To the great disappointment of civil and human rights advocates, President Barack Obama has asked Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to delay submitting recommendations for reforming deportation policies and practices. The promised recommendations had been a bright spot on the horizon for our communities and this latest delay is quite concerning for immigrant women and families.
With record deportations and families torn apart, we are in the midst of a humanitarian and moral crisis. The Administration's failure to prioritize this, coupled with Congressional inaction on immigration reform, only illuminates the need for our continued vigilance.
The cry from activists, mothers, DREAMers, and immigrant rights leaders from across the nation has been clear. The aggressive and harmful detention and deportation of 2 million immigrant people has taken a toll on countless families, and the very fabric of our country. And it must come to an end.
Every day, I hear from Latinas across the country who are struggling to get by after their husbands, parents, or partners have been deported. I talk to women who are afraid to go to the doctor because they fear ICE agents waiting for them in the parking lot.
The hardest stories come from the mothers. Between 2010 and 2012, the Obama administration deported more than 200,000 parents of U.S. citizen children, and more since that time. Many of the children of deported parents end up in the child welfare system, and may be separated indefinitely.
To make matters worse, if a mother attempts to return to the United States to unite with her children after being deported, she can face a felony charge with a federal prison sentence of up to 20 years.
These deportations, combined with the climate of fear created by the existence and aggressive implementation of programs like Secure Communities and 287(g), have a devastating impact on immigrant women, whether they are themselves deported or left behind to pick up the pieces of their shattered families.
As a mother myself, it breaks my heart to think of being separated from my son.
It’s time to listen to the stories of immigrant women and families, to fully understand the human face of this issue.
The majority of immigrants today are women, and those women are the backbones of their communities. They are workers, teachers, and caretakers. They are more likely to start business than their native-born counterparts, and are the drivers of integration in their families. They encourage kids to learn English, do well in school, and register to vote. And yet they are being the denied the opportunity to live with dignity and without fear.
Women like Adriana, who is 41, and had lived in the US for 17 years, and raised 2 children, when her husband was deported to Mexico, away from the family and life they had built in this country. Shortly after being deported, Adriana’s husband was kidnapped and, she believes, killed. Adriana is now the sole caretaker and breadwinner for her family, including her two young grandsons.
Every day, Adriana lives in fear that she’ll be deported, and her grandsons will have no one to care for them. She is even afraid walking them to the bus stop in the morning for school.
Adriana’s story is not unique—she is one of many immigrant women whose lives and livelihoods have been turned upside down by immigration policies and practices that fail to recognize their contributions or allow them to lead healthy, successful lives.
We must remember Juana Villegas—who, while being held in immigration detention, was forced to give birth in shackles and denied the right to breastfeed her child, endangering her health and the health of her newborn.
We must remember Victoria Arellano—a Latina trans woman who was detained and subsequently denied HIV medication and treatment, and died as a result.
And we are just beginning to bring to light the ongoing reports of sexual assault perpetrated against women in immigration detention, including the countless unreported cases.
These indignities are more than injustice—they are a denial of our very humanity.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
That’s why we are calling on Congress and the Obama administration to stop focusing on policing and imprisoning our mothers and children, and focus on humane, meaningful reform.
It’s time to end detention bed quotas, mandatory detention policies, and the alarming trend of entangling community police departments in immigration enforcement.
It’s time to implement and expand community-based alternatives to immigration detention that keep families together.
It’s time to protect the safety and civil rights of our border communities by clarifying legal limits on Customs and Border Patrol’s authority, and ending the violent militarization of our borders.
And it’s time to ensure that the human right to health care, including reproductive health care, is a reality for every single person in this nation, regardless of her immigration status, by passing the Health Equity and Access under the Law for Immigrant Women and Families Act, by ensuring standards of care for people who are detained, and by ending the denial of health coverage to undocumented people.
We will not solve our nation’s immigration challenges by throwing prisons and police at the problem. To build a stronger and more successful future for us all, we must recognize the contributions of immigrant families and affirm the human right of every person to live with salud, dignidad, y justicia, health, dignity, and justice.
Jessica González-Rojas is the executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health.