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Immigration is a mother's issue

By Gretchen Hunt

MAY 2008

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 U.S.

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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.

In public discourse, we do not talk about these women as valiant mothers. Many communities, politicians, and yes, even all of U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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

Gretchen Hunt is a mother, wife and lawyer committed to social justice and ending violence against women.  As an attorney, she has worked for eight years to seek justice and dignity for immigrant survivors of domestic violence, rape and human trafficking.
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