When I attended the Women, Action & the Media Conference (WAM!) last month, I made a point of catching the Immigration in the U.S.: The Women's Rights Crisis Feminists Aren't Talking About session which included panelists Tara Tidwell Cullen, Carly Burton, brownfemipower and Irina Contreras.
Among other things, the session explored the lives of the people caught up in the immigration policy debate and how the heated rhetoric has sparked fear and concern in many who have recently immigrated to this country regardless of their legal status.
I returned home from WAM! to St. Louis and saw my city with through new eyes. I have always found pride in the multi-cultural history of St. Louis where French, German, Irish, Italian, Chinese and most recently Bosnian immigrants settled. As the descendent of Africans who came to this land in bondage in the 1700s I do not claim an immigrant ancestry but I still identify with being the other trying to balance cultural identity with the American demand to conform.
I grew up celebrating my neighbors various American identities at Oktoberfest, St. Patrick's Day and Mardi Gras festivals knowing that many would join my community to celebrate Black History Month. Now, I wonder who will attend the Cinco de Mayo festival next month and whether it will be a celebration or an opportunity for a public demonstration of anti-immigrant bigotry because the immigration reform debate has become an anti-immigrant campaign fueled by fear with confusion and hatred its principle products.
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For example, I recently overheard a conversation between two Somali women at a local shop. There are quite a few Somali families in my neighborhood and I've become familiar with the accent. While waiting in line one of the women anxiously asked the other to accompany her when she went to get her driver's license. The other woman assured her that she had nothing to worry about since she had legal documentation but her companion was unconvinced saying that "they" hate "us" now and she wanted someone with her just in case they tried to take her away.
The immigration discussion from WAM! was still fresh in mind and intellectually I knew that the debate has taken a toll but hearing that woman express doubt even though she had legal documentation floored me. I was embarrassed that the immigration reform debate has become so laden with anti-immigrant sentiment that fears of harassment may very well be justified in my city.
The Missouri House recently passed its omnibus illegal immigration bill just a week after the Missouri Senate passed its own version. The House bill requires Missouri State Troopers to be trained to enforce federal immigration laws, bars state grants to sanctuary cities, and requires that commercial driver's license tests be given in English.
This bill feels threatening to me, so I can not imagine how this legislation is being received by immigrants in Missouri. I empathize with the fear of being pulled over on a dark highway by a Missouri State Trooper and being asked to prove that I have the right to be where I have the right to be. I certainly empathize with the Somali woman's fear of harassment while getting her driver's license–my parents faced similar fears when they registered to vote in the 1960s.
In her piece The Third Rail: Reproductive Health Needs of Immigrant Women Aishia Glasford rightly stated that "How we treat the most vulnerable individuals, undocumented immigrant women and their children, is a reflection of the ethical and moral compass of our society."
The impact of anti-immigration policies on women is clear and reflects poorly upon our society. The Center for American Progress piece (Just the Facts: Immigration and Reproductive Justice) points out that anti-immigrant policies create barriers to immigrant women's healthcare and put lives at risk. In this current hostile environment where seeking a driver's license is seen as risky, seeking healthcare is being weighed against those same false risks even as access to healthcare is held back as the legal reward of time spent documented. The impact on our communities is unfolding and we must be mindful of what is happening in our own backyard and how it is re-shaping who we are.
When I look at the Missouri anti-immigration legislation I see fear mixed with bigotry reflected back at me and a state government willing to perpetuate all of that despite the damage it will do to our communities, the stigma it casts upon all immigrants and the additional barriers it erects that all but scream that immigrants are not welcome in communities that used to celebrate our diverse heritage.
I do not feel safer. I just feel embarrassed even as I wonder if that Somali woman ever went to get her driver's license and worry that she was harassed while doing so.