We are a diverse group of women leaders from around the country. We are activists, journalists, scholars, and advocates who work on behalf of women, workers, immigrants, children, survivors of violence, and lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender individuals. We have come to Georgia as part of the We Belong Together Delegation for Immigrant Rights in order to bear witness to the experiences of women and children in the aftermath of the passage of HB 87.
This law is part of a string of concerted efforts by state and federal officials to criminalize, detain, and deport undocumented immigrants. Based on what we have heard, these federal and state policies are tearing families apart and spreading fear in communities of color. Signed into law in May of this year, HB 87 gives local police officers authority to question and arrest people for perceived immigration violations. It is now a crime to live or work in this state without documentation.
We spoke to women who have been directly affected by this law. The testimonies we heard clearly demonstrate a need for all women to be unified against any violation of our human rights and dignity.
Claudia came to the US from Honduras in 2006, only to find herself in an abusive, violent relationship. Her husband used the threat of deportation to control her. She said, “I was too scared to call the police. Will they arrest me or the person harassing me?” Her worst fears became reality when law enforcement officials arrested and deported her, separating her from her son. Claudia’s story highlights the well-founded fear and distrust among immigrant women that law enforcement will not protect them from their abusers. Laws like HB 87 deter women from calling law enforcement because the risk of deportation is so great. It victimizes women twice: at the hands of their abuser and that of the police. Yet, Claudia’s sole wish? “Only thing I want is to live in peace with my son.”
Women told us they are so afraid of encountering law enforcement that they have essentially become prisoners in their own homes. Lourdes, the mother of four children, explained how people are terrified of even going to the grocery store. She also testified that these laws make it more difficult to access health care or other essential services for their children, many of whom are US citizens. When she tried to get health insurance for her US born child, it was denied. In her words, “I pray that my family doesn’t get sick.”
The law has also made it a crime for service providers and religious leaders to assist undocumented immigrants. Aparna, director of a women’s shelter in Atlanta, told of domestic violence shelters turning women away for fear of being prosecuted. This means that women like Claudia have no options for escaping violence and women like Lourdes can only pray that their children do not fall ill.
Racial profiling is an immediate and real consequence of this law. Police have put checkpoints on the roads, in front of schools and churches. For women like Alicia, whose daughter suffers from a serious medical condition, a drive to the hospital is an endless journey of fear. Her fear is real; she has been stopped and detained several times because she was told she “looked suspicious,” including once when driving her one year-old daughter to the doctor with a high fever and pneumonia. “I feel threatened when I have to take my daughter to the hospital or to school.”
The trauma experienced by children in immigrant families is equally distressing. We learned of Melanie, an 8 year old citizen born to undocumented parents, a star student and Girl Scout. When her parents told her that HB 87 might force them to move back to Mexico, Melanie wrote a letter to Governor Deal asking him to block the law. She wrote, “I want to tell you something special, to not sign the law, because I don’t want to leave my school and this country.” Melanie’s story is only one of many US citizen children living in terror that their parents may be deported at any time and that they may be forced to leave the only country they have ever known.
Despite the heartbreaking stories that we have heard, we were moved by the strength and courage demonstrated by the women who testified. Gina, an undocumented college student, who was brought to this country at the age of 2, exemplifies this courage. She overcame numerous obstacles to pursue her dream of a college education. Now HB 87 and other anti-immigration laws are making it harder and harder for her to make this a reality. When the DREAM Act failed to pass in 2007, “it was a wake-up call.” She became an immigrant rights activist because she realized, “it was time for us to stand up for ourselves.”
As women, mothers, and Americans, we are outraged by anti-immigrant policies like HB 87. They violate fundamental human rights and shake the foundations of our communities and families. But we were also deeply touched and inspired by the courage we have witnessed. There is a long history of organizing for immigrant rights in Georgia and the law has galvanized people encouraging them to stand up for themselves.
We commit to carry these voices and stories to our own communities, to policy-makers in our nation’s capitol and across the country. We commit to raise awareness about the harsh realities of the barriers that individuals face simply trying to provide for their families and offer their children a better future. We call on women everywhere to take the time to listen to these stories and to urge our nation’s leaders to end these inhumane policies that are tearing families apart. What is harmful to one is harmful to all. We pledge to stand alongside these women and state, “You are not alone. We Belong Together!”