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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Seeking Reforms

Janet Jakobsen

The coalition seeks a legalization program allowing undocumented migrants to apply for residency without excessive fines or re-entry requirements; enforcement of existing labor laws; improvements in reunion opportunities for families; child and reproductive health care; and more safety for victims of sexual and domestic violence.

Women are 50 percent, or 14 million, of the foreign-born U.S. population, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank. Women are 48 percent of legal migrants and 42 percent of unauthorized migrants to the United States, according to a July 2006 report of the Washington-based Pew Hispanic Center. Two-thirds of the undocumented were born in Latin America, 13 percent in Asia, 6 percent in Canada or Europe, and 3 percent in Africa or elsewhere.

Immigrant women are caught in a double bind. Like other women, they often face inadequate wages, higher family caretaking demands, reproductive health care needs, domestic violence, sexual harassment and gender stereotyping.

"Migrant women are more vulnerable to violence and rape and poverty because of patriarchy and the reasons for abuse of women in general," said Gabriela Flora, a Colorado regional organizer for Project Voice, an immigrant assistance program of the American Friends Service Committee. "It's a symptom of much larger issues of abuse and misogyny in our culture today, but they are much less likely to be able to defend themselves."

The gender issues, however, sit atop a mountain of universal concerns: labor protection, health care, anti-immigration sentiment, social service support, family separations, limited paths to legal status, dangerous border crossings, racial hatred and mass deportations.

Of particular and immediate concern to advocates are the mass roundups of immigrants at workplaces and even shopping malls, which U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has mounted since Dec. 12, 2006, when 1,300 people in 12 states were detained.

'Tearing Families Apart'

"It's tearing families apart," Flora said. "They have devastating effects on women and children and a huge impact on communities."

Children are left to fend for themselves, unaware of their parents' whereabouts. One 16-year-old girl in California is trying to support two younger siblings now that their parents were deported, said Flora.

In addition to the raids, Melinda Lewis, director of policy, advocacy and research at El Centro in Kansas City, Kan., an organization that provides direct services to 15,000 individuals, is also focused on restricted benefits, predatory lending, housing needs and family reunification. "The situation is so bad for everybody. We're looking at crises day after day," said Lewis.

Women who live with abusive partners also fear deportation and even some immigration lawyers offer little help, said Jorgelina Karner of the Colorado Coalition Against Domestic Violence in Denver.

"In rural areas, if a client comes in and says 'I can't take it anymore,' lawyers have said, 'Just stay; you're just three to four months away from a green card,' which is the same as saying, 'Just stay and take the punches, stay and be killed,'" said Karner.

Women in domestic employment have little recourse against abusive employers, said Melissa Nalani Ross, research analyst at the Center for New Community, a training, research and community organization in Chicago. "They have no way of fighting back, they are alone; they are stuck in conditions that are horrific."

Ross, who researches the anti-immigration movement, sees women used as pawns. For example, she said, anti-immigration activists point to the oppression of women in their home countries and argue that permitting immigration brings these same cultural attitudes into the United States.

Such groups also object to the high reproductive rate of immigrants because it produces children who are born in the U.S. and have citizen status. "They've come up with a term, 'anchor babies.' It's the equivalent of the N-word, used in a very derogatory way," said Ross. "It's definitely an ethnic and sexist attack."

Cynthia L. Cooper is an independent journalist in New York City.

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