Women Raise Heat on Immigration Debate

Friday, May 18, 2007

Female immigrants are drawing increased attention as Congress heads into debate next week on immigration reform. Female domestic workers and abused women who fear deportation are two groups of women high on advocates' radar.

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Anita Rico, right and friend Rita Pineda,

(WOMENSENEWS)--In preparation for the march for immigrant rights that drew tens of thousands to Chicago's streets on May 1, 2007, Anita Rico stenciled T-shirts with the face of the woman who most inspires her: Elvira Arellano.

Since last August Arellano, an undocumented immigrant, has been holed up in a small Chicago church with her U.S.-born 8-year-old son Saul to avoid an order of deportation back to Mexico.

"She gave a face to the crisis that is going on," said Rico, a youth coordinator at Centro Sin Fronteras, a community advocacy group in Chicago. "The way the government is treating people, especially women, is very inhumane. She's taking a stance. It's how Rosa Parks took a stance. We're literally turning the pages of history."

Arellano, named one of the People Who Mattered in 2006 by Time magazine, co-founded the Chicago-based United Latino Family, which lobbies to keep together U.S.-born children and undocumented parents. Before taking sanctuary, she spoke from the podium at an immigration reform march in Chicago. Arellano's recognition level was so high during the 2006 elections that photos of her and Saul were used to get out the Latino vote.

Before her legal problems Arellano worked out in the open, earning $6.50 an hour cleaning airplanes until she was arrested for using a false Social Security number in a sweep of the airport where she worked.

Olga Vives, executive vice president of the National Organization for Women, says, unlike Arellano, many female immigrants are working behind walls--as domestics, nannies, health care workers and hotel cleaners--and are therefore kept in the policy shadows.

Red-Hot Issue

Vives and others have been grafting gender issues onto immigration politics and raising the temperature of an already red-hot issue among feminist scholars, service groups, researchers and advocates.

In March, Vives' NOW and three other national women's organizations in Washington, D.C., formed the National Coalition on Immigrant Women's Rights to promote "fair and just immigration policies that will protect the rights of immigrant women."

"With all of the anti-immigrant sentiment and all the talk about deportation, we were very concerned. We want to make sure that the issues affecting women are heard," said Vives.

In March, the annual Scholar and Feminist Conference at the Barnard Center for Research on Women at Barnard College in New York focused on the worldwide issues of gender and migration. "A great deal of thought has been given to immigration, but there needs to be more time and space to gender," said Janet R. Jakobsen, director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women.

U.S. immigration reform has simmered in Congress for the past year as Democrats and Republicans sparred over the best approach to the annual arrival of about 850,000 undocumented immigrants. A compromise bill intended to ease the path toward legalization for many immigrants was negotiated by the White House and lawmakers this week and has been introduced in the Senate.

Laying the groundwork for the debate, the National Coalition on Immigrant Women's Rights--created with the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum and Legal Momentum--set up meetings with members of Congress. On May 8, it held a phone conference to share top priorities with groups across the country.

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