Immigration Reform 2014: Latina Women Share Immigration Horror Stories on Capitol Hill, Ask Congress to Consider Families

Members of Congress united with activist leaders, DREAMers, immigrant mothers and families on Thursday in Washington, D.C. to discuss the challenges facing those with immigration issues and their families.

Their goal was to encourage legislators to focus on the impact today's immigration policies have on women and children, a group strongly involved in said policy but seldom heard.

During the hearing, some important, yet lesser-known facts regarding immigration were shared.According to Andrea Mercado, campaign director for the National Domestic

Workers Alliance and a member of its advocacy program We Belong Together — which focuses on women's needs in the immigration reform debate — women and children represent 75 percent of all immigrants to the United States. 

That trend started back with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, liberal-leaning think tank The Center for American Progress reports. The act emphasized "family-based admissions," encouraging more female emigration. A large portion of these female immigrants are Latina.

The Immigration Policy Center, a nonpartisan think tank, reported that in 2008, the single largest country of origin for incoming immigrant women was Mexico. In 2011, 51.1 percent of foreign-born people living in the U.S. and 55 percent of people obtaining green cards were women, according to the Center for American Progress. 

The problem is, however, that despite these numbers, immigration reform often forgets about women. Even worse, many of the women who enter this country are held captive by domestic violence out of fear of deportation. An example is Adriana Cazorla, who shared her story at Thursday's hearing. Her husband, who emigrated legally, brought her to into U.S. from Mexico illegally in 1995 under the threat of taking their two-year-old son.

"My husband used my immigration status to threaten me for over 12 years," Cazorla testified in Spanish. "... Between 1995 and 2007, my husband physically and psychologically abused me. ... I called 911, but when the police came, they didn't see any bruises or other evidence of abuse."

Cazorla's husband told her that if she went back to Mexico with their son, he would charge her with kidnapping. Eventually, her husband reported her to immigration, and she was detained for four months. A lawyer helped her retain residency under VAWA, and she has custody of her child, but Cazorla says her family "will always be scarred by those 12 years of abuse and fear of deportation."

"The issue of domestic violence hasn't been talked about, and Congress is scared of having this information get out ...," Cazorla told Latin Post after the hearing. "Today definitely made a lot of people more aware of the domestic violence people are suffering and that this is something that actually exists."

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 3 women in the U.S. experience domestic violence in their lifetime, but undocumented women are more at risk because they keep quiet to prevent family separation, another crisis affecting undocumented women. Mercado said that roughly 1,100 people are deported every day, and one in five of them are parents.

College student Maria Rubi Sanchez Gomez, 19, knows the devastating effects of family separation all too well.

Gomez came to the country in 2005 with her mother and brother to meet with her father, the provider of the now-Illinois-based family. In 2012, plain clothes officers approached their home. Not knowing they were U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, the family let them in "because we didn't have anything to hide," Gomez shared at the hearing.

"Later that day, my family went out for groceries, but as soon as we got on the road, four government cars surrounded us," Gomez said. "They took my dad, and we didn't hear from him for weeks. After being detained for a month in various detention centers, we heard from him for the first time. He had been deported and sent back to Mexico with no explanation. That was the worst year of my life."

Gomez was forced to get a job to provide for her family and was in jeopardy of not finishing her senior year of high school.

"[My mother] had to find a job, which was hard because a lot of people don't hire Latina women," Gomez told Latin Post.

Gomez was able to graduate with the help of counselors and teachers and received a DACA, but she says it's not enough,

"The immigration system now is really bad," she told Latin Post. "... People are looking at one side of the problem and not the entire problem. They're not seeing how families are suffering, and they're not really listing to our stories. They're just there —looking at one side."

Gomez will continue to work with Congress in Springfield, Illinois when she gets home to invoke more change.

In industries where there are large concentrations of immigrant women workers, including domestic and farm labor, women workers are told that they must endure unsafe working conditions, violence, sexual harassment and theft of wages, or they will be reported to immigration, Mercado explained to Congress.

Despite high immigration rates, women only receive 25 percent of all employment visas, but the need for caretakers is expected to increase 48 percent in the next 10 years, according to Mercado.

Meanwhile, families hoping to become documented face a roughly 4 million people-long waitlist. Mercado described the family visa system as "barely functional." To illustrate her point, she pointed to a woman going only by the name Manok, a 76-year-old naturalized citizen who says that her daughter will not get a visa until she is 90.

"We heard a lot today about the psychological impact of having the threat of deportation hang above your head," Mercado told Latin Post. ".... Ruby's story, for example, was incredibly moving.  As a country we value family, families are important to us, and yet we have these immigration policies that go against the issue of family and our nation."

Mercado wants the U.S.'s policies to "honor the importance" of the family-based immigration system and "eliminate the family visa backlog."

"I think oftentimes people don't see immigrants as parents," she explained to Latin Post. "They don't realize how many immigrants are parents or understand how many families there are ... That's why it's so important that we look at immigration reform from a family perspective. It really helps us cut through the political debate."

"Both of my parents emigrated from this country before I was born, and the experiences of my parents and my grandparents, who also emigrated to this country, have shaped who I am," Mercado told Latin Post. "I've seen how hard they work and everything they've done for our country, and we need an immigration system that honors the contributions that immigrants make to our country."

At the meeting, Rep Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), Rep Keith Ellison (D-MN), Rep Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), Rep Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Rep Mark Pocan (D-WI), Rep Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Rep Judy Chu  D-CA) introduced the hearing's speakers as a sign of their stand on the issue.

Gomez said Congress members gave her the best reception she ever had. In addition, representatives planned on working toward increasing the educational opportunities afforded to female immigrants so they can learn where to get the assistance they need..

Cazorla is working with a volunteer group and her local police department to "diffuse the information," she said.

"Congressmen who attended were incredibly moved by the personal testimonies, and they expressed it having been an eye opening experience for them," Mercado said after the hearing. "No one with a beating heart can not be moved by the testimony's that were shared today and ... have the power to move big solutions forward."

Meanwhile, the Latino community is encouraged to help by stepping up and sharing their stories.

"[They should] just try to help with their faces, and we are encouraging them tocome out the shadows and get involved with the congressional campaign," Gomez told Latin Post. "Many undocumented people are scared to come out, and that's one of the things we can work on."

Proposed immigration policy changes suggested at the hearing included expanding protection for asylum seekers and trafficking survivors, as well as increasing U-visas for domestic violence victims.

Mercado also suggests providing full access to health care and other services for these victims and changing the POWER Act--a proposal that would give undocumented workers better labor rights and working conditions without fear of being threatened with deportation by their bosses--in order to prevent women from "unscrupulous employers."

"It is an opportunity to create a roadmap to citizenship for over 11 million people," Mercado said.

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