‘More Women Than We Thought’ on Front Lines of Immigration Protest

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This post first appeared in New American Media.

In this Aug. 16, 2013 photo, Leah Alvarez joins an immigration reform protest in Miami. Immigration activists are trying to engage US citizens in the immigration reform debate to obtain their support with visits to homes and small business. They are looking to mobilize the community to ask leadership from Republican congressmen at the House of Representatives to approve immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship. (Photo by J Pat Carter/AP)

On Thursday, Aug. 1, I joined nearly 50 labor leaders, immigrant advocates, environmental activists, people of faith and DREAMers from the “We Belong Together” pro-immigration movement to push for fair immigration policies for women and children. This was our small, but very significant March on Washington.

To stand up for our beliefs, we blocked the street in front of the Capitol while 300 allies and four members of Congress witnessed and cheered us on. We were each arrested, but it was a proud moment for us and for the deep-rooted American tradition of civil disobedience.

With our peaceful action, we sent a clear message to House Republicans to give us a vote on comprehensive immigration reform and on a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants, many of whom are women, who have to live in the shadows because of unfair and biased laws.

“There are more women than we thought,” said the sergeant in charge of the two-dozen Capitol Police officers sent out to arrest us. It wasn’t until we heard these words that we paused, looked around and realized that almost the entire first line behind our “Keep Families Together—Immigration Reform Now” banner were women leaders.

This was not by accident. Three-quarters of immigrants to the US today are women and children. And, women all across the country realize that fair immigration policies are central to women’s equality.

Before we were handcuffed and driven away, I took a moment to take in the number of amazing women I was surrounded by—HeeJoo Yoon from NAKASEC and Sarita Gupta from Jobs with Justice, my fellow AAPI immigration movement builders; Midwest Training Academy’s Heather Booth; Marielena Hincapie from the National Immigration Law Center; women leaders from Arizona, California, North Carolina, Tennessee and so many other places. For HeeJoo, Sarita and me, we were proud, fierce AAPI women in action for the cause of immigration reform and to rally against the unjust detentions and deportations of immigrant women.

For most of us this protest lead to our first arrest. However, unlike some of my immigrant sisters who spend months and sometimes years incarcerated in detention facilities, I knew that at some point that evening, the next day or the next week, I would be able to kiss and hug my daughters and close loved ones again. But millions of immigrant mothers experience the terrifying reality that once handcuffed, they may never get the chance to see or hug their child once more.

More than 1,000 people — many of them women — are deported every day from the United States. For every woman I’ve met through “We Belong Together,” she knew that once the cuffs go on she will be locked up in detention facilities far away from home, then deported with no idea of when or if she may hold her child again. These women are the real heroes. I got arrested for them.

In a nation built by immigrants, our fight to ensure passage of just and comprehensive immigration policy reform to keep building a unified country, not a divided one, must continue. As Americans, we celebrate our unique commitment to protecting families, and giving equal opportunities to women and girls, but we sometimes forget that many in our immigrant population are women and children who also need protection.

While our current immigration policies tear mothers from their children, we have to continue to be resilient and reflect the urgency to keep our families together, eliminate discrimination against immigrant women and fight for a roadmap to citizenship.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, we recognize that the fight for suffrage, racial justice and economic equity is far from over. We have to remember what it has taken and what it will take to achieve fairness and equality, as heroically displayed by the 1963 March on Washington. And, we must honor the sacrifices made by those who came before us and redouble our commitment to Dr. King’s dream that one day all of us will be able to proclaim that we are “free at last.”

Miriam Yeung is the executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum.
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