Washington, D.C. — More than 100 women were arrested Thursday during an immigration protest focused on the inadequate protections to immigrant women and families that persist while Congress stalls on comprehensive immigration reform. All the women, many who were undocumented, were arrested within a half hour of forming a circular human chain at a busy intersection outside the Capitol building. Children later delivered heart-shaped cookies and 6,000 signed petitions from children and women to the offices of Congressional members during the protest.
The protest — touted by organizer “We Belong Together” as expected to bring together “the largest number of undocumented immigrant women to date” willing to submit to arrest — addressed the distinct immigration issues faced by women and families. Most of these issues are not addressed in any of the House proposals for reform.
Women face gender bias in the current immigration system, and have more difficulty obtaining a U.S. visa because women worldwide have less opportunities than men do to acquire education degrees and skills in their native countries required for many types of work visas. Currently, only 5,000 visas are available for the sorts of low-skilled labor that many immigrant women are qualified to do. A bill passed by the Senate adds another 30,000 residency cards for that type of work, but no analogous provisions exist in any of the bills now pending in the House.
“Our broken system affects us deeply,” Pramila Jayapal, co-chair of “We Belong Together” said. “Seventy-five percent of all immigrants are women and children. Immigration policy has limited and excluded women. The bill in the Senate, we made sure that they had provisions to include women. Women are here to show that we have courage, we contribute every day, and now we need the House leadership to show courage to do their job and get this done.”
Another problem is family separation when parents are arrested and detained. While the Senate immigration bill includes an amendment to allow detained parents to make caretaker decisions, the House proposals do not address this problem either. A recent Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) directive was issued to allow parents to make caretaker decisions within the detention center, but it is a temporary measure.
Undocumented parents like Jose Lopez and his wife fear the inability to take care of their children if either one of them are permanently detained. “My wife is the love of my life,” he said as he choked back tears and hugged his children beside him. “She’s the mother of three children. She’s very brave.”
Children are also afraid of family separation. “I’m a kid myself,” Berenice Ramirez, a 16 year old undocumented organizer said. “I’m always living in fear of my parents being separated from me and I rely on them. That wouldn’t be fair to any of the children who are living in fear like I am right now.”
Josie and Sussana Molina also voiced their concern about their undocumented father being deported. The sisters were there to watch their mother and aunt get arrested. Josie came to national attention last month when an anti-immigration crowd cheered as Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-TN) told her that he supports deportation and that her undocumented father should have followed the law.
“I want the deportation proceedings to stop. If my dad does something,” Josie said, “he’d have to go back to his country and I’d be very sad.
Saira Barajas, whose family members are undocumented said, “Our parents were the ones who brought us here and they need to, at least, be at peace that they will not be deported and see our dreams come true.”
Protesters were also at the rally to bring attention to other the issues that immigrant women suffer, including losing their children while they are in detention, sexual abuse, and other forms of workplace abuse. Maria Hernandez, an undocumented domestic worker from California, indicated that she supported immigration reform because she had been abused at work.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), the only woman on the seven-member House immigration committee that will draft an immigration bill, gave a speech commending the activists. “In the House, the decision of whether to have a vote for reform is in the hands of the Republican majority,” she said. “The Democrats in the House are prepared with a ‘yes’ vote.”