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Immigration: Why Feminists Should Care

March 22, 2010

A young girl and her mother wave American Flags (Image mine)

Yesterday thousands of people gathered on the National Mall to demand comprehensive immigration reform from the Obama Administration. This rally was not covered very extensively in the press as most focus was on the historic vote on health care reform. (The discussion of which I greatly anticipate.) Regardless of the unfortunate timing, folks from around the country converged to show their support of a change to the broken immigration system. Those demanding change cite the separation of families, the backlogs in legal applications, and the exploitation of immigrant workers.

But why should feminists care about immigration?

Yesterday, as with most rallies and marches, a lot of grand rhetoric and sweeping comments served to stoke the crowd and give fodder to the news headlines the next day. I believe that can be effective on a grand scale, but my personal connection between equality for women and equality for immigrants lies in the quiet life of one woman.

I met Blanca [not her real name] over one year ago. She is a migrant farm worker in upstate New York who came here from Mexico about six years ago. She entered without a visa or green card and has since lived in the United States without permission. She now has two children, five and two years old, both born here. I met her when a social worker from upstate called me desperately to explain that Blanca was in removal proceedings (being deported) and needed some help. Blanca had been the victim of domestic violence at the hands of her partner for several years. I will not go into details but the abuse was brutally physical and psychological and she lived in constant fear of losing her life.

Blanca never went to the police about the abuse even though she came close to losing her life on several occasions. In many states, including some parts of New York, those who contact the police for help can be questioned about their immigration status. If she had been discovered living in the US without permission, she would have been deported. Her son had been born with a heart defect and received therapy and close monitoring from a doctor in New York. If she had been deported, she would have had to choose between leaving her children in the care of their violent father or bringing them with her and endangering the health, and possibly risking the life, of her son.

She continued toiling as a farm worker because she couldn’t find any other jobs. She often had to miss work because of her son’s health problems, and of course she had no paid sick days or job guarantee. She scraped by because she had to; she had nothing left in Mexico and was trying to carve out a life for her children in the US. One day ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents raided her workplace and realized that she had no permission to live in the US and thus began removal proceedings against her.

As feminists we fight against invisibility, exploitation, violence, and ignorance. Our struggle for justice should include all those who fight marginalization within a power structure created to give power to few and alienate most. The women’s movement has been filled with individual stories; the experiences of individual women strengthen and enrich our movement and our narrative. Immigrants to the United States, and other wealthy western countries, are easy to ignore or scapegoat as a faceless mass. When we begin to listen to individual stories, however, it becomes far more difficult to ignore our shared humanity. Blanca’s story is just one, but her tireless effort to survive each day, despite her near complete invisibility due to her immigration status, moved me. Just as I wish all people, regardless of their gender identity, would support the fight for gender equality, so too do I believe that we all, regardless of our immigration status, should fight for the justice and fair treatment of immigrants.

As the inspirational Aboriginal activist, feminist and artist Lilla Watson famously said:

If you have come to help me you are wasting your time. But if you recognize that your liberation and mine are bound up together, we can walk together.

At the commencement of the rally, a woman sang the National Anthem. Immigrants, some with legal status, some without, listened with a hushed reverence to the anthem of a country that wanted nothing to do with them in most cases. When the singer hit that high note on “the land of the free”, the whole crowd cheered wildly. No translation needed.

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