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Women are fasting for immigration reform

Women and children make up three-fourths of all immigrants. Families are living in fear in the shadows, creating unstable anxiety-ridden lives for children.
Supporters of immigration reform listen during a Fast for Families press conference in Washington, DC., Nov. 26, 2013.
Supporters of immigration reform listen during a Fast for Families press conference in Washington, DC., Nov. 26, 2013.

Last week would have been the 87th birthday of Cesar Chavez, a true American hero who fought for the just treatment of California farmworkers. While working to secure better pay and working conditions for those farmworkers, Chavez fasted several times. “I pray to God that this fast will be a preparation for a multitude of simple deeds for justice,” he said. “Carried out by men and women whose hearts are focused on the suffering of the poor and who yearn, with us, for a better world. Together, all things are possible."

It is in this spirit that people across the country are fasting for immigration reform. In November 2013, the national Fast for Families campaign was launched to press members of Congress to finally move on fixing our broken immigration system. Women leaders from a host of racial justice organizations, including Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Laura Murphy of the ACLU, are joining me with the “Act Fast: Women’s Fast for Families” campaign which began on March 8, International Women’s Day.  

We are fasting to stand in solidarity with the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country seeking a pathway to citizenship. 

As women who work in racial justice, we understand that racism and xenophobia have shaped our country’s shameful policies on immigration.

Historically, our immigration policies have become more restrictive during times of migration of people of color. Today, our immigrant neighbors are all races and from all over the world, yet the common perception is that they are only people of color. These skewed images are exploited to gin up an atmosphere of fear and racism that fuels our discourse and misdirects our policymaking.

Immigrants of color seeking a better life in the United States are often stereotyped as criminals, subjected to racial profiling and discrimination. Many Americans know that our nation’s historic and continuing struggle with racial equality is at the heart of the current debate about immigration reform.

With an estimated 2 million immigrants deported during the Obama Administration, families torn apart, anti-immigrant laws passed in several states, and a Congress that can’t see beyond partisanship, we must call the question: Where is the humanity in such treatment?

Women and children make up three-fourths of all immigrants. As a result of deportations, children – many of whom are American citizens -- are often left behind as their parents are imprisoned and deported. Families are living in fear in the shadows of society and on the run, creating unstable anxiety-ridden lives for children.

We have a backlog in the family immigration system, and a biased visa program that fails to take in account women’s labor in informal health care and domestic work. Many of these hardworking families labor without fair pay, health care and in deplorable conditions and lack protections to protest. Our society benefits from their labor but fails to recognize the conditions we leave them in.

Reform is desperately needed. Too many lives are being damaged. While Congress may be stuck in quicksand, women are clear – we want immigration reform now.  Almost 70% of women support comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship. Yet, partisan long-ditch efforts notwithstanding, our Congress is poised to ignore this issue.

In this debate, it’s not about “if” there will be reform – both sides of the political aisle agree that reform is sorely needed. It’s about when and how the inevitable is being stalled, because some in Congress insist on living only in the present, believing immigration reform is a problem for tomorrow. It’s better to ignore the issue out of the fear of ruffling imaginary feathers (and the votes that could go with them), even if polling data tells them otherwise. Immigration reform is an issue they’ll worry about when they get there.

But those facing deportation aren’t waiting for the future from the safety of their gerrymandered Congressional seat, but from holding prison cells.. We have to remind Congress they work for voters, and the voters want reform. It’s time to stop playing games with 11 million lives in the balance.

Editor's note: Judith Browne Dianis is co-director of the national civil rights organization Advancement Project.