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.

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like Cosmopolitan.com, TheAtlantic.com, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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