With Mother's Day approaching, in many immigrant communities, it begins to feel like every woman in the neighborhood is having a birthday at the same time. Strangers proclaim, "Happy Mother's Day!" to every woman who passes on the street; colorful balloons and roses are ubiquitous: tied to strollers, purses, wrists and canes.
[IMGCAP(1)]What's happening in these ethnic enclaves on Mother's Day is an outpouring of appreciation for the central role immigrant women play in their families and communities, a role reflected by the recent data. The U.S. Census Bureau indicates more than half of all immigrants are women, and the New America Media identified a trend of immigrant women as primary breadwinners and family caretakers. In addition, while 90 percent of Hispanic children in the U.S. are American citizens, 62 percent of Hispanic children in the U.S. have at least one immigrant parent. Data also show that immigrant women are often the ones to initiate the citizenship process for their families.
Immigrant women, at the heart of many American families, are now in peril because of the signing of the Arizona law by Gov. Jan Brewer (R) last month. The law goes beyond encouraging racial profiling; it demands local police seek out "foreign characteristics" in order to hunt down immigrants without documents and gives residents the right to sue the department if they feel police are not doing a good enough job.
This obtuse method of law enforcement can have only one logical conclusion: Anyone in Arizona with dark skin and an accent, who is working or living in targeted neighborhoods, will feel the full force of state-sanctioned bigotry.
The Justice Department is currently investigating Connecticut police who, touting immigration enforcement, conducted hundreds of traffic stops that resulted in the use of Tasers or pepper spray on handcuffed Latinos. And 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.
As abruptly as stories like the abuse of Ms. Villegas appear in the headlines, they fade away. But for justice-oriented organizations such as the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, this young mother's harrowing ordeal is an urgent reminder that our immigration system is badly in need of reform. Human rights abuses are not only tolerated but too often cheered when it comes to women immigrants, and the persistent bias and vitriol about immigrants teaches Americans to hate and fear minorities.
Immigrant women are the backbone of our communities, providing services we all depend on in our daily lives, yet they often remain in the shadows. Many immigrant women are forced to work in low-paying industries, such as food service and seasonal farm work, even when they are qualified to work in higher paying jobs. Many jobs available to women immigrants provide neither health benefits nor the incomes needed to purchase health insurance for themselves or their families, and many states prohibit Medicaid access for undocumented women. Even those who are legal residents of the United States are barred from accessing care — since 1996, a restriction known as the five-year bar prohibits immigrants who have been legal permanent residents of the United States for less than five years access to public programs such as food stamps and Medicaid. These restrictions create near-impossible barriers to basic reproductive health care such as regular cancer screening, contraceptives and abortion services.
Yet this unwavering dedication to the American dream makes it more likely that their families will be able to open small businesses, purchase homes and contribute to the American economy.
The Arizona law shows us that fear and misguided frustration targets vulnerable women immigrants and traumatizes their children. As a society when we sanction bias, vitriol and discrimination, we all lose.
Silvia Henriquez is the executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, a nonprofit policy and advocacy organization based in New York and Washington, D.C., which works on behalf of reproductive health interests of the nation's 15 million Latinas.