Is Immigration A "Women's Issue"?


Is the Arizona’s new immigration law — wherein officials can ask to see an individual’s papers based on the individual’s appearance — a feminist issue? And what does that even mean?

There are two ways to answer this question, which Jessica Yee posed at Bitch yesterday. First, there’s the fact that many of the Arizonans affected by SB-1070 are women, who under enforcement of the law, are at risk both in the general sense and in the risks particular to women. Then there’s the more theoretical issue of what it means to critique power structures.

Let’s start with the first one. Census data shows that more than half of all immigrants are women, and many of them are the primary breadwinners for their families.

From the beginning, these women are more vulnerable than their male counterparts, particularly if they lack documentation to enter this country. For example, a recent Amnesty International report found that six out of 10 Central American women are raped in Mexico, a passage they make on the way to the United States.

“Many women migrants are deterred from reporting sexual violence by the pressures to continue their journey and the lack of access to an effective complaints procedure,” the report says. It adds that the prevalence of rape is such that some smugglers of people demand that women have contraceptive injections before the journey as a precaution.

Once in the United States, if these women suffer some of the violence that all woman can suffer — partner violence and rape, for starters — the fear of law enforcement leaves them little recourse. The Arizona law essentially ensures that this will be the case, as it requires that police request identification from anyone they think might be in the country illegally.

California State Assembly Member Karen Bass writes at Huffington Post:

“I can’t help but oppose a law that aids criminals in getting away with their crimes by pushing victims and witnesses deeper into the shadows. And, yes, rape, murder and domestic violence are worse crimes than crossing the border without the right papers.”

And at Gender Across Borders, Colleen Hodgetts described a case that illustrated the dilemma many immigrant women face:

Blanca never went to the police about [her partner’s] 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.

In Arizona and beyond, how immigration laws are enforced can affect women in particularly dehumanizing ways, as Silvia Henriquez of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health recently noted:

If you don’t think that women are at risk of hard-nose tactics, consider this: Just two years ago Juana Villegas was arrested for a routine traffic violation in Nashville after leaving a clinic for a pre-natal visit and detained when she was unable to produce a license. Despite the fact that driving without a license is a misdemeanor in Tennessee that generally leads to a citation, Ms. Villegas was taken into custody due to suspicions about her immigration status.
Ms. Villegas was jailed for six days, during which time she gave birth to a little boy while shackled to a bed under the watchful eye of the sheriff’s officer. Barred from speaking to her husband, her baby was taken from her upon birth, leading to a number of health repercussions for both mother and baby. Local police stood by their actions, calling Nashville “a friendly and open city to our new legal residents.” In a chilling display of Nashville’s “friendliness,” local police also confiscated Villegas’ breast pump.

But beyond the crossovers with have been defined as “women’s issues,” there are fundamental philosophical reasons why this should matter to feminists. One could argue that mainstream feminist organizations that are supposed to broadly defend women are stretched thin enough trying to accomplish their stated agendas with precious little resources. But as Hodgett put it,

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.

And here’s Courtney Hooks from The Pro-Choice Public Education Project, connecting the dots more specifically:

The human rights, well-being, and livelihood of all people–regardless of documentation, status, or country of origin–is what reproductive justice is all about. Immigrant rights activists and reproductive justice activists are advocating for many of the same things: the right to live in and fully participate in society free from violence and discrimination, the right to fully access high-quality social services, including education and health care, and the right to self determine the course of their lives.

Amen. So what now?

Henriquez: Protect Our Families Against Arizona’s New Anti-Immigration Law [Roll Call]
National Coalition For Immigrant Women’s Rights [Official Site]
Immigration: Why Feminists Should Care [Gender Across Borders]
6 Out Of Ten Migrant Women Raped In Mexico, Activists Say [Miami Herald]
We All Have A Responsibility To Speak Out Against Arizona [HuffPo]
Connecting The Dots On Immigrant Rights And Reproductive Justice [ProtectChoice]
Unearthing Human Rights In Arizona: So When Does An Issue Become Feminist? [Bitch]

Earlier: The Semiotics Of Dress: Republican Targets “Illegals” By Their Clothes

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