Feminists and Immigrants

Why don’t many women’s rights advocates see attacks on immigrants as part of their struggle?

Jude Ellison Sady Doyle

Immigrants sit in their housing cell in the women's wing of the detention facility for illegal immigrants in July 2010, in Eloy, Ariz. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Feminists have a bad habit of speaking to the opposition in their own terms. Take, for example, the War on Women.” This grand conflict, which I’ve written plenty about, has focused on some fairly longstanding conflicts. The right to terminate a pregnancy; the right not to get pregnant in the first place; the right to avoid being publicly called a slut” merely because one is not currently pregnant; the right of all human beings to live in a world where Rush Limbaugh will just shut his face. Etcetera. 

The "War on Women" is largely a war on reproductive choice. But we must note there are some women who are cut out of the picture by traditional feminist frames.

In response to predictable attacks, we feminists have mounted predictable defenses. Of course, the War on Women” is largely a war on reproductive choice. So we respond from where we’re been hit hardest: We fight for the right to get abortions, and to get them safely, quickly and without invasive and unnecessary procedures tacked on to them. We fight for contraception. We stand up for Planned Parenthood. But we must note there are some women who are cut out of the picture by our traditional feminist frames. 

As Mallika Dutt of Breakthrough has written of her work with the We Belong Together” coalition in Alabama, the war on immigrants’ is not a parallel crisis – it is a direct affront to women’s fundamental human rights.”

Take, for example, the fight on Capitol Hill over approving an expanded version of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which I wrote about last week. Plenty of people, not all of them Republican senators, have called Democrats’ proposal to include protections for immigrants and GLBTQ people a cynical move, meant to pressure Republicans to extend support to populations whose rights they normally attack so they will be forced to reject it. 

This, I admit, was my own first response. But the plausibility of the claim is more alarming the more one considers it. Plenty of us simply found it more probable that Democrats would advocate for immigrant or GLBTQ survivors in order to provoke Republicans than that they would act in good faith to protect those people. This clearly reveals where the lines in the War on Women” have been drawn. 

Lots of Americans feel directly connected to the women’s rights issues that are happening,” says Ai-Jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance (NDWA). We have a lot of work to do to make them understand that they are also directly connected to the immigration rights issues that are happening.” 

The We Belong Together campaign, an initiative of the NDWA and the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, was created specifically to stress the connection between the rights of immigrants and women. Poo says that women and children are natural allies” in the fight for just immigration laws. I think she’s correct. There are battered immigrant women who don’t feel safe seeking help from domestic violence shelters; there’s the fact that immigrants have been forced to give birth while shackled. This last tragedy seems a fairly clear-cut reproductive health concern. 

But many issues that affect undocumented immigrants have to do with the right to motherhood, not the right to delay or refuse it: The right to get adequate healthcare for one’s children, and to stay with them rather than being deported. As women of color have long pointed out*, these concerns are unaddressed in a War on Women” where the defense focuses largely on birth control or abortion. 

The hypocrisy around conservative efforts to push childbirth on anyone with a uterus is nowhere more apparent than in debates around immigration. Conservatives fulminate against the child-destroying, pregnancy-avoiding ways of feminists, while also decrying the dangerous fertility of illegal mothers” and their anchor babies.” As Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas, executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health has written, “[the] fertilized eggs of immigrants are a national threat but the fertilized eggs of other women are a precious national resource that deserve protection’ even from their own mothers.” 

In other words, some fetuses in this country are valued more highly than others – as are some children. We pro-choicers regularly fulminate against the hypocrisy of anti-choicers who don’t care for children once they’re out of the womb. But We Belong Together demonstrates it, with a story from a woman named Tere, who spoke at its recent delegation to Alabama. She moved to the United States because her son had a potentially fatal heart condition that couldn’t be treated in Mexico. The passage of Alabama’s HB56 law, which authorizes law enforcement officials to check the immigration status of anyone they suspect is undocumented, has made her unwilling to take him to the hospital for check-ups. 

If this dichotomy shows nothing else, it shows this: The assault on reproductive rights is about more than reverence for children or motherhood. It is about punishing those of us who are capable of getting pregnant; about turning our bodies into an inescapable risk, and cowing us into living constrained and fearful lives as a result. Whether one is afraid of having sex, walking alone at night, visiting the hospital or being separated from one’s family, fear is fear. If it’s aimed at women, it’s part of the war. 

*Many people have been talking about this far longer, and with far greater depth, than I have here. Aside from speaking with Ai-Jen Poo and with Dutt, my understanding of reproductive justice has been substantially formed by Eesha Pandit of the Crunk Feminist Collective and Feministing, and Andrea Plaid of Racialicious. I’m also lucky enough to blog with Flavia Dzodan at Tiger Beatdown, whose tremendous work on women and immigration has done much to keep this issue in my eye and on my mind. I say all this both because it would be wrong for a white American-born woman not to credit the people from whom she’s learned.

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Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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