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Immigration is a mother's issue

By Gretchen Hunt

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In my job as a lawyer, I have ordinarily been the one giving advice to immigrant women. As a mother, though, I was the one in the position to receive consejos, to learn from stories of the women I represented, thereby strengthening my sense of self as a mother. Their voices, stories, struggles and wisdom have shaped my life, and my identity as a feminist. Yet it has taken some time wading through my own struggles as a new mother to come to realize the importance of these stories to current concepts of motherhood, choice, and community responsibility. The consejos and perspectives of the women I served desperately need to be heard for all of us to better understand our roles as mothers and as global citizens.

Let me start with three snapshots. The first: the final scene from the film Maria Full of Grace. Seventeen year old Maria, while pregnant, smuggled in cocaine from Colombia as a mule, escaped the smugglers and certain violence, evaded Customs Enforcement, and she is standing in the airport with her friend, contemplating the trip back home. In a heavy moment, she turns, leaving her friend to walk into the sea of people and an uncertain life as a single mother, undocumented, in the United States. She will become another invisible face in the sea of undocumented persons in the US.

The second: my baby shower/despidida from my job as an immigration attorney at a battered women's shelter, hosted by my Latina clients from a rural county. When I asked the circle to each share a bit of mothering advice, one woman told me that she didn't feel qualified since she left her infant (now seven) at home in Mexico to come to the U.S..

Third snapshot: I am in a small rainforest town in Ecuador during a summer stint with the UN Development Fund for Women. I am 24, full of adventure, and I've just ventured out of my guesthouse to buy a few rolls of film for the next day's hike. I chat with the storeowner, an older woman who runs a tienda out of the front of her house. She asks me my story, and shares with me that her son, about my age, is in the U.S., like thousands of other Latin American mothers who bid a constant farewell to their sons, husbands and daughters, uncertain of when they may next see them. She tells me to promise to stop by and say goodbye when I leave town. I do so, and three days later, I drop by the shop. She scurries me inside, and insists on cooking a full breakfast. In her tiny, sparse home, I feel grateful but hurried, wanting not to miss my bus, which runs only once daily. Her parting words stop me: she tells me that she does this for me and hopes that her son is being treated the same. I feel a heaviness, a cumulative shame for my country since I know that he probably is not receiving a breakfast in the intimacy of a stranger's home; he is being profiled on the news as "illegal," is exploited at work and stripped of the dignities many of us take for granted.

Motherhood and immigration are intertwined. Some mothers leave their countries and their families for a better life for their children. Some come here seeking a better life, have children, and face all the challenges of being split-status families. Some stay behind, and only dream visions of what their children may experience so far from home. Yet the story of immigration, and the policy debates now circling around the topic are strikingly gendered, and ignore the reality of mothers and their children. So too do the writings and public conversations on motherhood often exclude the stories of immigrant mothers.

There is a word -- peña -- in Spanish that was once explained to me as summing up the feeling of pain, heartbreak and physical heaviness. Dictionaries define it as grief, but it has a more textured feeling, one that surfaces in more day-to-day speech. That's the closest I can get to my feeling when I think of the three snapshots I have recounted above. Why do I share these? Because I believe these moments representing such sacrifice, ambivalence and hope of a world that welcomes the stranger as if s/he is our own child are moments that are missing from our current dialogues about motherhood.

Many of us define motherhood as hard work and even a degree of selflessness and sculpt out variations of what feminism and mothering mean and how they intersect. I struggled to figure this out, barely keeping my head above water for ten months as I worked full time and felt my sanity, my relationships and my sense of connecting with my son faltering. Unlike most mothers in our country, I was lucky enough to find balance in a workplace that allowed me to job share with another attorney. This allowed me the adventure of outside work and the time to have intensive one on one time with my son.

When I think about the scene from Maria Full of Grace, I am filled with a profound sense of admiration and wonder at the sacrifice of so many immigrant women who risk so much to make a better life for their children. My clients (and friends) escaped war, crossed the Mexican desert for days with little water or food, some pregnant or with children in tow, all for a dream. Hoping to piece together economic survival for themselves and their children, they escaped Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union via marriages to abusive U.S. men. Some found themselves in situations of modern day slavery or labor exploitation. Like Maria in that pivotal scene, they face the absolute unknown, many lacking the language or any economic or social supports, with the conviction that the possibility of providing their children with basic needs and education was worth the risk.

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we do not talk about these women as valiant mothers

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