"No Human Being is Illegal"
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Not all immigrants are welcomed by Lady Liberty’s open arms. Some cross borders on foot or in caravans, only to be faced with armed patrols and the remnants of a half-finished wall when they finally reach the United States. Even if they manage to cross the border, the hardship does not end there. Immigrants from Latin America1 and their descendants, particularly those identifying as women, are faced with intense stigma, a difficult road to citizenship, and a severe lack of opportunity from poverty.
Immigrant women contribute to 14% of the United States’ overall female population with over a third of these women originating from Latin American countries.3 Despite the millions of Latina women living in America, the ill-informed image of an “illegal alien” has pervaded American culture. The term is most often equated to Latinx immigrants who entered the United States without proper documentation for criminal activity and the “theft” of jobs and resources from American citizens. Not only is this a blanket stereotype since not all Latinx people are undocumented (in fact, less than a fourth of the 44.5 million foreign-born population are suspected to be undocumented2), but those who are undocumented have usually migrated for refuge from the poverty and violence in their home countries. The women who cross the southern border are desperate for the promise of a better life, for themselves or their families.
However, that promise is not easily reached, especially with citizenship often unattainable. Once someone has entered the United States without a visa, there is no pathway to citizenship. They must leave the country to apply for a green card, which can not only be risky but if their application takes too long, they may lose status and be forced to wait between three and ten years to re-apply. Additionally, pathways for family, work, and humanitarian protection visas are highly regulated with limitations on how many visas can be given out in a single year.4 Without citizenship or proof of legal residence, most undocumented immigrants are not eligible for federal benefits, such as food stamps, health care subsidies, or financial assistance.5
This has created a cycle of generational poverty for Latinx families in the United States, who often depend on the mother as the breadwinner of the family. With three-quarters of Latina women living beneath or close to the poverty line, they are forced to choose work over school. As a result, one in five Latina women do not graduate high school and only 19% finish their college degrees. Without access to higher education, Latina women are restricted to low-income jobs and a pay gap that forces them to work nearly twice as long to earn the same amount as their white male peers.6 Thus, the cycle continues, keeping Latina women and their families impoverished and unable to reach the jobs or resources some believe they are stealing.
Breaking the cycle will take a combination of policies and tearing down stigma. Foremost, providing a pathway to citizenship for immigrants already in the country will improve the quality of life for millions of women and their families. However, it is not the end-all solution. There must be a conscious effort to close the pay gap, recruit diversely, and create school outreach programs specifically for Latina women. Paired with an increased presence of Latinx individuals in the media, these steps will demonstrate a move away from harmful stereotypes and towards supporting our Latina sisters.
This series has reached its sixth edition, covering five of the countless intersections that feminism must acknowledge to create a truly equitable world for women. In our next article, we will revisit our previous topics to discuss recent developments and ways that you, the readers, can make a difference.
1 Latin America is defined here as Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and South America based on perceived cultural boundaries.
2 How many undocumented immigrants are in the United States and who are they? (brookings.edu)
3 Immigrant Women and Girls in the United States | American Immigration Council
4 Why Don’t They Just Get In Line? There Is No Line for Many Unauthorized Immigrants | American Immigration Council
5 Fact Sheet: Immigrants and Public Benefits - National Immigration Forum
6 We Must Challenge The Systemic Hurdles All Latina Women Face | HuffPost
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