In public discourse, we do not talk about these women as valiant mothers. Many communities, politicians, and yes, even all of us who eat produce, buy products, and stay in hotels, often render these women invisible at best and criminal at worst. Women who cross the Mexican border to give safe birth to their children in U.S. hospitals are often characterized as parasites on the US health care system. Anti-immigrant websites refer to the children of undocumented immigrants as "anchor babies," and measures to restrict U.S. citizenship only to those with parents with U.S. blood have been introduced each year in Congress. Many of the current local and state initiatives to crack down on illegal immigration actually cite the cost of children in schools (many of them U.S. citizen children of undocumented parents) as a justification.
Recent large-scale raids of immigrant workers have placed untold numbers of children in foster care, parentless as their mothers and fathers wait in immigration detention (read: jail) facilities. The government's response to one raid in New Bedford, MA, which rounded up mostly women, was to state that they had alerted social services to the possibility of children in need of care. Measures to unite families and shorten the wait for U.S. citizens and legal immigrants to bring their close family members from Mexico and other countries stalled last year in Congress and face little chance of passage before the end of President Bush's term. The sins of the mothers are visited upon the children, if it can be called a sin to escape poverty to build a better life.
It is clear that immigrant mothers work and parent their children in the United States at great risk. And yet to glorify immigrant mothers as perfect self-sacrificing agents is also an untenable argument, because it sets up an ideal that may be unattainable or not entirely healthy. What too, about the women who leave their children behind to make a living in another country? There is great ambivalence in the process of immigrating, having to leave home and all support systems, sometimes being separated from one's children to achieve a better life. I heard that ambivalence in A.H.'s voice: the persistent, nagging question of whether or not the journey and the sacrifice were worth it, whether one could still be a good mother upon leaving the country to provide economic stability for one's children. While male immigrants must too face this wrenching decision, women must face the added gender pressures of not being expected to leave home to work. It is the stay at home/work outside of the home conundrum, writ large.
What I think about, what I urge us to think about, is to bring these voices into current dialogues about mothering, choice, and community. Immigration is a mother's issue. Right now, our conversations, writings and even arguments (e.g. the "mommy wars") about choices mothers' face are crafted from a rather narrow, privileged position that renders immigration status invisible. I think of my own solipsism when I struggled with having to work full-time, even having high quality childcare, a flexible boss and a supportive partner. From the standpoint of my former clients, my dilemma was a covetable one. I was in the same country, heck, even the same state as my mother and my child and I could work legally at a job that gave me dignity and self-worth. It took job-sharing to recharge my hope and my batteries and give me the space to write this piece, but I am still cognizant of how we must advocate for all mothers to have these basic human rights: the right to bear children (and parent them) and to work (at work we choose). It should be the goal of women's rights and mother's rights groups to guarantee that all women can parent safely, without the specter of deportation and work exploitation, violence, hunger or political debate that dehumanizes entire groups of people in our community. I want to help actively craft that sort of community, one that allows all of these voices to be heard. We who may be struggling with questions of work and mothering may still find what resources we do have to empower immigrant women to gain some parity in the safety that so many of us take for granted.
So that is why I end with that third snapshot of the older Ecuadorian woman who implored me, indeed, I think implores us all, to mother each other's children when they are far from home. It is a gendered love, this stranger parable, a challenge to mothers. Just as she offered hospitality to me, so should we think about immigrants in our own community who are far from their own mothers, their own children, their comfort and peace and support. Our children will grow up in a United States and a world that is far more diverse and interconnected due to globalization. We need to expand our notion of mothering to let in those that the political powers that be and the dominant discourse define as undesirable. Our community, the children of my former clients, and our children depend on it.
mmo : april/may 2008