As the sheriff’s truck followed our van several blocks through Phoenix, I kept thinking what the sight of that vehicle would mean for Silvia or Esperanza or Alejandra or the other women we’d met: Visions of being yanked out of the van and ordered to produce papers; picturing kids arriving to an empty house; wondering whether the sheriff would drag you by the hair or slam you against a wall; having no idea how long you’d be detained, or whether you’d be expelled from the place your ancestors called home; agonizing whether an older child might have to drop out of school to get a job or care for younger siblings.
As the truck pulled alongside us, I understood why the women would never call officers like this to report a rape or domestic abuse or any other crime—because laws like Arizona’s SB 1070 had turned the word “illegal” on its head.
The officer paid attention to us because our delegation had stopped to view Tent City, the place where Sheriff Joe Arpaio—the Bull Conner of the immigration fight—dresses detainees in pink underwear and deposits them in tents regardless of intense heat or bitter cold. We were a dozen women—feminist and labor activists, organizers of domestic workers and day laborers and undocumented students. We’d come to Arizona on Mother’s Day to bear witness to the impact of measures like SB 1070 on women and children.
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What we found were stories of worse-than-expected horror and can-you-believe-it resistance. We saw the female face of attacks on migratory families and understood that women are being criminalized simply for doing what mothers are supposed to do, care for and support their families. So much for the rhetoric of the right wing—here motherhood is American only if the mother is Anglo.
We met young children who described families ripped apart by Arpaio’s raids and the toll it took on them. Although they sobbed while telling us their stories, girls like Catherine were clear on their advice to other mothers and children: “Luchan! Fight back!”
Alejandra had her jaw broken when she was arrested. She received no medical attention during three months detention, despite repeated requests. “I don’t understand how it’s possible that people can live peacefully with this and ignore the screams of so many children separated from their parents,” she said.
But like the other women we met, Alejandra’s intention was not to hide, but to resist. She reminded us that the women we talked to wanted to “wake up a giant. I think they did.”
The women welcomed the involvement of multi-racial women’s groups. “It’s not about speaking Spanish or being brown,” Esperanza told us. “We know that if we’re all united, we can go forward. All these sad stories, they don’t push us back—they give us strength, the power to be able to change this.”
We heard the same kind of defiance from Silvia, a young poet accepted into a masters’ program in creative arts at Harvard. A group of benefactors offered to pay her costs, since like other undocumented students, she’s ineligible for student loans. But the offer may be rescinded because SB 1070 threatens those who aid undocumented individuals. In a poem called “Decriminalize,” Silvia insisted “we will not give up.”
because when the Dream Act passes, and believe me, you will see…
My dreams will reach reality.
And you WILL remember this poem,
You will remember me.
I will remember Silvia and the others who asked us to be a “microphone” for their voices. In response, our delegation wrote a petition for women’s groups to sign with three points: that leaders of the Congressional Caucus on Women’s Issues hold a hearing in Washington, D.C., for women from Arizona; that First Lady Michelle Obama commit to meet with them; and that President Obama stop this insanity by terminating the 287(g) agreements under federal immigration law, which involve state and local police in immigration enforcement.
I’ll especially remember Catherine, who organizers say was the first in their group to talk about the President’s power to end the brutality. “He has two daughters,” she said. “Maybe one of them is my age. I don’t want Sheriff Arpaio hurting other people or my parents again.”
To sign a Mother’s Day petition to leaders of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues, click on altoarizona.com.
The WMC is a non-profit organization founded by Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem, and Robin Morgan, dedicated to making women visible and powerful in the media.