Why Immigration Is a Feminist Issue
If undocumented women are vulnerable, their US-born children are even more at risk—they could lose their parents. For all the anti-immigrant talk of “anchor babies,” children born here cannot petition for permanent residency for their parents until they turn 21. Since 1996 federal immigration law has barred people—even those who would otherwise be eligible for lawful permanent residence—from re-entering the United States for up to ten years if they have ever overstayed their visa or lived here unlawfully for more than a year. The sick “Sophie’s choice” for undocumented women is to leave their family for a decade for a chance to apply for legal status or to stay illegally and raise their kids in fear.
Between January and June alone, the government deported more than 46,000 parents of US-citizen children—nearly a quarter of all deportees during that period—a dramatic increase over previous rates of deportations of parents: in the past ten years 100,000 children saw their parents deported.
In November the Applied Research Center (ARC) released a study using data from Arizona, California, Florida, North Carolina, New York and Texas, and concluded that at least 5,100 children of deported or detained parents are currently in foster care. “Immigrant victims of domestic violence…are at particular risk of losing their children,” according to the report.
“Migrant women are caught in the worst possible intersection of immigration and child welfare policies,” says ARC researcher and journalist Seth Wessler, who worked on the study. Police who detain parents are mandated to call Child Protective Services—and CPS protocols typically deny custody to undocumented relatives on the grounds that they could be detained next. Under Secure Communities, detainees can be held for days while their fingerprints are checked against the federal database. If seized by ICE, women like Claudia Vargas can find themselves sent to immigrant detention centers hundreds of miles away.
For parents who wish to regain custody of a child, CPS requires a “case plan,” which may include a description of how the parent plans to secure new housing, seek drug treatment or enroll in domestic violence prevention courses. For parents facing deportation, devising such a plan is impossible.
So, like Vargas, deported mothers return to the border. Silvia Esmeralda Flores Rodriguez, a lawyer in Tijuana, works with a cross-border coalition that collects accounts of the deportation process. In September she was worried about a client who arrived, as many deportees do, in a crammed van, shackled to her seat. She had no criminal record and had left behind two US-born children. Under official policy, that should have made her a good candidate for prosecutorial discretion—the Department of Homeland Security claims to be reviewing deportations to clear out those considered “low risk”—but most of the deportees Flores sees get less than five minutes with a judge to make their case. Now this woman has disappeared. The last Flores heard, the woman’s sister was having trouble enrolling her children in public school for lack of a letter from a parent. Flores fears her client may have made another attempt to cross the deadly desert. Border officials report that the number of female bodies turning up along the Southwest border is rising, from an average of sixty-one per year between 2000 and 2004 to an average of seventy-seven per year between 2005 and 2009.
“Child welfare practice and policy are clear,” says Wessler. “Children should be reunited with their parents, and there’s no reason an ocean or a border should stand in the way of that.” Soon after the ARC report was released, President Obama told journalists that he personally “instructed the Department of Homeland Security and all the agencies that as a basic principle, if parents are being deported, they have access to their kids.” (Follow-up questions to DHS and ICE were not answered.)
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There are some who are working to offset the human damage caused by harsh immigration laws. In June Senators Al Franken and Herb Kohl introduced the Humane Enforcement and Legal Protections (HELP) for Separated Children Act to improve coordination between child welfare agencies, NGOs and ICE. Lynn Woolsey has introduced a companion bill in the House. Others are raising questions about the conditions of imprisonment for designated deportees. The ACLU recently launched a campaign to protect women held in immigration detention from rape. State attorneys general are raising an alarm about sex trafficking of undocumented women.
But perhaps most significant, undocumented women are putting aside their fears and speaking up. Today Alicia Arriaga works with the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, a statewide group with members in fifteen communities. GLAHR’s meetings are teaching her how to deal with authorities. At the hospital and at her daughter’s school, she talks to other mothers. In July, after HB 87 went into effect, the group held a “women’s march” in protest. GLAHR member Maria Guadelupe Crespo told We Belong Together delegates that she had worried about how many women would show up. “My community has been paralyzed.” But on the day of the rally, more than 1,000 women came out.
With Christmas approaching, We Belong Together is soliciting letters from children asking Obama to stop deportations and keep families together for the holidays. As the president and his party hit the campaign trail seeking women’s votes, an alliance between women’s and children’s advocates, immigrant groups and undocumented women could amplify calls for federal immigration reform. “I’m here for the people who are scared,” says Arriaga, “who need to speak out.”