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Elena Shore Headshot

Immigrants' Greatest Potential Ally - American Women

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A new report by the Pew Hispanic Center documents a trend that reporters have been covering anecdotally for several years: we are now seeing net-zero immigration from Mexico to the U.S.

The factors that may have contributed to this change - high U.S. unemployment, a Mexican economy that is recovering more rapidly, a low Mexican birthrate, and increased immigration enforcement - all point in one direction: the number of people moving to Mexico from the U.S. is equal to -- or greater than -- the number of people coming into the country from Mexico.

But with a record number of state and local laws cracking down on undocumented immigrants, this hardly means an end to the anti-immigrant sentiment that has taken root in America.

That's because, as blogger Mario Solis-Marich of the blog MarioWire once said, immigration restriction has never really been about border enforcement; it's about brown people living in their towns and communities.

And with the Mexican American population booming -- through birth, not immigration - the new target of anti-immigrant and anti-Latino hysteria is now the pregnant mother.

By 2050, Latinos will represent an estimated 30 percent of the U.S. population, according to census figures. The majority of this population growth, especially for Mexican Americans, is not from immigration, but from U.S.-born children.

The Latina mother -- who has the power to change the demographics of this country through childbirth -- has replaced the male immigrant worker as the new threat for many nativist Americans.

She also has become the target of a new wave of legislation.

2011 saw a record number of laws cracking down on immigrants -- and a record number of laws limiting reproductive rights. At the center of these attacks are immigrant women, who are struggling to keep their families together amid record detentions and deportations; and fighting for reproductive health care even as their access to basic health services is becoming more and more restricted.

The push to repeal the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, to ban birthright citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants, is the latest example of the use of anti-immigrant laws to attack women. This movement, which is expected to make a comeback after the presidential elections, isn't likely to succeed - after all, changing the Constitution is extremely difficult to do - but it already has been successful in changing the conversation around immigration and giving anti-immigrant hardliners a platform in the public discourse.

Laws limiting reproductive rights have also been used to attack immigrants. Last month, Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman vetoed a bill that would give undocumented immigrant mothers access to prenatal care. The Nebraska state legislature ended up overriding his veto - but to do this, they essentially argued that fetuses had more rights than their mothers, a bizarre debate that reflected the way we as a country devalue and dehumanize immigrant mothers.

Nowhere is this dehumanization more evident than in the shackling of women immigrant detainees during childbirth. New America Media reported on the practice in Arizona's immigration detention centers in January 2010. Just this year, Arizona became the 15th state to outlaw the practice.

Meanwhile, immigrant women and their families are impacted every day by an immigration enforcement policy that separates families through detention and deportation, and sometimes causes mothers to lose parental rights over their own children. In the first six months of 2011, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deported 46,000 parents of U.S.-citizen children. And at least 5,100 children currently living in foster care are prevented from uniting with their detained or deported parents, according to a report by Applied Research Center.

In 2009 New America Media commissioned a multilingual poll of women immigrants in the U.S., and found that the majority of respondents said they came to this country "to keep their families together." This reality stands in stark contrast to the image of the lone male worker who left his family to find work in the United States.But there was something even more surprising that we discovered as a result of our poll.

As we traveled across the country presenting the findings of our poll, we found that there was an enormous untapped audience for whom the story of women immigrants had a special resonance: American women.That's because immigration is, at its heart, a women's issue.

Immigrant women are struggling to protect their rights as mothers - from access to prenatal care to keeping their parental rights. They are fighting for their rights as workers -- from equal pay to fair working conditions free from sexual harassment and assault. They are fighting to keep their families and communities together, despite an immigration enforcement policy that is making this simple desire a Herculean task.

The struggles of immigrant women in America today are the struggles of all women. And as soon as they are able to make this connection, to see immigration as "our" issue, not "theirs," American women could very well be game-changers in the way our country deals with immigrants.

This year, New America Media has been meeting with women leaders across the country to help foster this conversation.

After organizing Alabama's first ethnic media gathering last year, we returned to Birmingham this year in partnership with the We Belong Together campaign to bring together women's rights and immigrants' rights leaders to oppose Alabama's HB 56 and other unjust laws.

We are also working to expand reporting on the intersection of immigration and gender.

Last month we brought 10 journalism fellows from ethnic and mainstream media news outlets across the country to Washington, D.C., where they met with experts in immigration, women's rights, human trafficking and reproductive rights. Reporters learned how to apply a gender lens to immigration; and activists discussed how the immigrant rights and women's rights movements - too often working in silos - could join together to work toward common goals.

Little by little, we hope that the work being done by New America Media and other organizations will help persuade American women that violations against the rights of immigrants are violations against all women. From the shackling of women immigrant detainees to the effective kidnapping of American-born children whose parents are deported, we are witnessing a humanitarian crisis in our country being carried out against women immigrants.

And American women from all backgrounds have the power to stop it.