By Sharon Johnson
Thursday, May 6, 2010
Arizona's new law on checking immigration papers rings special alarms for women whose new names after marriage or divorce might not match electronic records. Others in mixed-status relationships fear their families could get torn apart.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Arizona's new law on citizenship documentation is expected to take a heavy toll on immigrant women, particularly those with children and those in mixed-status marriages.
"This law will drive immigrant women deeper into the shadows by subjecting immigrants in Arizona to racial profiling and other civil liberties violations," said Connie Andersen, a leader of the Valley Interfaith Project, a nonpartisan organization of congregations, schools and other nonprofit organizations in Arizona's Maricopa County. "Simple acts like walking to a store as well as life-changing decisions like taking refuge in a domestic violence shelter will be more complicated because immigrant women are required to have their papers on them at all times in case they are stopped by police."
M. Elizabeth Barajas-Roman, director of policy at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Rights, a New York-based nonprofit organization, echoed that concern.
"Verification laws take a disproportionate toll on women, who make up more than half of all immigrants according to census data," she said. "Studies have shown that as many as 32 million voting-age citizens and immigrant women in the U.S. lack available proof of citizenship documents because electronic record-keeping systems often fail to keep track of changes in women's names."
Advocates such as these predict that many families will be torn apart given the large number of people with a family member--usually a U.S.-born child who is a citizen--who may be left behind. The Pew Hispanic Center, a Washington-based, nonpartisan research organization that focuses on the Latino population, found that 73 percent of the children of unauthorized parents are citizens. The statistic is based on March 2008 census data.
"Mixed-status parents are terrified that they will be picked up by Arizona police, deported and will never see their families again," said Melanie Nelson, a leader of the Pima County Interfaith Council, a nonprofit organization of congregations, schools and other nonprofit organizations in Tucson, Ariz. "We have received reports of mothers with undocumented status withdrawing their U.S.-born children who are U.S. citizens from schools. Couples in which the wife is a legal immigrant and the husband an undocumented immigrant are putting their homes on the market, so that the wife and children will have the funds they need to survive if the husband is deported."
Thousands of members of the Washington-based Service Employees International Union, SEIU, rallied in Phoenix and 14 other U.S. cities on Saturday, May 1, to protest the law, which was signed by Republican Gov. Jan Brewer April 23 and is being challenged in the courts. The law makes it a state crime to be an illegal immigrant by creating a charge of "willful failure to complete or carry an alien registration document," such as a green card or other proof of citizenship such as a passport or Arizona driver's license.
Violations are a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $2,500. Repeat offenses would be a felony.
The law goes well beyond checking citizenship papers. It is also expected to hurt low-wage casual workers by making it illegal to impede the flow of traffic by stopping a vehicle on a road to offer employment and by prohibiting a person from getting into a stopped vehicle on a street to be hired for work if it impedes traffic.
Both Nelson and Andersen said this would hit women who work as housekeepers, child care providers and landscapers because many employers may decide that it is not worth the hassle to hire any immigrants, whatever their documentation. Thus, more families would fall into poverty. The Pew Hispanic Center reports that the median income of unauthorized immigrants was $36,000 in 2007, well below the income for U.S.-born residents. One-third of children of undocumented immigrants lived in poverty, nearly double the rate of children of U.S.-born parents.
Another provision would allow lawsuits against local or state government agencies that have policies that hinder enforcement of immigration laws. It would impose daily civil fines of $1,000 to $5,000. However, there is pending follow-up legislation to halve the minimum to $500. This provision would hurt "friendly towns" that haven't been aggressive in punishing immigrants.
In addition to these provisions, Arizona has lots of other laws that discourage undocumented workers from getting food stamps for their children and enrolling them in school.
SEIU, which represents many immigrant and native-born janitors, home care providers and nurses, called upon Congress to enact legislation to allow the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants--including 466,000 in Arizona--to legalize their status and to create an orderly process to admit future immigrants.
The number of U.S.-born children with undocumented immigrant parents grew to 4 million in 2008 from 2.7 million in 2003, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Children born in the United States are considered citizens under the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment, which was ratified in 1868. However, some politicians such as Rep. Duncan D. Hunter say the amendment has been misapplied and was never intended to grant citizenship automatically to the offspring of undocumented immigrants.
Hunter, a California Republican, told a Tea Party rally in Ramona, Calif., last week that he supports the deportation of these children because "it takes more than just walking across the border to become an American citizen."
Hunter, who had co-sponsored the proposed Birthright Citizenship Act of 2007 that would have stripped these children of citizenship, estimated that California spends $10 billion to $20 billion a year on health, education and other services for immigrants.
However, Randy Capps, senior policy advisor of the Washington, D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute, said that research indicates that legal immigrants as well as those with undocumented status avoid government aid.
"When they are in an anti-immigrant, hostile environment like Arizona, they quickly learn that it is dangerous to have any contact with the government," he said. "Mothers won't apply for food stamps for their children or take the child to a hospital emergency room even though the children are U.S. citizens and eligible for these benefits like every other citizen."
Although President Obama called the Arizona law "misguided" and Senate Democrats announced a framework for immigration reform last week, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, said there was "not a chance" that Congress would pass an immigration bill this year.
Jonathan Blazer, a public benefits policy attorney with the National Immigration Law Center, a Los Angles-based organization that defends the rights of low-income immigrants and their families, fears that the political vacuum will be filled with state laws similar to Arizona's.
"A half a dozen states followed Arizona's lead in 2004 when it passed proposition 200, which required residents to provide proof of citizenship before they registered to vote or applied for public benefits," said Blazer, who works in the center's Philadelphia office. "Legislatures should think about what kind of society we are becoming before they enact these laws, which can tear apart families and separate innocent children from their mothers."
Sharon Johnson is a New York-based freelance writer.
Valley Interfaith Project of Maricopa County
Pima County Interfaith Council
National Immigration Law Center