Cecilia Alejandra Alvarez Herrera is a working mother of four children. While at her job sheriff’s deputies conducted a workplace immigration raid. During the raid sherrifs slammed her against a wall and broke her jaw. She was taken into custody but refused medical care while held by authorities. She was eventually released but requires continued medical treatment from the raid. Catherine, a nine-year old girl, came home from school to find her parents missing. She received a phone call from immigration officials informing her that her parents had been detained while authorities determined their immigration status. Some of these detentions last for several months. While her parents were detained Catherine had no means of contacting them nor any indication from authorities when she could expect to see them again.
These are some of the stories Congressional leaders heard in response to Arizona’s SB 1070 and the ongoing anti-immigrant fever sweeping the United States. They are stories of a community under siege. Migrant workers now face the very real threat of state sanctioned violence with very little remedy, and laws like SB 1070 have only magnified that threat. Many of these workers are in this country legally, yet these “sweeps” don’t distinguish at the outset from those here legally and those who are not. And as is typical with laws that target a specific population and imperil human rights, it is the women and the children that are the hardest hit.
According to the UNFPA States of the World Population 2006, women make up 49 percent of all migrant workers. Those that do chose to migrant illegally face significant threats in doing so. Approximately 6 in 10 Central American women and girls are raped crossing the border from Mexico into the United States. The situation is so bad that allegedly smugglers demand women receive contraceptive injections prior to making the crossing to avoid pregnancies as a result of rape.
The women are making the trip for economic reasons. According to the Carnegie Endowment, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has allowed U.S. multinational corporations to expand operations and productions to Mexico, forcing smaller Mexican companies out of business and destroying local economies. NAFTA has allowed heavily-subsidized US corn and other agri-business products to compete with small Mexican farmers, driving some 2 million farmers off the land due to low-priced imports. Meanwhile, corn-based tortilla prices have climbed by over 50%.
And for those in Mexico who have managed to keep their jobs or find work at all, wages along the Mexican border have been driven down as much as 25% since NAFTA’s enactment. Hourly wages now run anywhere from .60 cents to $1 an hour. The conditions at these facilities and in these towns would cause any rational person to seek a better living somewhere else. Housing consists of cardboard shacks next to open sewers. There are no streetlights or police to protect the Mexicans working at these American-owned facilities. This is the face and the reality of American economic policy in Mexico. Americans want cheap goods and corporations want cheap labor. But at what human cost?
Over Mother’s Day weekend an emergency human rights delegation of journalists, grassroots organizers, and feminist leaders traveled to Phoenix to document the experiences of women and children in the wake of the passage of SB 1070. In addition to hearing testimony from hundreds of women and children it visited the Tent City detention center set up by Joe Arpaio, the sheriff of Maricopa County currently under and 18 month Federal investigation for ongoing civil rights abuses. The delegation took these stories to Congress.
The stories matched the concerns that many law enforcement officers shared after the passage of the measure. Women were afraid to access medical or social services, worried that their status would be questioned and they would be detained. Given the already stretched thin resources of law enforcement, those detentions can last almost indefinitely, even for legal immigrants. The women interviewed also said they wouldn’t report incidences of sexual assault, domestic violence, or exploitation because they no longer feel they can trust law enforcement. The community is quite literally closing in on itself.
US economic policy has driven many of these women to our country and state law has now criminalized migratory women and their families. If SB 1070 goes into effect these results will only be exacerbated and the human toll only magnified. The human rights abuses that NAFTA has blessed across the border have now come home. It’s time to say enough.
photo courtesy of ki-Ga via Flickr