2012-10-03 08:00:00

My Safety or My Family -- Immigrant Women Seek Voice in Debate

Imagine having to make a choice between your personal safety, or keeping your family together. Too many immigrant women, forced into the shadows of society, have had to make that choice. I have had to make that choice.

I endured abuse by my partner, while worrying constantly about my then three-year-old son. But, because of my immigration status, I feared what would happen if I contacted the authorities. When I finally did make the decision to call, my fears turned out to be all too real.

Instead of helping us get away from my abusive partner, police arrested me. I spent five days in jail, separated from my son, before authorities moved me to immigration custody and began deportation proceedings. Thankfully, by connecting with the nonprofit Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA), I secured a U visa. Provided for under the Violence Against Women Act, the visas encourage immigrant victims of violence to come forward by offering them temporary legal status.

But I know other women like me who are not so lucky.

With the first of three presidential debates set to begin, I can’t help but think of them, and how neither candidate has said much about what he would do to help resolve their situation. True, President Obama came to the aid of more than a million young immigrants with his new deferred action for childhood arrivals (DACA) policy, but that will not help the mothers who raised them.

I’ll be listening closely to the debates to see if President Obama and Governor Romney offer any solutions for the millions of immigrant women living in the United States in fear of their partners and of the authorities meant to protect them. Their records so far are less than encouraging.

Despite his vows to create a roadmap to citizenship, President Obama has deported a record number of immigrants – separating mothers from their children — for minor infractions such as not wearing a seatbelt. Governor Romney has refused to condemn SB 1070, Arizona’s inhumane anti-immigrant law. And though journalists have pushed both candidates for details on what they would change about American immigration policy, the voice of immigrants like me – the women whose families and daily lives are most deeply affected – are left out.

That’s why today, I am a committed activist with MUA, working to change U.S. immigration policy so that other women in my situation receive protection, not jail time. Protection from violent abusers — and from the scariest threat of all: being deported, and separated from our children, possibly forever.

As part of this effort, MUA has partnered with the global human rights organization Breakthrough, and its new #ImHere campaign, to premiere a new short film designed to bring immigrant women to the forefront of the conversation this election season. Entitled “The Call,” the film’s plot revolves around a mother who must choose between protecting her daughter and facing deportation. The film is based on a true story, a story not unlike my own and the millions of others that tragically play out each day in this country.

Since President Obama and Governor Romney have remained all but silent on the issue of immigrant women, I’m hopeful the #ImHere campaign will help us be seen and heard — and will show just how many Americans of all stripes support commonsense immigration policy that recognizes our human rights.

This is a critical time for immigrant women. The Violence Against Women Act, the very legislation that helped me, is now under attack – with some legislators working to push back protections for immigrant women. Harsh anti-immigrant policies, such as the Secure Communities Act under which I was nearly deported, and state-level legislation like Arizona’s SB 1070 and Georgia’s HB 87, legitimize racism and racial profiling, scapegoat immigrants, and even force pregnant women to give birth in shackles.

I’m a happy ending. My son and I are safe. I have work as a janitor. But too many other women, women who work hard and deserve to be safe, still live in fear. Immigrant women need campaigns like #ImHere to let our leaders and lawmakers know that we are here, we have human rights, and we have supporters and allies everywhere. No woman who fears being abused — or who is trying to protect a loved one — should be even more afraid to call for help.

Norma Ortiz is a former undocumented immigrant and is now an activist with Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA).

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