Immigration is a Feminist Issue—We Need to Treat it That Way

Eight immigrant youths stand in front of a highway sign that reads "frontera"

Photo: Eight of the Dream 9 activists (photo courtesy the National Immigrant Youth Alliance).

“What woman here is so enamored of her own oppression that she cannot see her heel print upon another woman’s face?”

– Audre Lorde

As I write this, two undocumented activists have spent 104 out of the last 108 hours in total isolation. Twenty-four-year-old Lulu Martinez and 22-year-old Maria Peniche are in solitary confinement at Arizona’s Eloy Detention Center. It has been reported that Peniche is currently on suicide watch.

Martinez and Peniche are being punished in one of the country’s most notorious private detention centers for “inciting a demonstration.” As organizers with The National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA), a radical youth-led organization working to ensure justice for undocumented people living in the United States, Martinez and Peniche have organized within the walls of Eloy, inspiring 70 female detainees to participate in a hunger strike to protest the conditions at the detention center, which imprisons people (sometimes for years) as their immigration cases are pending. Last week, according to a report from writer Aura Bogado, they pair jumped up in the dining hall and urged everyone to call a free legal hotline to fight deportation. They yelled out, “Undocumented! Unafraid!” in Spanish. In a recorded phone call, one of these women, Thesla Zenaida, explained the realities they face in detention:

“Look, a girl hanged herself. A girl was hanged here. [After] she was hanged, they didn’t want to take her body down. And for the same reason—because they treat us poorly. A guard treated her poorly, and that guard is still working here. They [treat] us like the worst dogs.”

Martinez and Peniche are members of the Dream 9, a group of nine activists and Mexican nationals who—as part of NIYA’s Bring Them Home campaign—essentially self-deported to Mexico and then marched through the streets of Nogales on Monday, July 22 to present themselves at the US/Mexico border, openly defying US immigration policy on a live, global webcast. The group demanded to be let back into the country they call home and were detained almost immediately. They have been sitting in detention ever since. The action has illuminated how our broken immigration system separates families on both sides of the border: those who enter the US unlawfully can never return to Mexico to visit family and loved ones. If deported, they are separated from the families they’ve started in the US, unable to reunite in even the most dire circumstances.   

It’s easy to ignore these issues, but every feminist should care about the way our country treats undocumented immigrants.

Here are just some of the reasons why:  Immigration policies leave women (often mothers) sitting in detention for months—if not years—effectively ripping them from their children. The ACLU, the Women’s Refugee Commission, and other advocacy organizations have found that because of lax oversight at some detention facilities, detained women are being sexually accosted and raped by officers on their way to being deported. Detention centers lack uniform sexual abuse prevention policies and are actually ripe for abuse, as illustrated by the routine segregation of children from their parents or guardians during arrests. It’s worth noting that people held in these detention centers are overwhelmingly not dangerous—they’ve been picked up for petty crimes, such as driving without a license, and are subsequently charged with the civil crime of violating immigration laws. More often than not, this is why they are placed behind bars.

Despite all of this—and six of the nine members of the Dream 9 being women—feminist publications and sites have not written much about the group. Feministing posted about the group last Friday and writer Kemi Bello at Autostraddle told the story of Martinez, the UndocuQueer (undocumented and queer) activist currently sitting in solitary confinement at Eloy. If she’s able to avoid deportation by obtaining humanitarian parole, Martinez will continue her education at the University of Illinois at Chicago where she is majoring in gender and women’s studies.

Why doesn’t feminist media treat immigration as an obvious feminist issue? Why doesn’t mainstream feminism seem to give a damn about undocumented women? Why aren’t more feminist organizations coming out in support of the Dream 9? As a comprehensive immigration reform bill is being butchered by Congress, accomplishing little more than further militarizing the border, and the Dream 9, largely lead by women, continue making national headlines after participating in the most radical, risky act of civil disobedience in the history of the undocumented student movement, there is literally no excuse for the silence on behalf of feminist media.

Part of the problem is that mainstream feminism fails at being inclusive of women of color and of understanding intersecting identities.

A harsh reminder of this came just a few weeks before the Dream 9 women participated in a revolution feminism failed to televise. In response to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano becoming the first woman appointed to lead the University of California system, Ms. magazine tweeted, “Finally, some positive women’s news today: Janet Napolitano named to be first woman prez of U. of Calif.”

Except it wasn’t positive news, especially not for the estimated 20,000 undocumented college students currently benefiting from the California Dream Act. The self-identified black womanist who runs the blog Sistrenista and operates the Twitter handle ShauneeV hit the nail on the head when responding to Ms. Magazine’s tweet, saying, “Doesn’t matter what her politics are, as long as she’s a woman, huh?” This was echoed by queer immigrant rights activist Ronnie Veliz, who along with ShauneeV were among the first to respond to the tweet. Veliz wrote, “Even my mom knows Napolitano has no experience in higher education, only in family separation.”

As Homeland Security secretary since 2009, Napolitano presided over the deportation of 1.5 million undocumented immigrants. Student Regent Cinthia Flores was the only reason Napolitano didn’t receive unanimous support during the July 18th UC Regents meeting. Flores stood by those protesting the appointment of Napolitano, many of them undocumented students, echoing their concerns that the record number of immigrants deported under Napolitano’s leadership “produced insurmountable barriers to higher education.”

For many undocumented women who identity as feminists, Ms. magazine’s tweet was another sad reminder of how mainstream feminism—which is increasingly being perceived as “white feminism”—fails to recognize their struggle or link the rights of undocumented people to women’s rights.

students protesting janet napolitano

Photo: A student protest of Janet Napolitano (photo courtesy Ronnie Veliz).

Conversations about race are always uncomfortable, especially in the context of social justice movements. Making this even more difficult is the decades-long contentious relationship that mainstream feminism has had with women of color. The acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin has only brought more of this ugliness to light.

When Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson wrote the heart wrenching piece “Trayvon Martin and I Ain’t Shit” for New York Magazine about his experiences as a Black man and the feelings the Zimmerman acquittal elicited, feminist writer Kim Foster wrote a response for online magazine Medium. Her piece “Why the Questlove Article Exposes Our Racism – and Our Sexism,” explores the supposed sexism of Questlove’s piece based on an anecdote he shares about a time he rode an elevator in his apartment building with a White woman he found to be attractive. Questlove never verbalizes his interest. Instead, he is aware that his presence as a big, Black man probably frightens the woman, so he pretends to be distracted by his smartphone and out of kindness, offers to key in her floor on the elevator system. The woman refuses his offer several times, forcing Questlove to realize that she saw him as a threat to her safety. Not because he was a man, but because he was a large, Black man who didn’t look like the mostly white affluent types who populated the building.

Kjerstin Johnson addressed the problems with Foster’s criticism last week on the Bitch Media blog, linking to a piece of writing by Ebony news and lifestyle editor Jamilah Lemieux that left many feminists of color cheering. In “I Guess You Really Ain’t Sh*t, Questlove,” Lemieux writes, “The sexist oppression of women is real and is important, but damn if we couldn’t take a moment to acknowledged an issue that is outside of what White women experience … I felt Questlove’s experiences and hurt were valid enough for us to stay there instead of playing ‘Oppression Olympics.’ But, alas, White privilege manages to take the gold every single time.”

As Lemiux writes, there’s a reason so many women of color are apprehensive to call themselves feminists:

“Kim Foster’s piece is emblematic of the reason that many Black people roll their eyes at me when I say that I’m a feminist. Because to them, ‘feminist’ means ‘a White woman who sees White women’s problems as the most important problems of all the problems in the world and she’ll use your plight and your movement as a stepping stone to put a spotlight on said problems.’ Or something to that affect. This essay is, once again, a reminder how different the intersectional nature of Black feminism—the double-conciousness and need to understand the specific pain of our men—is from the ‘I, me, my, mine’ that many cis-gendred White feminists speak to when talking gender and race.”

Clearly, these aren’t the kind of problems that get solved overnight, but I’m wondering how many women of color have to abandon the feminist label before their concerns are heard. As a Latina feminist, every day I encounter another glaring example of how mainstream feminism has failed me and the women that I know and love. How can I identify as something that fails to represent women of color or show concern for issues that affect their lives? Personally, how can I remain a part of something that doesn’t seem to care that members of certain communities can be ripped away from their families at any moment? A movement that fails to understand how undocumented communities are terrorized by immigration policies like Secure Communities or how the very existence of undocumented people is criminalized, making them easy targets for abuse and exploitation? The short answer: I can’t. 

I don’t have the solution to this problem, but here’s a good place to start: do not think you’re doing anyone a favor by saying you do not “see” race, which means you are choosing not to see the oppression and racism of other women. Do not say, “We’re all just human beings” or “all women face the same kind of oppression.” It’s simply not true. Understand that as white women, it’s easy not to see or hear or understand the kind of oppression that affects women of color and undocumented women because rarely will it affect you and yours, which means you have to choose to see and hear and understand. It is not the job of undocumented women or women of color to help you understand or to make your feminism more inclusive; that is your job.

Most importantly: listen and learn to take a step back. Listen when women of color speak and do not use it as an opportunity to talk about your own oppression, which dismisses their experiences and invalidates what they are saying. Become a better ally by urging your favorite feminist websites or organizations to cover the issues that affect women outside of your immediate circle. Perhaps you can start by making calls or signing a petition for the release of the Dream 9. Share the petition on your social networks.

If nothing else, use the Dream 9 as a jumping off point to learn more about intersecting identities and how immigration is very much a feminist issue.

If you liked this piece, check out our related podcast episode on “Intersections.”

by Tina Vasquez
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Tina Vasquez is a writer and editor from the Los Angeles area. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.

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10 Comments Have Been Posted

As a white guy...

... I really appreciate articles like this, being on a totally different end of the spectrum it's easy to forget this stuff until someone writes something like this. This type of perspective and criticism is very important to hear and receive and it certainly doesn't get said often enough.

I feel like one of the biggest challenges white "liberals" such as myself face (male and female alike) is trying to identify with the struggles of p.o.c. and somehow equate them to our own struggles (be they socioeconomic or whatever).

This is a great reminder to step back, listen up and work on the problems we don't always recognize.

Thank you.

I loved Bitch magazine! I use

I loved Bitch magazine! I use to wait patiently for my subscription to arrive and then one day it hit me that Bitch like Ms. did not cover issues that are important to me as queer woman of color! However this piece by Tina restores my hope for Bitch in that it will become a magazine that will look beyond whiteness! Sign the petition, write to Dream 9! Lets bring them home!!! Ya Basta!

Thank you

<b><i>"It is not the job of undocumented women or women of color to help you understand or to make your feminism more inclusive; that is your job."</i></b>

I'd like to think that you aren't going to get messaged by people telling you that you are wrong on this point. However, I'm also a realist. So, to the inevitable complaints...

<strong>The author here is not wrong. If you think she is, YOU are in the wrong.</strong>

In this Internet age, information is at our fingertips. There is no reason we white feminists should not do our homework. Women of color have been writing and talking about what is important to them for many, many years. I'm not talking about a semester's worth of college courses; a simple Google search will turn up tons of jumping off points that can be tackled one at a time over a lunch hour, a break, a commute. That kind of research should be <i>de rigeur</i> before talking about <i>any</i> topic, honestly. Heck, there are books on tape you can listen to while you drive places... and there's lots available at the library, so income isn't even an issue.

Don't get me wrong, truly understanding the issue takes much more than that, and will involve one-on-one conversations. But if we don't come to the table like kindergartners, completely ignorant, expecting information to be spoon-fed to us from the ground up, our conversation will be a lot richer, deeper, and more useful to everyone involved.

And really, if we aren't willing to sink some of our personal time into educating ourselves, why would anyone else take our interest or intent seriously? Why should they form alliances with us, show up at our events, support our causes? Are our lives really so busy we can't sit down with an article over lunch, or on the bus on the way to work or over tea after the kids are in bed? Because I call bullshit on that.

If something is important, we make time for it.

And when it comes to building a truly inclusive feminist movement -- if we won't put anything of ourselves on the line, if we won't go out of our way at all to educate ourselves, if we cannot inconvenience ourselves in the slightest to find and read just a little about issues that do not directly impact us but are important to others -- well, why would <i>anyone</i> want to work with us? How could we ever succeed in making such aspirations more than just patronizing lip service?

In other words -- why should anyone understand and fight for what is important to <i>us</i> if we care and do so little to understand and fight for what is important to <i>them</i>?

I haven't visited the blog in

I haven't visited the blog in a while, and it's so ironic I read this piece today. There's a new feminist blogger in my co-working space, and we were chatting about her blog. During the chat she asked me, "what got you into feminism". And immediately I thought to myself... because I'm Hispanic. It was almost intuitive.

I became a feminist to fight my oppressors-- and now I'm a feminist to fight for the liberation of the oppressed.

Thank you for sharing this.


I am troubled by this article. I'm a feminist, and a Bitch magazine supporter... and I work on the other side of the immigration issue.

Yes, people should be treated with dignity. Yes, officers who abuse people in detention should be fired. No, there should be no place in the U.S. government for people who abuse others.

But... immigration laws exist for a reason. We should work to change BAD laws, but the law should not be broken. I support immigration reform and familial reunification, but I also believe that adults who come to the U.S. illegally are in violation of our laws.

I'm not trying to pick a fight; I'm trying to understand where I stand on this issue. Anyone want to discuss it?

sure thing =]

My mother left the man she loved with all her heart because she loved her children more.
Alone, with two infant children, she made a trek through Mexico and left her whole community behind because she wanted her children to grow up to be the best they could.
She broke a law. She broke a law that would deny my little brother and i everything that she dreamed we could have, and the most basic of needs. (When i say we were starving, i am not exaggerating.)
It is because of my mother that i became a feminist.
It is because of my mother that i now work to defend the rights of immigrants who came here because they were forced to... I work to defend those people who broke that law.
And i hope someday i can say that like my mother, i am the type of person who would a hurtful law for the security, and betterment of my children.

Yes, there are laws, they are there for a reason, but historically, laws have not always been benevolent.
There are some that exclude, there are some that limit, there are some that kill, and there are some that hurt.
It is our responsibility to question them.

Re: troubled

I agree 100% with you. I'm not anti-immigration, but I do believe people shouldn't be able to cross our borders without permission to do so. Other countries protect their borders; why shouldn't we be able to do the same? I'm not saying most people who come here have ill intentions, but everyone should be checked out and, if they want to become citizens, they need to do that through the right procedure.

I *do* think that we need to make it easier for deserving people to become citizens, but everyone who wishes to come here is expected to follow the laws. I've seen people holding up signs that say, "There's no such thing as an illegal immigrant." The argument is that, if you're an immigrant, you've followed the legal requirements to live here. You come here illegally, you choose to live here undocumented, you are still an illegal immigrant.

I don't think being illegal means people should be able to treat you however they want. I believe crimes are committed against illegal aliens are still crimes, and the victims deserve justice. As I said, laws need to be changed. Undocumented persons are generally good people, hard workers, but don't get to collect Social Security and other benefits. They're often underpaid and treated unfairly. We need to work together to make it easier for good people to become American citizens, but also to protect our borders.

On being illegal

First, I think that in terms of the whole "being illegal" argument-- freedom of migration is a human right, and the notion that someone's own person is deemed illegal and thus lacking in any sort of other value simply because they crossed an arbitrary line in the sand is where that notion becomes extremely problematic. Even if they *did something illegal* they are not thus ~illegal~, they are simply in violation of laws (which were not put there to value them in any way whatsoever, which brings me to the next thing.)

The American system for handling immigration is entirely screwed up. There is no question about it and I think that is something all of us here agree on. The point of departure between the arguments (on the whole) seems to be whether there should be immigration procedures at all (dismantle the whole system and think of a different way) or whether we can work within the system to fix it (from the inside and the outside). I think that having an all around better system would require a serious dismantling of the way it works now, but that that is not realistic, even if it is ideal. In consideration of international politics and the the way the global system functions, having borders (in the world today) is necessary to maintain a countries sovereignty, which is crucial for it to have legitimacy and be able to be active in the global affairs. So in that regard, a border is--as much as it pains me to say it-- kind of necessary. But the fact that on one side of this arbitrarily placed fence you seen fancy houses and open space and on the other, just 200 feet away, it's like a completely different world that smells like burning leaves and diesel, there is a problem there. There's a fence that separates a struggling people from an idealized vision of what their life could be, and we continuously reinforce the notion that it is the forbidden fruit. Recent immigration policies call for more fence (but built a 25 foot fence and someone will build a 26ft ladder), for more deportations (look up Operation Streamline), and for more crackdown to "protect our nations borders", but it just exacerbates the problem by trying to offer band-aid solutions.
Abuses and mistreatment of migrants by border patrol, police officers, and prison guards etc. should be punished, laws should be rectified, but we also need to look at why the system is inequitable to begin with, and question our social values (e.g. prison industrial complex, xenophobia, *cough cough* racism, patriarchy) in order to address them. It took me a while just now to get to this point, but that is the intersection. We rely on the system to solve these problems but it's flawed to begin with in the same realm as that with which feminism is concerned. That's why feminists should care. You've got a nice article here, really thought provoking.


Brilliant article and great commentary on the lack of intersectionality or intentional understanding in the purported feminist movement.

Ms. Vasquez, I completely

Ms. Vasquez, I completely agree with you and I find your piece to be an important contribution to feminist discourse. I was hopeful that feminist publications would continue the discussions post the U-Visa and VAWA decisions in the House and the Senate but they did not and the discussion on feminism and immigration fade away. Your article makes me hopeful that the dialogues on feminism and immigration will not only reemerge but be diverse in nature.
We are privileged in some way shape or form (be it race, class, citizenship, education etc. privilege) and we must be aware of those privileges so that we do not leave our heal imprints on another woman's face.

Thank you!

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