her release. It contends that she is suicidal, emaciated and deprived of proper medical treatment.

More distressing is the report of her first court appearance in the NYT, which led to her deportation order:

Twice the immigration judge asked the woman’s name. Twice she gave it: Xiu Ping Jiang. But he chided her, a Chinese New Yorker, for answering his question before the court interpreter had translated it into Mandarin.

“Ma’am, we’re going to do this one more time, and then I’m going to treat you as though you were not here,” the immigration judge, Rex J. Ford, warned the woman last year at her first hearing in Pompano Beach, Fla. He threatened to issue an order of deportation that would say she had failed to show up.

She was a waitress with no criminal record, no lawyer and a history of attempted suicide. Her reply to the judge’s threat, captured by the court transcript, was in imperfect English. “Sir, I not — cannot go home,” she said, referring to China, which her family says she fled in 1995 after being forcibly sterilized at 20. “If I die, I die America.”

The judge moved on. “The respondent, after proper notice, has failed to appear,” he said for the record. And as she declared, “I’m going to die now,” he entered an order deporting her to China, and sent her back to the Glades County immigration jail.

As Angry Asian Man says:

The situation illustrates the vulnerability of the mentally ill in the immigration system. While Immigration and Customs Enforcement keeps putting increasingly strict enforcement measures in place, more and more people with mental illness are being put into detention — and no one is really looking out for them.

In a bizarre twist, the only reason Jiang’s case is getting attention is because she happens to have the same name as the ex-wife of Jiverly Wong, a Vietnamese American who shot 13 people in April at a Binghamton immigration services center. In looking for Wong’s ex-wife, reporters stumbled across Jiang.

Yet Jiang is by a long stretch not the first (or I imagine) the last immigrant of colour with a health issue to be forgotten within the double prejudice of a system that is both xenophobic and ableist. Jiang’s case is a disturbing 2009 echo of something that happened in 1935, when the government of British Columbia deported 65 Chinese nationals back to China. The documentation of these men, kept by the courts and their psychiatrists, is for the most part is so paltry and dismissive that it is difficult to tell if all the men were actually struggling with mental health. In any case the men were deported because they fit into neither the ethnic nor medical norms of their day.

The level of bureaucracy under which Jiang is struggling multiplies when we look at the conditions under which she came to be in the US in the first place:

In their home village in Fujian province, in southeastern China, the sisters said, Jiang was married under age. She hid in their mother’s house when she was pregnant with her second son, they said, because under China’s one-child policy, the village government would have forced her to have an abortion.

“She did not deliver in a hospital, and she almost died,” said the younger sister, Yu, 33, the first to emigrate. A few days after the birth, she added, officials found Jiang, sterilized her and imposed a heavy fine. Later, divorced and desperate, Jiang borrowed the equivalent of $35,000 to be smuggled by boat to the United States, hoping to find political asylum and bring over the young sons she left with their grandmother.

But grueling months at sea left her emotionally fragile, and in the summer of 1997, about a year after her arrival, she became so despondent about her separation from her children, and the burden of her debts, that she tried to kill herself by drinking bleach, her sisters said. The police took her to Bellevue Hospital Center.

“She was afraid of being arrested, so the next day she ran away,” Yu recalled. At times over the next decade Jiang seemed better, as she moved from work in Manhattan garment factories to waitress jobs in Chinese restaurants across the country. But an effort to bring her younger son into the United States through Canada when he was 8 or 9 backfired: he was caught by Canadian officials and placed in foster care.

“He intended to join up with her,” the younger sister said of the boy, now 16. “Now it’s impossible, because he’s being adopted.”

It is impossible to disentangle the different strands of prejudice; where the psychiatric system is used to persecute people of colour, the justice system or immigration system persecutes people with disabilities, and inhumane systems in general combine to drive people to madness — or as in the case of Jiang and Junius Wilson, a combo of all of those things.

juniusIn 1932 Junius Wilson (pictured right), a 24 year-old deaf black man in North Carolina was castrated and imprisoned in the state hospital after being found guilty of rape. In 1990s, when Wilson was in his 80′s, after 65 years he was cleared of charges and released. He did not actually leave the hospital though – after all that time it had become his home.

It is not a coincidence that both Jiang’s and Wilson’s story involves the brutal violation of reproductive rights; the role forced sterilisation has played in the dehumanisation of both people of colour and people with disabilities is nauseating. You can go here, here and here to read about how the forced sterilisation of indigenous people has been used to colonise the land we live on, and you can go here to look at how contemporary birth control programs are used to try and restrict the reproductive choices of young indigenous women.

Our history is rife with examples like Jiang and Wilson; but for the most part people are forgotten in a system where it may be easier to keep someone institutionalised, rather than probe the massive bureaucracy and prejudice that keeps them there.

The original articles I have linked use the term “mentally ill” to refer to Jiang; I choose not to use that language. As with Wilson, in Jiang’s case it seems more important to recognise that it is the illness within our system that creates the real tragedy, not Jiang’s condition itself. A huge part of ability rights activism (which, as is painfully clear in both Jiang and Wilson’s case, has innumerable links with anti-racist activism) is recognising that the problem is the system, not the person with the disability; it is not our bodies that are the problem, but how we culturally define health, and how we treat people who don’t fit with that definition. In the words of Jiang’s sisters who have been fighting to Jiang’s deportation order overturned:

The exact nature of Jiang’s illness is unknown, and immigration authorities would not release her medical records, even to her lawyers, saying she had refused to sign a privacy release. Her two sisters, who live in New York, describe her as a sweet, quiet woman whose mind broke under the strain of life as an illegal immigrant seeking asylum.

When it is clear that the catalyst to madness lies just as much within the systems we have in place to deal with bodies as it does within the bodies themselves, terming something simply a “mental illness” and placing the onus only on the body just doesn’t seem to cut it.