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Voices of Immigrant Women Breaking the Shackles

Posted: May 10, 2012

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Juana Villegas was arresed for a minor traffic violation when she was eight months and three weeks pregnant. The police told her she had seconds to say goodbye to her kids. They took her in shackles from prison to the hospital where she gave birth handcuffed to the bed. Afterwards, no one would tell her where her baby was.

Juana was reunited with her baby two days after giving birth and was eventually able to get a U Visa. But the trauma of being shackled and separated from her baby stays with her.

Juana was arrested in Nashville, Tenn., under the 287(g) program, a cooperative agreement between local police and federal immigration authorities. That’s why she didn’t think twice when she was asked to tell her story on May 3, at a meeting in Knoxville, where the local sheriff wants to implement 287(g).

At the meeting, in front of 80 people from Knoxville, as well as teleconference participants from 22 states, Juana took a deep breath and shared the torment she had been forced to experience, a painful memory she wanted to forget but couldn’t put out of her mind.

Juana said she knows her voice can represent others like her experiencing the travestiesthat immigrants in the South are subjected to through immigration policies, such as 287(g).

“I wouldn’t wish what happened to me on anyone,” said Villegas.

Nine Women’s Stories

As Juana told her story, in tears and with a shakey voice, a dark mood filled the room. Astonishment, shame, anger and sadness could be seen on the faces of those who listened, as if foreshadowing a total rejection of 287g in Knoxville.

Villegas was one of nine immigrant women from across Tennessee who shared their stories.

Sara, Rosie, Dania, Alyasa, Kay, Cristina, Cynthia and Gloria told of losing their children in hospitals when they were falsely accused of child abuse. They described how U.S.-born girls, the daughters of immigrants, are losing their mothers and fathers through deportations. They described being separated from their husbands, their parents and their kids. They described how they face sexual harassment and assault at work, while local police won’t take action to protect them. They described what it’s like to be victims of domestic violence.

For the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC), which cosponsored the Knoxville event, it wasn’t hard to find women who were victims of human rights violations in the state.

In fact, there are so many cases willing to participate, there wasn’t enough time for all of them to talk.

Immigrant women must cope with camouflaged racism carried out by government officials at local, state and federal levels.

On May 1, the Tennessee legislature passed the Eligibility Verification for Entitlements Act (HB 1379), which bars undocumented immigrants from accessing public benefits, such as health care (except in emergencies). It’s the latest in a trio of harsh laws passed or pending on law enforcement, employment and acces to benefits.

Last year, Tennessee lawmakers debated whether to deny United States citizenship to the U.S.-born children of immigrants. Although the bill, probably uncostitutional, was rejected by legislators to the consternation of some, the message was clear: “We don’t want more Latinos. There are already a lot of them, and if we continue this way, they will be the majority in a few years. The United States should continue to be a country for whites.”

The Power of Language

Another way of attacking immigrant women and gaining support for bills that criminalize immigration and promote segregation is through language—a prime weapon used in demostrating power.

For example, in 2010, Tennessee State Senator Curry Todd stated during an Assembly session that immigrant women use access to health care to “go out there like rats and multiply.”

Todd never apologized; he said a few days later, “I think I should have used the term ‘anchor baby,’” as if the term weren’t was equally insulting.

Anti-immigrant polticians and groups have used the expression “anchor baby” to persuade voters that they only have children to stay in the United States and get benefits.

This expression draws a line between the motherhood of American women and that of immigrants, creating an imaginary and degrading difference between the two.

As sad as it is to hear the term, it is even worse to read it in Hispanic newspapers, which use the expression mindlessly, thus perpetuating a message that goes against immigrant women and their children.

The frequent appearance of the expression “anchor baby,” in the press, public policy and political rhetoric, calls every Latina mother’s morals and dreams into question. The aim is to convince people to accept and sympathize with laws and violations of the rights of women immigrants and their children who, after all, are only a bunch of “illegal aliens.”

Events like the meeting in Knoxville publicly recover the value of the immigrant woman, dignify and honor her by raising awareness among those who hear her story.

And her story—in many cutures and languages across the nation—was also being heard in Tennesee on May 3. Among those at the Knoxville meeting was a “virtual” online delegation from the group, We Belong Together, a national initiative of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum.

We Belong Together is exploring immigration from a gender perspective -- not just academically, but as a way to advance the rights of immigrants in the United States.

By getting immigrant women to tell their stories to as many people as possible, the project is showing how the current immigration policies affect the lives of women and their families. Activities similar to the Tennessee meeting have been held in Arizona, Alabama and Georgia, all with the participation of We Belong Together. Hopefully, many more of these events will spread the power of her story, her humanity, across the country.

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