Immigrant Rights are Women’s Rights

By Ian Maynor

Saturday morning, 80 degrees Fahrenheit and five city blocks. We swarm the streets by the hundreds for immigration reform. (It’s what we want, and when do we want it? Now!) We march today because tomorrow is one day closer to election season, where politicians work for the votes of radical party factions rather than the voice of the people. Between budget fights and the upcoming campaign season, there is a limited time frame where the House will realistically be willing to address immigration reform.

Holding my own banner, and watching hundreds of others floating in the air next to me—it’s really inspirational. And in the gentle flurry of banners, one sign sticks out to me the most: “Immigrant rights are human rights”. It’s a simple, beautiful statement. It captures how the rights experiences of various identities overlap in principle despite their different pasts. It highlights the interconnectedness that defines the systematic issues we face in the struggle for all human rights. And just as human rights are indistinguishable from immigrant rights, immigrant rights are inseparable from the rights of women.

In the United States, undocumented women are among the most vulnerable immigrant groups before they even reach the border. With the intensified fortification of the US-Mexico border, anyone who braves the wilderness linking America to the south takes on lethal risks, but undocumented women experience unique hardships in crossing the border. Every year, tens of thousands of undocumented women enter the U.S. on false pretenses. Traffickers lure women into slavery with promises of work and opportunity but end up forcing them many of them into prostitution. Even more women end up in forced labor in restaurants, on farms, and in domestic work; these women make up the large majority of forced labor in the United States. Other migrant women searching for the American dream cross the border with the help of coyotes, who charge high fees to smuggle people into the country. When women can’t pay the coyotes, sex is a common substitute. Visit the American border with Mexico, and you will find the landscape filled with “rape trees”—trees covered in the panties of coyotes’ sexual victims.

Once in the states, many women face abuse in and out of the home. In the home, female immigrants suffer disproportionately from domestic violence. Many times their immigration status seems to trap them into abusive relationships because of restrictions ranging from immigration laws to language barriers to social isolation. Many undocumented women’s partners use immigration status as a tool to control them, stopping them from leaving dangerous relationships. And these women may avoid help from legal and social aid for fear of deportation.

A 2004 study in New York City highlights the violence many immigrant women face, with findings that 51 percent of intimate partner homicide victims in the city were foreign born. In the workplace, many women experience abuse that they feel powerless to stop. Even under the pain of employer abuse, undocumented women often continue working for their employers; their undocumented status forces them to weigh their abuse against the cost of searching for another employer who won’t check their papers. Strikes are often out of the question for undocumented workers, as well. In one case, an undocumented woman headed a successful strike for better workplace conditions, only to learn that before she entered the new contract, her legal status would be checked. Due to the limits of our current immigration system, the constant threat of deportation and detainment keep undocumented women from finding help in cases of abuse.

Immigrant women are also less likely to have access to adequate reproductive healthcare, such as cervical and breast cancer screening, birth control, and HIV testing and treatment. Many states have even dropped all funding for prenatal care for undocumented women. Governor Dave Heinemann recently lost a battle to deny these benefits to undocumented mothers in Nebraska. His arguments that “illegal aliens… should not be receiving taxpayer-funded benefits,” that offering prenatal care to undocumented women would transform Nebraska into “a magnet for aliens” did not dissuade the coalition of lawmakers, pro-choice, and pro-life groups that pushed through the law. But the majority of states have bought into this rationale: in 2010, only 16 states funded programs extending free prenatal care to undocumented women.

In addition to cis-gendered women who live in the states without legal recognition, there are anywhere from 15,000 to 50,000 transgender undocumented immigrants in the United States. Undocumented transgender women face many problems of their own: according to the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 39 percent of undocumented transgender individuals lost their jobs due to prejudice; they faced higher rates of physical violence in work and healthcare settings and experienced twice the rate of HIV infections as the transgender population as a whole. And when placed in detention centers, already notorious for sexual abuse, transgender individuals are often housed based on their sex assigned at birth. This practice is both a psychological and physical threat to their safety, as transgender women held in men’s prisons can be up to 13 times more likely to report sexual abuse than cis-gendered inmates8.

That’s not to say undocumented women haven’t won some victories lately. There are the wins for prenatal care in Nebraska and the 2011 overhaul of the detention standards set by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which guaranteed transgender hormone treatments and abortion access to detainees. And just this August, ICE issued a directive that helps prevent children with undocumented parents from entering the child welfare system, allows detained parents to keep in contact with their children and have input in their child’s placement into the foster care system, and increase the odds that parents can reunite with their children once the parents’ immigration status has been settled.  And as limited a step as this may sound, the separations at the heart of this directive are shockingly routine: between 2010 and 2012, ICE issued 205,000 deportations for parents of children who are U.S. citizens, and ICE deportations and detentions have forced at least 5,100 children into the child welfare system. Losing a parent to ICE is a situation that could be faced by any of the estimated five million children living in the U.S. with at least one undocumented parent.  And when we look at all the figures, any step forward ICE takes pales in comparison to the outrageous statistics that only capture a part of the struggles faced by many undocumented mothers. It only brings home the hard truth that anything short of sweeping change cannot confront the magnitude of our broken immigration system; only immigration reform across the board can tackle all of the issues undocumented women face in our country.

Yet although the debate over undocumented immigration dominates the media’s portrayal of the immigration debate, the trials faced by documented immigrants present their own issues. Like undocumented women, many documented women immigrants suffer workplace and domestic abuse. Because of the structure of the immigration system, these women often rely on their husbands and bosses to maintain their legal status. This opens the door for husbands to abuse their wives as they wish, as their wives’ ability to stay in the country relies on their relationship. In one case, an Indian family withheld their daughter-in-law’s documents to keep her in her abusive marriage in the States. And since other women’s work visas depend on constant employment, taking on bosses for abuse becomes a delicate issue of not just keeping a job but of keeping a home in America.

For many women, securing a work visa is a struggle to begin with. Technology companies, which take advantage of special H-1B visas to hire professional immigrants from abroad, preferentially recruit male applicants to fill a domestic gap in educated workers. San Jose Mercury News found that 70 percent of special visa holders who came into the US in 2011 were men. STEM fields are already well known for their discrimination against women, which coupled with gender discrimination from some immigrants’ home nations can prove to be a double whammy for educated women. Turned away from professional jobs, highly skilled female workers often take up lower-paying jobs requiring less education to legally anchor themselves in the country and to pay the bills; only 13 percent of immigrant women hold professional jobs, even though 32 percent of them were professionals in their home countries. Many of these women, however, do not find jobs and rely on their husbands’ work visas or other family ties to stay in the country.

But the story of female immigrants in America cannot be confined to tragedy: The immigration of women into the states has been an overwhelming success for the nation, and women who manage to climb over the broken mess that is our immigration system thrive in America. In 2010, 55 percent of all those obtaining green cards were women, and women made up 47 percent of all incoming refugees as well as 53 percent of newly naturalized citizens. Not only do women now take the lead in naturalization, with 84 percent of immigrant women wishing to become U.S. citizens (a figure which jumps to 90 percent among female immigrants from Latin American and Arab nations), but they have become drivers of naturalization in their families: In one study, 58 percent of women immigrants claimed to be the strongest proponents in their families of becoming American citizens. In 2010, 40 percent of all immigrant business owners were women, and recent statistics show that women are more likely to own their own businesses than American-born women. Rather than draining the nation of its resources, as some Nebraskan governors may care to claim, immigrant women contribute vastly to American society and the national economy, not even taking into account the rich experiences they bring with their families from their home countries to America.

And now is the time to create policies that recognize the enormous contributions immigrant women bring to our country. The Senate has already passed a bill, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, which recognizes many of the issues undocumented women face, from emphasizing family unity to tackling the issues of domestic violence. All the House needs to do is pass it, but the clock is ticking until representatives go into campaign mode and have no time to focus on immigration. Because immigrant women can’t wait any longer. They are here now and doing wonders for this nation every day. So then why can’t all immigrants, regardless of race or class or gender, hold the same hope to one day call America home? Talk to your friend, your neighbor, your mayor—hell, maybe even a congressman or two—and seriously ask them why not.

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