Obama's Action on Immigration Will Leave Millions of Women in Danger


On November 20, President Obama announced an executive order that has the potential to benefit 5 million undocumented immigrants. Many in the liberal media celebrated Obama’s action, either content to push aside its neglect to fundamentally reform a broken system or unaware of its consequences for millions of undocumented women and children, who will only be pushed further to the margins.

For those who understand these complications, the feelings are bittersweet. No one knows better than Ireri Lora, a woman who came to Oakland, CA from Mexico with her family in 1993. Lora was raised knowing she was undocumented, but didn’t know what it meant until the state of California passed proposition 187, criminalizing undocumented immigrants and banning them from all social services (including treatment at hospitals and schooling for children).

“It was a very scary time to be undocumented in California,” Lora says. “We were hearing about people getting deported in the middle of the night and citizens were being encouraged to call immigration on anyone they suspected of being undocumented. That’s when my family gave me this whole spiel about how I should never tell anyone I was born in Mexico.”

Lora’s parents were adamant about her attending college. So, while she grew more political in high school thanks to an assistant principal who was passionate about social justice work, she was also in AP classes and as she says, “striving to be the model minority.”

At the same time, Lora’s father began the process of applying for residency. He had no criminal background and had a work permit, but in 2003 his legal residency was denied. While most kids were celebrating college acceptance letters—and Lora should have been, as she was accepted to UC San Diego—she was focused on the deportation order her father received.

“My parents decided it would be best to move away because immigration knew their address in Oakland,” Lora says. “There was a lot of pressure as the oldest child to attend college and set a good example for my siblings, so my entire family moved to Reno while I went off to college.”

In March 2006, Lora married her husband, a U.S. citizen. In April 2006, Lora received a frantic phone call from her mother. ICE agents came to their home in Reno and took her father. He was detained for just 24 hours before being deported to Mexico.

Lora’s mother was forced to make a decision. Because her husband was the head of their household and the sole breadwinner, she knew she couldn’t support herself and her two young children alone in the U.S. She decided to return to Mexico with her kids, leaving her eldest daughter alone in the United States.

Seemingly overnight, Lora’s entire family had vanished. She hasn’t seen them since. That was eight years ago.

“I wanted to return to Mexico with my parents, but they told me to stay. My dad said if I didn’t stay and attend college, I wouldn’t be honoring the sacrifices they made. So I stayed,” Lora said.

Lora graduated from college in 2010 and decided to move back to Oakland. With San Diego being so close to the border, there were border patrol agents everywhere. In 2008, she was stopped by one. Up until then, she took her parents’ advice and revealed to no one that she was undocumented.

“When I was stopped by border patrol while still in college, it’s like something snapped,” Lora says. “I realized my silence was not protecting me. I was still being racially profiled. I did organizing work before, but that’s when I decided to begin organizing as an undocumented person.”

Lora is a 29-year-old college graduate with no criminal record who works with youth. She is exactly the type of person President Obama has led us to believe the immigration system works for, but the system has failed her. Let’s take a closer look at how.

In 2007, one year after her father was deported and she was left alone in the United States, Lora’s brother died in an accident in Mexico. As an undocumented person, she couldn’t travel outside the country to attend his funeral. Additionally, although marrying a U.S. citizen often enables undocumented people to adjust their status, Lora couldn’t apply for legal residency after her marriage without facing a 10-year bar from the U.S. That’s right: After marrying her husband, Lora would have had to return to Mexico for 10 years before returning to the U.S. and having any hope of obtaining a green card.

Leaving the U.S. is not something Lora is entirely opposed to, but, as with many undocumented immigrants, she is her family’s main source of financial support. She works with a non-profit in the Bay Area that is aware she is undocumented. Finding a job like this is not an easy task. Leaving her job would end her ability to care for her family in Mexico, so to her, this is not an option.

Lora does qualify for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)—a form of administrative relief passed in 2012, benefiting undocumented immigrants who meet certain criteria—but DACA requires its recipients to provide documentation for every year they have been in the States. In 2007 when her brother died, Lora took a year off of school to process his death. Because she doesn’t have documentation to prove her existence in the U.S. that year, her application is on hold. She also doesn’t qualify for a provisional waiver because she doesn’t meet any of the hardship guidelines, as she does not have any U.S. children and her family in Mexico is not in danger.

Two years ago, Lora’s father was diagnosed with cancer. He underwent chemotherapy, then the cancer returned. Lora’s only hope of seeing her father is somehow obtaining DACA and then applying for advance parole for humanitarian reasons, which enables undocumented immigrants to travel outside the U.S. to visit an ailing relative. You cannot get advance parole while a DACA application is still pending.

“Because of my experiences in the immigration system, announcements like Obama’s executive action are such a roller coaster,” Lora said. “I work with high school kids. All of them are youth of color, 98 percent of them are Latino. Many of them are undocumented or have undocumented family members. When I know something is going down, I immediately see the faces of these students and I think of who will benefit and who will not. I think of which parents will be included and which will be left out.”

Lora doesn’t know how to feel, saying her community is divided. She’s happy for those who will benefit from Obama’s executive action, but also knows that it will leave many people in limbo. She’s quick to point out that ICE has a yearly quota of 400,000, meaning that no matter what Obama announces, deportations are not going to stop. And Lora knows what it’s like to get that phone call in the middle of the night.

Lora sees small victories—the passage of the DREAM Act in some states, DACA, Obama’s executive action—as reasons to remain hopeful, but she knows having hope in the American immigration system makes her vulnerable. She hopes to get DACA; she hopes to get advance parole; she hopes to see her father; she hopes a more permanent solution is offered to her community. It is unknown if any of these hopes are likely to come true.

Obama’s action is being celebrated as an immigration win by liberals and Latinos alike (a recent poll of Latino voters—US citizens—showed 89 percent in support), but almost 6 million undocumented immigrants will be left with little or no recourse. Obama’s plan for an increase in enforcement also means those who do not benefit from DACA or his executive action will face unprecedented levels of criminalization.

During his speech, Obama laid out a three-pronged approach, promising to funnel more resources to the border, “make it easier and faster for high-skilled immigrants, graduates, and entrepreneurs to stay and contribute to our economy,” and take steps to “responsibly deal” with the millions of undocumented immigrants already in the U.S.

The benefits of this plan are concrete. The President is removing the upper-level age cap previously in place for DACA. Immigrant parents will also benefit from a new program called Deferred Action for Parents (DAP). In a recent two-year period, 23 percent of all deportations were issued for parents with U.S. citizen children. Under Obama’s action, that is set to change.

DAP beneficiaries will be parents of all U.S. citizen children or legal permanent resident children born on or before November 20, 2014. But parents of children that are recipients of DACA will not qualify, nor will soon-to-be parents whose children are born today or any time after. It goes without saying that women who came to the U.S. to support their families by taking jobs in which they care for American children—leaving behind their own children in their countries of origin —will experience no relief.

Neither DACA or DAP is citizenship, nor are they pathways to citizenship. According to DHS, Deferred Action “simply means that, for a specified period of time, an individual is permitted to be lawfully present in the United States.” Both programs also offer work authorization, so for a few years—and the price of $465—undocumented immigrants can legally work and reside in the U.S. without fear of deportation. Obama was right when, during his speech, he said, “All we’re saying is we’re not going to deport you.”

Obama’s speech rang true in some places—like when he referred to our immigration system bluntly, as “broken”—and less so in others, like at the point when he said, “Families who enter our country ‘the right way’ and play by the rules watch others flout the rules.”

But the rules don’t work. At all. Especially not for women, who are disproportionately affected by the broken immigration system, the human rights abuses in detention centers, and the deportation of members of their family.

Before marrying their partner in 2013 and obtaining a visa, immigration attorney Prerna Lal spent 15 years as an undocumented immigrant. During that time, they pioneered online organizing to stop the deportation of undocumented youth through the creation of DreamActivist, an online advocacy network.

“These announcements divide us between good and bad immigrants, deserving and undeserving,” Lal said. “I guess we have to celebrate what we get today and we push for more tomorrow, but that doesn’t make it any less heart-breaking.”

Many of the women affected by the 4-million-deep backlogged family immigration system are the grassroots organizers behind immigration reform, who rarely get credit for their political contributions. Before Obama’s announcement, Lal reminded readers of their blog to remember who to thank for the executive action before Democrats took credit: the organizers who had created and pushed the Not1More Blue Ribbon Commission Recommendations to the President in the spring, who just a few months ago were unpopular amongst advocates in the Beltway asking the President to delay issuing administrative relief on immigration. But, since the midterm elections, they are “all the rage, and invited to cocktail parties everywhere.”

“…Remember to thank NDLON’s Not One More Deportation movement. Without NotOneMore, we would have a dead immigration bill with no momentum for change and frankly, no prospects for executive action. Remember to thank the undocumented workers, parents, and youth who stopped buses, infiltrated detention centers, put their bodies on the line to ask for this change, and endured many attacks from pro-reform advocates,” Lal wrote.

Many of the undocumented workers, parents, and youth Lal refers to here are women. Women like activist Claudia Munoz, who recently brought attention to the fact that the namesake of the University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business, UT alum and Texas billionaire Red McCombs, negotiated a deal with immigrant detention and private-prison giant, Correction Corporations of America (CCA), to open the largest family detention center in the world in Dilley, Texas.

The Dilley Detention Center is set to open at the end of the year and it will hold 2,400 immigrant families. It will be managed by CCA and the city of Eloy, which Munoz calls a “deadly” combination: The Eloy Detention Center has had the highest number of detainee deaths in the U.S. and like many detention centers, forces transgender women to be locked up with men.

Earlier this year, Marichuy Leal Gamino, a transgender woman detained by Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) a year ago, was raped by her cellmate at Eloy. Before being raped, Gamino reported experiencing sexual harassment, bullying, lewd comments, and threats of rape for weeks. When she reported the abuse to an on-duty detention officer, she was ignored and told to “deal with it.” When Gamino attempted to report her rape, staff tried to pressure her into signing a statement asserting the rape was consensual sex.

It’s undeniable that LGBTQ immigrants—imperiled by the current system and less likely to have U.S. citizen children, at least partly because of discriminatory American marriage and adoption laws—will reap few benefits from Obama’s executive action. It a cruel twist of fate, President Obama’s announcement was made on Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day when many mourned the death of undocumented trans activist Zoraida Reyes, who was murdered this past summer.

Little action is ever taken about the human rights and sexual abuses committed at U.S. detention centers. Two months ago, women at the Karnes County Residential Center reported being sexually assaulted by staff in front of their children. In 2011, the ACLU reported that the largest number of sexual allegations are coming out of Texas detention centers, where Karnes County Residential Center is located. And, despite complaints being filed by the women of Karnes County in early September, the perpetrators were still allowed to remain among the women, a bulk of whom are Central Americans being held with their children after being detained at the Texas border.

According to the reports, guards and other staff removed “female detainees from their cells late in the evening and early morning hours for the purpose of engaging in sexual acts in various parts of the facility.” Lawyers representing the women say they were kissed, fondled, or groped in front of their children and that staffers requested sexual favors in exchange for money and assistance with shelter and pending immigration cases if the women were released. The attorneys also say Karnes Center guards, most of whom are men, have free access to the women and children at any time, day or night. Even more disconcerting, it has been reported some children over the age of 13 have been separated from their mothers and placed in separate sleeping quarters without any explanation or warning.

President Obama has deported more undocumented immigrants than any president in U.S. history, and even in light of his executive action—or perhaps, because of it—Lal says we’re only going to see more undocumented immigrants detained and deported. What’s almost never discussed in this issue is the fact that women are affected so disproportionately.

“When Obama says he’s deporting felons not families, it’s a false message,” Lal said. “Felons have families. Women and children are directly impacted. The immigration system is playing games with their lives.”

This was recently echoed on the Huffington Post by Lauren-Brooke Eisen, Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. Eisen writes that “felons, no families” oversimplifies a complex reality, pointing out that more than 2.7 million children in the U.S. have an incarcerated parent. Nationally there are more than 120,000 incarcerated mothers and 1.1 million incarcerated fathers with minor children. “So many families are affected by incarceration that last year Sesame Street introduced a new Muppet named Alex, who has a parent in jail,” Eisen wrote.

Andrea Cristina Mercado, co-chair of We Belong Together, says this is exactly why her organization focuses on how families are impacted by the broken immigration system. “I spent nine years community organizing and it was often women organizing vigils, rallies, and forums. At the national level, in Washington D.C., all we hear is men’s voices.” She adds, “Three-quarters of immigrants in the U.S. are women and children and it’s our goal to lift the voices of immigrant women fighting for justice. This may sound like a specific lens we’re applying, but if you really look at what’s happening, policies are never gender-specific, but it’s clear who’s being impacted.”

As examples, Mercado cites the many immigrant women who experience domestic violence, but are afraid to report the abuse because of fear of deportation. We Belong Together reports that only a quarter of all employment visas are given to women as principal holders, meaning two-thirds of immigrant women in the employment visa category enter as dependents on their spouse’s visa, with no ability to work themselves, making them more vulnerable to an abusive partner.

Women often carry the burden of the deportation of men, she says. According to findings from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, a majority of the immigrants deported last year were Mexican men in their twenties or thirties. More specifically, 93 percent of ICE deportees were men. “When men get deported and families are torn apart, women are left to be the sole providers for their families while also dealing with their trauma and the trauma of their children,” Mercado said.

Immigration is rarely seen as a feminist issue, which is why it’s one of Mercado’s goals to bring more women’s organizations into the fold. Many have been receptive, including the National Organization for Women (NOW), which partnered with We Belong Together for the largest civil disobedience performed by women.

We Belong Together advocates for “common-sense immigration reform” that recognizes the contributions of women’s work and women workers. According to the organization, approximately 60 percent of undocumented women are in the labor force, the majority working in professions where employment is informal and unverifiable. They are domestic care workers, taking care of other people’s families, or they work in core service industries. The remaining 40 percent of undocumented women are caring for their own families. The organization believes that immigration reform must ensure that eligibility for citizenship at any stage is not linked to proof of work, which will always leave out millions of women.

What’s really needed is a more permanent solution, one that provides hope that is solid and not unstable, discriminatory, or unlikely. It’s dispiriting to think of how much of President Obama’s branding was wrapped up in the idea of hope. We all remember the red, white, and blue Shepard Fairey painting. Everyone was hopeful when our charismatic President was first elected, promising to tackle immigration during his first year in office. But action has taken many years and it’s still incomplete, and even still, imperiled.

Those of us not directly impacted by immigration policies have the privilege of rolling our eyes when Republicans threaten to undo Obama’s executive action. We can criticize the reforms for being piecemeal and incomplete. But for undocumented women like Lora, who don’t have the luxury of being dismissive, it’s more complicated.

“As people organizing in our communities, we have to have hope or we have nothing,” she said. “I find hope in the youth I work with. I find hope in other organizers. I find hope in our parents, who never stop believing in us or believing that one day they will be able to live without fear of deportation or separation. I know we deserve better than this, so I have to have hope. Losing hope is not an option.”

Tina Vasquez is the writer of Liberty For All, a weekly comic strip on CultureStrike about a queer, undocumented, feminist writer named Liberty Martinez. She is also a regular contributor to Bitch Magazine, a staff blogger at In The Fray, and the former associate editor at Black Girl Dangerous. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.

Image via Getty

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