What happens when women are “illegal”?

immigration is central to women's equalityEd. note: This is a guest post by Juliana Britto Schwartz. By day, Juliana is a student at University of California, Santa Cruz. By night, she is a Latina feminist blogger at Julianabritto.com, where she writes about reproductive health justice, immigration, and feminist movements in Latin America.

Earlier this week, the Associated Press made the decision to drop the term “illegal immigrant” from its style guide. This is a huge step forward for immigrant rights, but the fact that such a small act is such a huge victory says a lot about how much further our country has to go to achieve even basic human rights for undocumented people. The AP may have dropped the I-Word, but plenty of major news outlets still continue to call undocumented people “illegal.”

Today, I’m thinking about undocumented women. Feministing has already established that immigration is a feminist issue, largely because it affects women, their families, their partners and communities. Undocumented women of color are targets of a myriad of racist exclusionary laws and are often hit the hardest by the so-called “War on Women.”

So let’s recap what happens when our society treats undocumented women as “illegal”…

1. Families get split up.

Colorlines has done a great job documenting the way in which the immigration system separates families by detaining parents with citizen children or by imposing absurdly long wait periods for family reunification. Did you know that the current wait time to bring a sibling over from Mexico is 163 years long? Immigrants are humans, and human just don’t live that long (so far, the oldest documented person died at 122 years-old).

2. Their health suffers.

Undocumented people face countless barriers to health care. Some are economic: they are much more likely to be uninsured and are generally forced to either forego care or pay out-of-pocket. Many undocumented people do not seek out care for fear of being deported, and laws like the proposed Arizona bill which would require hospitals to check immigration status before providing services only worsen the situation. 

3. Undocumented women suffer high rates of violence.

Increased militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border has forced migrants to cross into more dangerous areas and enter into riskier situations. Because of this, more women are suffering from violence at the hands of the coyotes they hire to help them cross, gangs they encounter making their way to the border, or the Border Patrol agents who apprehend them while crossing.

Once in the United States, undocumented women also face barriers to seeking protection from intimate partner violence. Programs like Secure Communities–which forces police to share with ICE information on the status of people they arrest–foster mistrust of law enforcement among undocumented communities. Often, women are afraid to report their abusers for fear that they will be deported.

4. Their labor is undervalued.

Most undocumented women workers are employed in the informal sector, many as domestic workers. With few legal rights to protect them, they are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, often working long hours, under difficult conditions for low pay.

So really, what happens when the law and society decides that a person is “illegal?” They are treated as less than human and less deserving of even basic human rights. As the Senate moves towards a comprehensive immigration reform bill, we need to push for legislation that supports immigrant women, and recognizes that “no human being is illegal.”

To learn how to get involved in the fight for equitable immigration reform, click here. To get the New York Times to drop the I-Word, click here.

Atlanta, GA

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. Maya has previously worked at NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the National Institute for Reproductive Health and was a fellow at Mother Jones magazine. She graduated with a B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. A Minnesota native, she currently lives, writes, edits, and bakes bread in Atlanta, Georgia.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/decius/ Dan

    Oddly enough, those same outcomes apply to all types criminals, not just alien trespassers.

  • http://feministing.com/members/felise/ Felise

    Thank you for this post. I appreciate how you elaborated on how exactly the “immigration issue” is in many ways a war on undocumented women of color. Before reading this article I was unaware that women are suffering from violence at the hands of the coyotes they hire to help them cross, gangs they encounter making their way to the border, or the Border Patrol agents who apprehend them while crossing. I was also struck by the first point of families get split up. It is completely ridiculous that the current wait time to bring a sibling over from Mexico is 163 years long. As a college student, I hear a lot about immigration as it pertains to the Dream Act. I would be interested to read more on how the Dream Act affects specifically young, undocumented women of color.

  • http://feministing.com/members/loren77/ Loren

    First and foremost I would like to appreciate the fact that this topic was considered. I agree with the ideas presented in this post and I’m really glad to see the topic being addressed. Although the four main topics presented here may seem very obvious to some people, they are real problems that are affecting the communities. When families are split up, it opens the doors for children to be mistreated in ways that may of us would rather not think about. Molestation, rape, physical abuse, emotional abuse, death, sickness, etc. are risks that increase when children are no longer with their parents. Oh, and that period of 163 years that people wait for siblings is absolutely ridiculous. You might as well just tell them no, and not give them a false sense of hope. Health was also important because we know that women of color already face health issues that many white women do not face because of geographical positioning. Women of color typically live in less affluent neighborhoods and they are exposed to greater health risks. Add that on top of the fact that these “illegal” women cannot afford health benefits so paying out of pocket is not an option. When combining the living situations and lack of benefits, its like cruel and unusual punishment. Violence is something that is very sensitive to me. My sister was in an abusive relationship and I was forced to see how it can affect someone. Luckily my sister was able to get help, but women who fear being deported and do not get help are once again creating greater health risks for not only herself, but her children as well. When someone snaps, anyone can be the target, and women and children of color should not be subjected to these type of living conditions. Exploiting them for their labor is just like putting icing on the cake. These women should not be treated like this. They are the only way that the human race can continue. By placing them in these conditions, its like saying we going to be selfish and only think about now. We are not going to worry about the fact that by allowing these women do die at an increasingly earlier age, we might affect the future of our nation. It not only says a lot about how selfish this society can be at times, but it also reveals how much the women are undervalued and disrespected.