On Thursday, March 14th, Margaret W. Wong & Associates sponsored a table at a powerful City Club Youth Forum titled “Breaking Barriers: Women’s Immigration Rights.” Since we had a table, a group of ten of us from the office went to listen and learn. Mr. Sam Lehman, City Club Youth Forum Council Member, moderated a panel discussion between Ms. Lisa Slawinski, Immigration Attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland; Ms. Chrissy Stonebreaker-Martinez, Co-Coordinator with the InterReligious Task Force on Central America (IRTF); and Sister Anne Victory, HM, MSN, Steering Committee Member of the Collaborative to End Human Trafficking.
The focus of the discussion was on women coming to the United States from economically repressed and/or violent regions, namely those of Columbia and Central America. At the beginning of the conversation, the panelists emphasized that women were particularly vulnerable because they are much more likely to be victims of such crimes as robbery, physical brutality, sexual assault, and murder. These horrors can happen to them in their home country, on the way to the United States, and even in the USA itself.
After such an arduous journey, these people arrive at the border and want to apply for asylum. However, panelists who have worked at the U.S. Mexican border reported actually witnessing instances where border patrol illegally denied entry to such people. Plus, as we know, there is the issue of parent/child separation which forces many women to have to make a choice between not having access to their children for an extended period or being united but having to return to their dangerous homelands.
Once they arrive, whether documented or undocumented, refugee or immigrant; women will have to find the balance between being the primary caregiver for children as well as locating suitable employment and in this area. Due to the fact that they are newcomers to our culture and language, they often have to deal with miserable wages and working conditions. Also, to no surprise, foreign-born women struggling to support themselves and their families will often encounter several of the same issues here in the United States that caused them to suffer in their countries of origin, such as domestic violence and being prey to human traffickers.
In terms of how to address these matters, the panelists, especially Ms. Splawinski, noted that it was up to us to change the broken immigration laws of this country. However, progress has been stalled for decades at the federal level. She emphasized that we must vote for leaders who have immigration reform as a priority issue. Additionally, we must turn to state and local governments to cooperate on creating strategies that would help immigrants in the area dispel the climate of fear about immigration.
The panelists also noted that it was of paramount importance to raise awareness about the plight of immigrants and the broken immigration system. We must also educate people about the deplorable conditions in the countries that asylum seekers come from. Additionally, people should be aware how US actions have often exacerbated the problems in the regions
Accordingly, the United States must use its influence and its resources to improve the quality of life in such zones with special emphasis placed on subjects that especially affect women and families. If this were to happen, there would be no better way to counter the number of people seeking refuge because their migration is one of necessity; most would prefer to remain in their homes but are afraid to do so.
Above all, as we have written again and again, advocates must continue to tell the individual stories of those struggling to come to the U.S. as either an immigrant or a refugee. For instance, Ms. Stonebreaker-Martinez offered a poignant account of how her aunt had to wait 13 years before she was allowed to legally immigrate to the United States from Columbia where circumstances were very dangerous.
It is stories such as this one that put a human face on the statistics and are most effective way to counter the negative publicity about immigrants that is currently quite abundant.