Women Stage Hunger Strike At The White House In Favor Of Immigration Reform

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The Republicans may have taken control of the Senate after the November 4 Midterms, but that doesn’t mean President Obama’s second term is done yet. He has plenty of work to keep him occupied before the 2016 election, and one of those topics holding his attention is immigration reform. It as something that many democrats had hoped he would address when he got elected, and now in his final years, after giving his attention to fighting and killing terrorists, troops, sexual assault laws and the like, he is set to make a big announcement about the state of immigration specifically in reference to undocumented people currently living in the United States.

Back in 1986, then-President Ronald Reagan signed a revolutionary immigration bill into law. The new law called for tighter security at the Mexican border, and employers would face strict penalties for hiring undocumented workers. But the bill also made any immigrant who had entered the country before 1982 eligible for amnesty. The granted amnesty for nearly 3 million undocumented immigrants.

What President Obama is set to do is something similar. His long-anticipated move would see up to 5 million documented immigrants being granted the right to stay in the United States. It is reported that nearly 3.3 million parents of children who are American citizens or legal residents would be able to obtain legal work documents under Obama’s new plan, and highly-skilled immigrants or those who came to the US as children could also fall under the new law.

There is likely to be push-back from Republicans, as expected. But instead of reporting the news as usual, we thought we would take a look at the human aspect of this ongoing issue, and talk to the people who are being affected.

A group called Dreamers Moms USA have gathered mothers from Virginia, Connecticut, Illinois, California, and Arizona to voice their opinion loud and clear. Since November 3rd, the day before the midterms, they have been staging a hunger strike outside the White House in order to get the attention of President Obama at the closest vantage point.

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The group of undocumented mothers and citizens are urging that Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) include parents and undocumented workers who have been contributing and are already a part of the United States. We spoke to some of the people involved who include American citizens advocating on behalf of the immigrants, as well as mothers and children who are affected first hand by the immigration laws currently in place in the US.

One of the lead organizers of the strike, Lenka Mendoza, is an undocumented immigrant who has an American citizen child. Both Lenka and her daughter Fiorela live in fear of being separated. Lenka’s husband Carlos was working for the Peruvian Embassy in New York while she and her two oldest children stayed behind with her in Peru. Carlos got sick, so Lenka and the children had to come and see him, and arrived in Queens, NY on diplomatic visas. She spoke to us exclusively about why this reform is crucial from a human, not just political, aspect.

What is the most difficult part about the struggle you are going through?

The most difficult part is not being able to travel back to Peru to see my family. I’ve lived here for 14 years and have not been back once. It was so hard when my father-in-law died in 2006 and then later my mother in 2013. They were both in Peru and not being able to go back and say goodbye to them was so painful, it still hurts to this day.  It’s a certain feeling of impotence of not being able to go and visit family; it’s totally out of our control.  It’s an injustice for my family and families like mine to be separated for so many years.

What would you say to people who accuse families like yours of trying to take advantage of the immigration system?

We are not asking for special privileges or for something that we have not earned. We have lived a long time in this country, worked very hard sometimes at multiples jobs at once and contributed to this country’s economy and society. This nation was built on the work of immigrants and we just want to be recognized. We want to live normal lives free from fear, and live with the dignity and liberty that the U.S. Offers.

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What needs to be changed about the law?

A true reform of the immigration system in this country needs to be as broad and as inclusive as possible of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country. The process for coming to this country also needs to be modified; I know someone whose application to bring her sister to this country has been in process for 18 years–that is just too long! This is also proof that the system is inefficient and broken.

Often immigrants come from countries where women don’t have equal rights or are oppressed, what can you tell us about Peru and some of the other countries of the hunger strike participants?

Well, certainly machismo exists in many Latin American countries, including Peru.  Historically, men have often oppressed women and wanted to keep them in the home tending to the house and to the children. And you know, that is a problem here in the U.S. as well, and also in the immigration movement. Many of the leaders in the movement are men and often our voices have been silenced or ignored.  That’s a large reason why we started our group, DREAMers MOMS USA.  We wanted to lift up the voices of women and help to empower them, not only to come out of the shadows but to also come out and be leaders in their community, so that people are aware of our roles and experience as mothers in this larger immigration movement.

What is the main message you want to send to the president and to readers?

That we want the president to keep his promise and to sign an executive order that will provide broad relief to our families as soon as possible.  We will continue our “Fasting for 11 Million” event in front of the White House until he delivers what he promised.

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Chuy Sanchez, who is the communications trainer for The Opportunity Agenda who are involved with the hunger strike shared with us about the two primary messages for the protest: (1) getting the Latino vote out and (2) demanding President Obama keep his promise on issuing an executive action that extends DACA to parents and all workers. He also told us the hunger strike will go on indefinitely as the mothers will stay outside the White House until Obama acts. There are other solidarity vigils happening around the country and at the US Embassy in Tijuana, Mexico.

President Obama only has one year left in office, and now that the Republicans have taken majority control over the Senate, how does this affect the cause of the strike?

President Obama has faced many obstacles from Congress during his time in office, but in this moment he has the opportunity to lead by changing immigration policy through executive action, which will improve millions of lives.

What are the particulars of immigration law in regard to this strike that readers need to know about?

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) provides temporary relief from deportation and authorization to work for a small percentage of the undocumented population in the country who meet specific eligibility requirements. The Dreamers’ Moms and many immigrant equal rights advocates are advocating for executive action by Obama to extend protections offered under DACA in light of Congress failing to pass legislation, which would be the more permanent solution.

Every U.S. president since Eisenhower has taken some sort of action to provide temporary immigration relief to different sets of groups in need, and Obama would be well within the executive powers granted by the U.S. Constitution to do so.

Has there been much media attention about the strike yet?

The strike has been covered in Spanish-language media in both the United States and Latin America, and we’ve seen more English-language media covering the hunger strike after the elections.

Women’s issues around the world don’t always get as much attention as other issues, why do you think that is?

Women’s issues do tend to be covered less, and our research on gender and immigration reporting shows that when mainstream media does cover of immigrant women, the dominant narrative often portrays them simply as helpless victims. What’s usually missing are accounts of immigrant women as contributors to society and agents of their own destiny—the Dreamers’ Moms hunger strike poignantly highlights these women’s strength and commitment to both their families and this country.

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In an touching op-ed piece in the LA Times, ‘Orange Is The New Black’ actress Diane Guerrero who plays feisty Latina Maritza Ramos shares her own story of immigration nightmare where her parents were deported. She and her family moved to the US from Colombia during a time when her home country was going through economic instability. At the age of 14 she came home from school to find out her parents had been put in a detention center, then eventually sent back to Colombia.

She says while she was lucky enough to have friends take her in, she saw first hand the effects of other extended family members’ kids grow up without their parents and how it affected them to be separated from family. Diane says her story is similar to many others, and that it is important immigration reform happens, to prevent other children growing up without a stable family situation.

The Opportunity Agenda aren’t the only organization banding together with the Dreamers Moms USA for this important and historical impending action. United We Dream, National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens), and VACOLAO (Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations) are also supporting the hunger strike in the hopes of immigration reform happening before Obama leaves office.

While immigration reform may not directly affect everyone, as a country we have a duty to get involved in certain issues that impact our communities and that we feel strongly about. If you want to add your voice to the growing number of people who want President Obama to change the lives of people living in fear of being separated from their families, here are a few things you can do:

  • FAST WITH THE HUNGER STRIKERS :Take a picture of yourself or a group holding this sign “I am fasting for 11 million immigrants–deferred action for all–in solidarity with Dreamers’ Moms USA.”
  • JOIN THE FAST EVERY DAY: Join us every day in front of the White House (Lafayette Park) from 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.
  • CONTACT President Obama: CLICK HERE.
  • DONATE: CLICK HERE.

“Our hunger strike is a reminder of the suffering happening in our community. We are going to be here in front of the White House until President Obama signs an Executive Action that provides relief to the millions of immigrants that are already a part of this country. I’m prepared to stay until my body breaks down,” said community leader, Ivania Castillo, who partnered with Dreamers’ Moms USA to organize the hunger strike.

We will continue to follow this story and update our readers on progress about immigration reform. All photos courtesy of The Opportunity Agenda.

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