Feministing and others have been covering the news this past week of Arizona officially putting racism on the books. If you haven’t heard, new legislation was passed that allows racial profiling of what authorities consider “illegal immigrants” (aka brown folks). It is not a good time for immigrants and their families right now. (Seems like Saturday’s May Day rallies comes at just the right time – Action Alert after the jump!)
What surprised me the most, however, was people’s response to this. Many commenters on Feministing asked (and have asked before) why immigration is a feminist issue. Feminism is strictly gender, right? Equal pay, glass ceiling, abortion and all that?
Well, no, actually.
Feminism is a lot more than that. And for me, an Asian-American woman of color, feminism is centrally the intersection of gender and race. So when news of immigration “reform” is blasted all over the media, I’m instantly alerted.
You see, immigration is about my family. It’s about my entire community and all other communities of color that are viewed by society as Other and as not rightfully belonging. “All-American” is a term I shudder at because it is almost always referenced as a Ralph Lauren, blonde cheerleaders and jocks type image. A picture as distant and unrelatable to me as the planet Mars.
But my passion for immigrant rights goes much deeper than phenotypical likenesses. It stems from a strongly held belief that this land was stolen and does not “belong” to anyone. Right-wing conservatives like Sarah Palin and AZ Gov. Brewer hold ever-so-tightly to their shaded view of history in order to maintain the image of an ideal America. This convenient forgetting of American history is so important to maintaining dominant structures of power. That’s why the Texas Board of Education voted to get rid of culturally-relevant curriculum in their schools. Can’t keep ‘em oppressed if they know too much!
So this is why immigration is most definitely a feminist issue:
A history of oppression is involved. To those with a lesser understanding of American history, it is immigrants’ duty to learn English and learn all of the American ways! What a nuisance to take a few minutes longer to understand someone because of linguistic barriers. The horror! Too bad there was NO respect for indigenous cultures when Europeans landed here (except when it was beneficial to their surivival). Those who seek to penalize immigrants forget that in the 1800s, Anglos migrated illegally into Texas which was then part of Mexico. They forget that the land established by the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo as belonging to the Mexicans was soon taken away from its owners. This theft and betrayal has yet to be recognized and considering this recent AZ law, restitution is farther than ever. They forget the startling numbers of the Indian population before and after the Spanish conquest– twenty-five million in Mexico and the Yucatan before and under seven million immediately after. A mere one and a half million remained by 1650. Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado were forcefully taken from the indigenous population so to argue that this land is “our” land is factually wrong.
Injustice continues under immigration policing. Alongside this history are current economic practices that continue to keep Third World folks subjugated. After killing off vast majorities of the indigenous population (whether by spreading disease or committing massacres and lynchings), stealing land and forcing migrations, First World nations implemented unjust economic policies that perpetuate colonialism under the guise of free-market capitalism. Such free-trade policies include establishing zones of production essentially free from taxes and environmental and labor laws that are seen as vital in the investing country itself. Gloria Anzaldua, pivotal Chicana Feminist, says it better than I ever can:
“Los gringos had not stopped at the border. By the end of the nineteenth century, powerful landowners in Mexico, in partnership with U.S. colonizing companies, had dispossessed millions of Indians of their lands. Currently, Mexico and her eighty million citizens are almost completely dependent on the U.S. market. The Mexican government and wealthy growers are in partnership with such American conglomerates as American Motors, IT&T and Du Pont which own factories called maquiladoras. [...] The devaluation of the peso and Mexico’s dependency on the U.S. have brought on what the Mexicans call la crisis. No hay trabajo. (There are no jobs.) Half of the Mexican people are unemployed. In the U.S. a man or woman can make eight times what they can in Mexico. [...] We have a tradition of migration, a tradition of long walks. Today we are witnessing la migracion de los pueblos mexicanos, the return odyssey to the historical/mythological Aztlan.”
Those who seek to make the insanely dangerous migration across the border risk their lives in the hopes that they can support their family, that they can make enough money for basic sustenance. One out of every three is caught. Those who amazingly make it across alive then find themselves in an environment that disdains their very existence, that blames them for the inequitable capitalist policies of their government. Anzaldua continues, “Living in a no-man’s-borderland, caught between being treated as criminals and being able to eat, between resistance and deportation, the illegal refugees are some of the poorest and the most exploited of any people in the U.S.” Of course, the big farming and manufacturing companies that employ them make twice as much money since they don’t have to pay minimum wage or ensure sanitary conditions or adequate housing.
Undocumented women are targeted. And, as in almost every other situation, the Mexican woman is especially at risk. She is a target for rape by the coyotes (smugglers), who also can refuse to feed her for days and do not allow her to go to the bathroom. Because she doesn’t know English and fears deportation she can’t turn to any of the state resources that lawful citizens may turn to. If illegal immigrants are the most exploited of our society, then it’s fair to say that women migrants face an even starker reality. Victims of sexual abuse often won’t seek help because the threat of being returned home is even worse than the nightmare of living through the silence.
I hope it’s clear at this point that this isn’t some new phenomenon. Undocumented immigrants are not the enemy and they aren’t the deserving target of American resentment at lost jobs and a changing environment. The vulnerability they face stems from a long tradition of inhumane treatment and uncountable oppressions. A single blog post would never do this topic justice. Instead of focusing on undocumented immigrants or the “dark menace” politicians so often have us looking down upon (a title that can easily be transposed onto different bodies as the political climate allows), we should be pressuring our governments to pass more equitable economic policies, pressuring our school systems to offer holistic versions of American history and most of all, we should immediately be pressuring our government to stop further punishing undocumented immigrants (and, for that matter, any brown folk who find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time) for a history and place in society that was beyond their control. Instead, we should be helping them in any way we can.
So yeah. Immigration and immigrants’ rights are most definitely a feminist issue. I was fortunate to have undergone my feminist politicization after the 80s when the likes of Anzaldua and other feminists of color fiercely staked out their place in the rich legacy of feminist history. So from the very beginning of my feminist education, I was taught that to be a feminist meant to be critical of power structures, all of them. I know that my concerns as a woman are inextricable from the concerns that arise from other aspects of my identity. That’s just about as feminist as you can get.
And on a related note, Saturday is International Worker’s Day where all the major cities will be having huge May Day rallies. Worker’s rights are so inextricable with the plight of immigrants that May Day has inevitably become a platform to bring immigration rights to the forefront of the labor agenda. To find out where local actions around you are taking place, check out this page. And if you’re in the SF Bay Area, go to this rally in San Francisco where organizations I’m involved in will be there front and center!