Justice at our border: Addressing the barriers faced by undocumented women

By: Montserrat Castro Gómez, Policy and Advocacy Fellow

Last Tuesday, January 18th, at 7pm EST, the National Organization for Women (NOW) hosted a panel titled Justice at our border: Addressing the barriers faced by undocumented women. This panel was the second in a series of an ongoing campaign launched by NOW in 2019, “Unlock the Future,” in response to Trump’s immigration policies.

The panel consisted of four policy makers advocating for immigration rights, including Esperanza United’s Public Policy Manager, Yasmin Campos-Mendez. Additionally, Representatives Zoe Lofgren — established champion for immigration reform and a leader in policy — and Pramila Jayapal — first Southasian American woman elected in the House and one of two dozen naturalized citizens in Congress — were Keynote speakers at the event.

The conversation focused on immigration reform as a feminist issue, relevant due to the fact that women and girls make up half of the immigrant population. Immigrant women also make up to fifteen percent of all working women that contribute to the United States economy in areas such as agriculture, healthcare, education and manufacturing. According to the Center for American Progress (CAP), three in four undocumented immigrants are in positions of essential workers, 1.6 million of which are undocumented women.

Moderator of the panel and President of NOW, Christian F. Nunes, introduced the panelists and topic by reminding the audience that “sexual and domestic abuse does not discriminate, as we know, based on your citizenship, and ensuring safety and justice for all survivors including immigrants is a pressing feminist issue. We must find a citizenship pathway for women and their families. We must understand the unique barriers they face.” 

One of these barriers is the stereotypes and myths of undocumented immigrants in the United States. Esperanza United’s Yasmin Campos-Mendez spoke about this issue, addressing the ways in which we can debunk the misconceptions and misinformation about immigration. One of the most common myths, for example, is that immigrant workers take jobs from U.S.-born workers, and that they take more from the government than they actually contribute. As Yasmin reminded us, this is a misconception that has been debunked through many years of economic research — we know that immigrant workers take jobs that boost the United States’ infrastructure, and that they largely complement, not compete with, U.S-born workers.

Especially in the midst of a pandemic-induced downturn, and in order to debunk these myths, it’s important that we share information and have conversations about these topics within our communities and networks. By doing this, we take care of the communities that are the most vulnerable to misinformation — undocumented immigrants, especially women and children. “We change the narrative by becoming informed that protecting refugees and providing asylum is embedded in our laws as an expression of our commitment to welcome those who come to the U.S to seek safety,” said Yasmin.

She also connected the vulnerability of immigrant women and children to bettering and increasing the presence of trauma-informed practices. She mentioned that since 2011, the U.S. has seen a dramatic increase in the arrival of Latina immigrant women and their children, primarily from the countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. These women are often fleeing domestic violence, sexual assault, trafficking, and the highest rates of feminicide in the world. Often, they are detained at the U.S.-Mexico border, a period of time that has been proven to increase vulnerability, re-traumatization, suicide rates, and the need for mental health services. Yasmin conveyed that these results, in combination with the lack of trauma-informed practices in these centers, has become a subject of growing concern for activists and allies. 

NOW’s four panelists and their conversation reinforced the idea that the immigration system — as well as the popularly upheld belief system surrounding immigration — still has a long way to go in order to protect all survivors. It’s important for organizations, advocates, and policy-makers that seek immigrant protections to observe well-informed policy recommendations and practice priorities that promote trauma-informed approaches. “We must meet survivors where they are at,” said Yasmin. 

Our approach at Esperanza United centers around acknowledging that each survivor knows what is best for them and their family. We believe in the strengths and the power of communities, and we recognize the responsibility that we have to work together in addressing gender-based violence.

An important part of our collaborative work happens through our immigration subcommittee, the Alliance for Immigrant Survivors (AIS). AIS is a national network of advocates dedicated to defending and ensuring immigrant survivor’s needs are met through the advancement of public policies. In 2021, we prioritized 5 key asks for Congress and the Biden Administration to protect immigrant survivors of domestic violence. Please continue to support the important work done by organizations, activists, advocates, and allies.