Why Immigration Is a Feminist Issue

Why Immigration Is a Feminist Issue

With draconian laws like Georgia’s HB 87 hitting women especially hard, women’s groups are taking up the fight for immigrants’ rights.


Outside the US Citizenship and Immigration Services building Saturday, May 1, 2010 in Phoenix, Arizona (AP Photo/Matt York)

Alicia Arriaga arrived in the United States almost eight years ago from Honduras, settling in Atlanta. Four years later she had a daughter (also named Alicia). Soon after, the child began experiencing mysterious convulsions that, although not yet clearly diagnosed, can stop her breathing in her sleep. When the problem started, the Arriagas would drive the five minutes from their home to a nearby hospital, thankful that they lived close enough to arrive in time. But today they fear that the short trip could be catastrophic, not just to Alicia’s health but to her family’s future.

Like all undocumented immigrants in Georgia, the Arriagas must drive without a valid license. The state has long forbidden licenses for undocumented residents, and lawmakers have repeatedly tightened penalties for driving without one. In 2009 the first communities in Georgia enrolled in the federal Secure Communities Program, which deputizes local police to act for federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Earlier this year Georgia passed HB 87, its own version of Arizona’s infamous “stop and check” law, most of which went into effect in July. Taken together, these steps have turned a routine traffic stop into a potential disaster for undocumented Georgians. The new law permits police to check the status of anyone they stop on suspicion of any crime or minor traffic violation. If arrested, detainees can be turned over to ICE and held while their fingerprints and papers are checked against a federal registry. Even if all charges are dropped, getting pulled over can lead to deportation.

These days there’s usually a police checkpoint between the Arriagas’ home and the hospital, and another on the way to Alicia’s school. “We walk together, every day, an hour each way,” says Arriaga. But the hospital? “I’ll drive if I have to.” Not long ago, she says, police stopped the family on an emergency run, even though a licensed citizen was driving. The Arriagas were held by the side of the road, says Alicia, until a stranger with papers agreed to drive the child to the emergency room. (HB 87 criminalizes “harboring” or “transporting” undocumented immigrants, but exemptions exist for driving those in need of emergency medical care.)

It’s not just the Arriagas’ neighborhood. The whole area is in lockdown. Drive down Buford Highway northeast of downtown Atlanta and the vast parking lots along the once-bustling strip of Vietnamese, Korean, Cuban and Mexican groceries are empty. In September the Guatemalan pupuseria was closed and the Mercado del Pueblo boarded shut. “You used to see day laborers waiting on that gas station forecourt every morning,” Jadma Noronha, a former resident turned community activist, says. “Now, no one.”

Less visible than the boarded-up businesses is the devastating effect Georgia’s new law is having on women like Arriaga, who fears deportation as much for her daughter’s sake as her own. It’s tough enough to be poor, nonwhite and female in today’s crisis-struck USA, but without legal status a woman is stripped of even those rights and resources that equal-rights and labor fights have secured. The Wild West quality of law enforcement when it comes to such new immigration laws—amid myriad state, federal and, frankly, ad hoc regulations—makes it virtually impossible to use existing protections against harassment, violence or exploitation. And abuse thrives in the chaos. Migrant women face particular threats at the border, in the workplace, even at home—and stiff odds stacked against them as they try to keep, and raise, their kids. This is what inspired women from around the country to travel to Atlanta in September under the banner We Belong Together for a conference organized by the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum. A similar delegation met in Arizona in May.

“We believe that when you see the world through the eyes of women you see an up-close, clearer picture of the full impact of what’s going on,” says Ai-jen Poo, director of the NDWA.

* * *

Noronha came to the United States from Brazil on a fiancée visa and married an American who later turned out to have two orders of protection on his record from past abusive relationships. “My husband took all my documents away,” she told me. “When he started beating me, I was terrified to ask for help from anyone.”

As a program coordinator at Tapestri, a legal nonprofit, Noronha works with other survivors of abuse, like Claudia Vargas from Honduras, who bears the scars on her face of her husband’s fists—and knives. “He physically assaulted me for years, and I never called the police for fear that…I’d be deported,” Vargas told the delegation in Atlanta. When police did finally arrive at her door in 2009, it was because her husband had called, accusing her of harassing him. “They came and arrested me.” What followed was a long detention and then deportation. “My husband promised to bring my son to visit, but he never did.” So Vargas has made repeated treks across the desert, back to Atlanta, to see her son. She’ll repeat the journey as long as she has to, she says.

Thanks to pressure from women’s groups, federal immigration law actually includes exceptions for victims of violence, provided there’s “credible evidence,” typically a police report. But when laws like HB 87 deter women from calling authorities, there’s often no such record. “Even to apply for an order of protection you have to fill out a complex document,” explains Noronha. She draws from her own experience. “Your batterer will likely have a lawyer, and often he’ll bring up your immigration status.” A fiancée can’t file for her own legalization papers—her husband-to-be has to do it. A favorite charge among batterers is that accusers just want to get a work permit, says Noronha. And when both parties are deported, she says, they’re often returned to the same place. “If he was angry at her before, imagine how angry he is now.”

“We’ve passed all these laws over all these years to help women who’ve been abused,” says former NOW president Kim Gandy, a We Belong Together delegate. “Yet these women dare not even call the police. It’s like rolling the clock back to the 1800s.” What’s more, their undocumented status is used against them in ways that are all too familiar. “You hear that these women who came here illegally got themselves into this situation, that they asked for it,” says Gandy. “Well, we’ve heard that for years…. What were they wearing? Why were they there?”

Even Georgia’s domestic violence shelters are reluctant to take immigrants for fear that they will lose funding or incur fines. Though a federal judge issued a temporary stay on those provisions of HB 87 that criminalize harboring or transporting undocumented immigrants—and exemptions exist for those offering social services to children or victims of crime—confusion over the law has sent a chill throughout the system.

* * *

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.)

* * *

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.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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