While Obama’s executive action last week gave reprieve to five million immigrants under threat of deportation, it failed to address the millions our system leaves most at risk: undocumented women — along with trans, and gender non-conforming people.
The executive order Obama announced on November 23 was a major step: This Thanksgiving, millions of families will sit together without the fear of being broken apart. The plan allows an estimated four million immigrants who have children born in the U.S. and who have been here for more than five years to file for temporary relief from deportation. Obama says he’ll use the money saved to focus on criminals, deporting “felons not families.”
The action was a return to a rhetoric Obama seemed to have abandoned: In 2008, when a young Senator Barack Obama took the White House, the Democratic Party was energized by his his enthusiastic and more friendly attitude toward immigration. In his first campaign, he promised to enact immigration reform to stop deportations that separated parents from their children within his first year. Instead, he deported more people in his first four years than George W. Bush did in all eight.
This summer, a giant influx of immigrant mothers and children crossed the Texas border, fleeing violence at home. Marianna Ruiz, the managing director of Presente, points out that even since the beginning of that crisis, executive action was delayed three times. “On average, the President was deporting 1,100 people per day, so from the time that he first delayed executive action to November, 66,000 people were deported. The Latino community felt really thrown under the bus.”
While much of the deportation frenzy has also been courtesy of Congressional inaction (a comprehensive immigration reform bill, which passed in the Senate, has been stuck in the House for over a year) and an increased privatization of deportation centers, last week’s speech echoed many conservative points of the administration's "tough on crime" stance toward undocumented people.
It was underscored on Tuesday, when the President traveled to Chicago to give a big celebratory speech about his new action to his hometown. Or, at least that’s what he’d planned; instead, he was repeatedly interrupted by dissenters, women shouting “Not one more!” and “There is no justice!”
Per the norm, gender-specific issues were notably absent from the points and proposed policy changes delivered by the president. An "overall" approach to immigration that is largely predicated on viewing immigrants as inherently criminals is not friendly to those who are the most vulnerable.
President Obama stated that his administration's strategy is about holding "felons not families" accountable — but, who are the felons and who are the families?
Do those felons include undocumented women doing sex work in order to feed their families because that is their only means of income? Using fake SSI numbers to apply for other jobs? Pregnant women using emergency rooms for care? Women who have been sexually assaulted and report it to law enforcement? The president is presenting this as a benevolent gesture and separating that some immigrants are "bad" and some are "good." In reality, the system of the United States operates under the condition that all are criminals. As the criminal punishment system is racist, sexist, transphobic, and classist, it is certainly and equally xenophobic. It is a system of violence.
In 1996, the Welfare Reform Act mandated that undocumented people became disqualified from federally funded pregnancy care. While some states have allowed certain exceptions through Medicaid, currently under President Obama's new plan, those who are pregnant and undocumented will still be deportable.
In addition to reproductive health problems and concerns, many immigrant women are also facing interpersonal violence and barriers to safety. U-Visas, developed under the Violence Against Women Act, are premised on providing assistance and protection to undocumented women who have been abused and are seeking legal assistance. Many women who have called the police for help have still subsequently been criminalized and deported, even sexually assaulted by law enforcement. Under Mandatory Arrest Laws, immigrant women have had police called on them in hospitals, and have had their children taken away. If a woman cannot communicate in English with law enforcement personnel, her abuser's word will likely be taken over hers.
In 2013, the National Center for Transgender Equality detailed the omnipresent discrimination and abuse faced by transgender immigrants in the United States. While living at multiple intersections of both gender-based and citizenship-status discrimination, undocumented transgender immigrants are experiencing housing, income, and health care discrimination as well as increased and inhumane acts of violence, particularly at the hands of the state and within ICE detention centers. Immigration is also a gendered issue because United States policy so often supports the very hostile environments women are attempting to flee when they seek safety in this country.
There is fervent rallying around the idea of increased border militarization to prevent people from entering from Central and South America. Meanwhile, The United States invades, occupies, and bombs communities around the world in the name of liberating women, all while displacing them and manufacturing more violence. There are economic sanctions that devastate people's livelihoods, including access to both control and reproductive health, and it only becomes a conflict of morality for American people when the survivors of this violence attempt to flee the situation and come here.