Immigration is a Feminist Issue—We Need to Treat it That Way
Photo: Eight of the Dream 9 activists (photo courtesy the National Immigrant Youth Alliance).
"What woman here is so enamored of her own oppression that she cannot see her heel print upon another woman's face?"
– Audre Lorde
As I write this, two undocumented activists have spent 104 out of the last 108 hours in total isolation. Twenty-four-year-old Lulu Martinez and 22-year-old Maria Peniche are in solitary confinement at Arizona's Eloy Detention Center. It has been reported that Peniche is currently on suicide watch.
Martinez and Peniche are being punished in one of the country's most notorious private detention centers for "inciting a demonstration." As organizers with The National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA), a radical youth-led organization working to ensure justice for undocumented people living in the United States, Martinez and Peniche have organized within the walls of Eloy, inspiring 70 female detainees to participate in a hunger strike to protest the conditions at the detention center, which imprisons people (sometimes for years) as their immigration cases are pending. Last week, according to a report from writer Aura Bogado, they pair jumped up in the dining hall and urged everyone to call a free legal hotline to fight deportation. They yelled out, "Undocumented! Unafraid!" in Spanish. In a recorded phone call, one of these women, Thesla Zenaida, explained the realities they face in detention:
"Look, a girl hanged herself. A girl was hanged here. [After] she was hanged, they didn't want to take her body down. And for the same reason—because they treat us poorly. A guard treated her poorly, and that guard is still working here. They [treat] us like the worst dogs."
Martinez and Peniche are members of the Dream 9, a group of nine activists and Mexican nationals who—as part of NIYA's Bring Them Home campaign—essentially self-deported to Mexico and then marched through the streets of Nogales on Monday, July 22 to present themselves at the US/Mexico border, openly defying US immigration policy on a live, global webcast. The group demanded to be let back into the country they call home and were detained almost immediately. They have been sitting in detention ever since. The action has illuminated how our broken immigration system separates families on both sides of the border: those who enter the US unlawfully can never return to Mexico to visit family and loved ones. If deported, they are separated from the families they've started in the US, unable to reunite in even the most dire circumstances.
It's easy to ignore these issues, but every feminist should care about the way our country treats undocumented immigrants.
Here are just some of the reasons why: Immigration policies leave women (often mothers) sitting in detention for months—if not years—effectively ripping them from their children. The ACLU, the Women's Refugee Commission, and other advocacy organizations have found that because of lax oversight at some detention facilities, detained women are being sexually accosted and raped by officers on their way to being deported. Detention centers lack uniform sexual abuse prevention policies and are actually ripe for abuse, as illustrated by the routine segregation of children from their parents or guardians during arrests. It's worth noting that people held in these detention centers are overwhelmingly not dangerous—they've been picked up for petty crimes, such as driving without a license, and are subsequently charged with the civil crime of violating immigration laws. More often than not, this is why they are placed behind bars.
Despite all of this—and six of the nine members of the Dream 9 being women—feminist publications and sites have not written much about the group. Feministing posted about the group last Friday and writer Kemi Bello at Autostraddle told the story of Martinez, the UndocuQueer (undocumented and queer) activist currently sitting in solitary confinement at Eloy. If she's able to avoid deportation by obtaining humanitarian parole, Martinez will continue her education at the University of Illinois at Chicago where she is majoring in gender and women's studies.
Why doesn't feminist media treat immigration as an obvious feminist issue? Why doesn't mainstream feminism seem to give a damn about undocumented women? Why aren't more feminist organizations coming out in support of the Dream 9? As a comprehensive immigration reform bill is being butchered by Congress, accomplishing little more than further militarizing the border, and the Dream 9, largely lead by women, continue making national headlines after participating in the most radical, risky act of civil disobedience in the history of the undocumented student movement, there is literally no excuse for the silence on behalf of feminist media.
Part of the problem is that mainstream feminism fails at being inclusive of women of color and of understanding intersecting identities.
A harsh reminder of this came just a few weeks before the Dream 9 women participated in a revolution feminism failed to televise. In response to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano becoming the first woman appointed to lead the University of California system, Ms. magazine tweeted, "Finally, some positive women's news today: Janet Napolitano named to be first woman prez of U. of Calif."
Except it wasn't positive news, especially not for the estimated 20,000 undocumented college students currently benefiting from the California Dream Act. The self-identified black womanist who runs the blog Sistrenista and operates the Twitter handle ShauneeV hit the nail on the head when responding to Ms. Magazine's tweet, saying, "Doesn't matter what her politics are, as long as she's a woman, huh?" This was echoed by queer immigrant rights activist Ronnie Veliz, who along with ShauneeV were among the first to respond to the tweet. Veliz wrote, "Even my mom knows Napolitano has no experience in higher education, only in family separation."
As Homeland Security secretary since 2009, Napolitano presided over the deportation of 1.5 million undocumented immigrants. Student Regent Cinthia Flores was the only reason Napolitano didn't receive unanimous support during the July 18th UC Regents meeting. Flores stood by those protesting the appointment of Napolitano, many of them undocumented students, echoing their concerns that the record number of immigrants deported under Napolitano's leadership "produced insurmountable barriers to higher education."
For many undocumented women who identity as feminists, Ms. magazine's tweet was another sad reminder of how mainstream feminism—which is increasingly being perceived as "white feminism"—fails to recognize their struggle or link the rights of undocumented people to women's rights.
Photo: A student protest of Janet Napolitano (photo courtesy Ronnie Veliz).
Conversations about race are always uncomfortable, especially in the context of social justice movements. Making this even more difficult is the decades-long contentious relationship that mainstream feminism has had with women of color. The acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin has only brought more of this ugliness to light.
When Roots drummer Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson wrote the heart wrenching piece "Trayvon Martin and I Ain't Shit" for New York Magazine about his experiences as a Black man and the feelings the Zimmerman acquittal elicited, feminist writer Kim Foster wrote a response for online magazine Medium. Her piece "Why the Questlove Article Exposes Our Racism – and Our Sexism," explores the supposed sexism of Questlove's piece based on an anecdote he shares about a time he rode an elevator in his apartment building with a White woman he found to be attractive. Questlove never verbalizes his interest. Instead, he is aware that his presence as a big, Black man probably frightens the woman, so he pretends to be distracted by his smartphone and out of kindness, offers to key in her floor on the elevator system. The woman refuses his offer several times, forcing Questlove to realize that she saw him as a threat to her safety. Not because he was a man, but because he was a large, Black man who didn't look like the mostly white affluent types who populated the building.
Kjerstin Johnson addressed the problems with Foster's criticism last week on the Bitch Media blog, linking to a piece of writing by Ebony news and lifestyle editor Jamilah Lemieux that left many feminists of color cheering. In "I Guess You Really Ain't Sh*t, Questlove," Lemieux writes, "The sexist oppression of women is real and is important, but damn if we couldn't take a moment to acknowledged an issue that is outside of what White women experience … I felt Questlove's experiences and hurt were valid enough for us to stay there instead of playing 'Oppression Olympics.' But, alas, White privilege manages to take the gold every single time."
As Lemiux writes, there's a reason so many women of color are apprehensive to call themselves feminists:
"Kim Foster's piece is emblematic of the reason that many Black people roll their eyes at me when I say that I'm a feminist. Because to them, 'feminist' means 'a White woman who sees White women's problems as the most important problems of all the problems in the world and she'll use your plight and your movement as a stepping stone to put a spotlight on said problems.' Or something to that affect. This essay is, once again, a reminder how different the intersectional nature of Black feminism—the double-conciousness and need to understand the specific pain of our men—is from the 'I, me, my, mine' that many cis-gendred White feminists speak to when talking gender and race."
Clearly, these aren't the kind of problems that get solved overnight, but I'm wondering how many women of color have to abandon the feminist label before their concerns are heard. As a Latina feminist, every day I encounter another glaring example of how mainstream feminism has failed me and the women that I know and love. How can I identify as something that fails to represent women of color or show concern for issues that affect their lives? Personally, how can I remain a part of something that doesn't seem to care that members of certain communities can be ripped away from their families at any moment? A movement that fails to understand how undocumented communities are terrorized by immigration policies like Secure Communities or how the very existence of undocumented people is criminalized, making them easy targets for abuse and exploitation? The short answer: I can't.
I don't have the solution to this problem, but here's a good place to start: do not think you're doing anyone a favor by saying you do not "see" race, which means you are choosing not to see the oppression and racism of other women. Do not say, "We're all just human beings" or "all women face the same kind of oppression." It's simply not true. Understand that as white women, it's easy not to see or hear or understand the kind of oppression that affects women of color and undocumented women because rarely will it affect you and yours, which means you have to choose to see and hear and understand. It is not the job of undocumented women or women of color to help you understand or to make your feminism more inclusive; that is your job.
Most importantly: listen and learn to take a step back. Listen when women of color speak and do not use it as an opportunity to talk about your own oppression, which dismisses their experiences and invalidates what they are saying. Become a better ally by urging your favorite feminist websites or organizations to cover the issues that affect women outside of your immediate circle. Perhaps you can start by making calls or signing a petition for the release of the Dream 9. Share the petition on your social networks.
If nothing else, use the Dream 9 as a jumping off point to learn more about intersecting identities and how immigration is very much a feminist issue.
If you liked this piece, check out our related podcast episode on "Intersections."
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