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When Deportation Is a Death Sentence: One Domestic Worker’s Fight for Survival

Reina Gomez needs to be in the US to live; the US needs her labor.

For Reina Gomez, the specter of deportation looms, even though two Honduran hospitals have already told Gomez that they do not have the resources to treat her leukemia. (Image: Pixabay; Edited: JR / TO)

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Reina Gomez, 49, has been cleaning homes and caring for elderly people in South Florida since 2002. Her earnings as a domestic worker support her treatments for leukemia at a public South Florida hospital. Gomez was diagnosed with leukemia in 2007.

On July 31, Gomez had an appointment with Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE). Gomez is facing deportation to Honduras, where she lived before fleeing to the United States to escape an abusive relationship. ICE told Gomez to buy an open-date ticket to Honduras and to bring it with her to her July 31 appointment. While ICE didn’t render a final decision on her case on July 31, it plans to in mid-August.

The specter of deportation looms, even though two Honduran hospitals have already told Gomez that they do not have the resources to treat her leukemia.

And so, the specter of deportation looms, even though two Honduran hospitals have already told Gomez that they do not have the resources to treat her leukemia.

“I’m not sleeping very well. I’m very nervous and anxious, and I’m not eating very much because of the anxiety,” Gomez tells me over the phone. Gomez starts in a clear, bold voice that quivers and soon becomes subsumed in tears.

Through her tears, she keeps telling her story.

Gomez is one of approximately 2 million domestic workers in the United States, the vast majority of whom are women. Many are also immigrants who, like Gomez, are living in the hellish climate of fear experienced by all US immigrants since Donald Trump took office in January. All the while, women like Gomez are cleaning homes and caring for children and elders — doing work that is in increasingly high demand in the US.

In this climate, multi-issue, multiracial organizing to protect immigrant domestic workers is taking center stage among domestic workers’ rights groups throughout the country. These activist groups are working to protect domestic workers currently targeted by ICE — and to build a stronger base for future activism.

For people like Gomez with life-threatening health conditions, deportation can be a death sentence. There is no cure for Gomez’s leukemia. However, her treatments in Florida have been successful in keeping her stable and strong enough to work.

“I am very thankful that my disease doesn’t prevent me from working, even though I’m very tired when I get home,” Gomez said.

Critically, Gomez has a social security number, which she received when she applied for asylum in 2002. While she was not granted asylum, she has kept her social security number all these years, which has enabled her to receive medical benefits. Because she has a social security number, Gomez has been paying taxes since 2002. Her story defies the common belief that undocumented people are not paying taxes.

The intersection of immigration enforcement and issues affecting domestic workers leads many worker centers that advocate for domestic workers rights to also resist ICE activity in their communities.

Gomez told activists from the Miami Workers Center about her recent interactions with ICE. Activists have created flyers to spread awareness about her case, organized a community support group, and gone with her to the ICE office during recent meetings for moral support. The Miami Workers Center also helped her purchase the airline ticket to Honduras, as ICE is requiring.

At her recent meeting with ICE, agents informed Gomez that she would likely be deported in July because she doesn’t have family in the United States and therefore, they say, she has nothing in US that ties her here.

“What ties me to the United States is my will to live.”

“What ties me to the United States is my will to live,” Gomez says.

What also ties her here is her labor, which is contributing to the United States economy and is in demand. According to PHI National, a group that seeks to transform elder care, the population of people over the age of 65 will nearly double by 2050 — from 47.8 million to 88 million. The need for people to care for this population will increase in kind, yet there are not enough care workers to fill these jobs.

Since domestic work has historically been devalued and rendered invisible — in the United States and globally — Gomez’s work doesn’t help her effort to remain in the US. In this country, domestic work has long been unpaid or poorly paid. Gomez’s fate is more precarious than those who may have higher degrees or work in technology (though in the Trump era, all immigrants are vulnerable).

The nearly 70 affiliates of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), the umbrella group for domestic workers’ rights organizations in the United States, have been active in advocating for immigrant rights, racial justice and economic justice for domestic workers and their families throughout the country — bringing to light the interconnectedness of these issues.

More than 3,000 miles away from Gomez, activist Gilda Blanco is organizing Afro-Latina domestic workers in Seattle who are facing similar targeting by immigration officials.

As a leader of We Belong Together, NDWA’s immigration initiative, Blanco seeks to build multiracial alliances in the domestic workers’ movement. Her work includes organizing a rapid-response network that mobilizes when domestic workers hear knocks at their front doors from ICE officials.

“Seattle is a sanctuary city, but there is still collaboration between ICE and local police here,” Blanco told Truthout. Local police in many places have long been aiding ICE deportation efforts.

Many of the domestic workers she organizes are Black. Indeed, Black women make up 30 percent of the US care workforce. Because of this, and because domestic work is rooted in the legacy of slavery, NDWA has prioritized cross-racial organizing.

A report released in June by NDWA’s We Dream in Black initiative stated, “To reshape our economy and our democracy so that every care worker is cared for in return, we know we have to build a multiracial, multinational movement. Black domestic workers are critical to this movement because of our history in this sector, and because of shared history of struggle against racism, enslavement, and patriarchy… Bringing together Black American and Black immigrant women to fight for each other can serve as a model for the rest of the domestic worker movement, as well as contribute to it.”

NDWA’s longstanding commitment to multi-issue, multiracial organizing is particularly critical now, to foster an inclusive resistance against the Trump administration’s immigration practices.

“Immigration is often perceived as Latinx issue, as opposed to what it really is — an issue that affects many communities and many demographics in different ways,” Marzena Zukowska, a media strategist with NDWA, told Truthout.

At the same time, Blanco is working on a domestic workers’ bill of rights in Seattle to improve labor protections for domestic workers. Similar bills of rights have been enacted in at least seven states throughout the country.

“We train domestic workers to know their rights and defend their rights,” Blanco told Truthout. “Through our bill of rights advocacy in Seattle, we are building bridges with legislators and workers from other sectors.”

Originally from Guatemala, Blanco came to New York in 2000 where she worked as a housecleaner and nanny. In 2008, she moved to Washington State where she became active with the NDWA. Through the NDWA’s trainings, Blanco learned to advocate for herself when employers mistreated her or denied her wages. Now she is bringing those skills to the broader fight for workers’ rights. Blanco says she knows workers in Seattle whose employers owe them thousands of dollars in back wages.

“Domestic workers are experiencing increasing wage theft,” Blanco said. “Given this climate of fear, domestic workers feel even more afraid to speak up if they are being denied wages.”

Advocacy for immigrant workers goes beyond working conditions and wages and extends to the broader immigration struggle and efforts to enable people like Gomez to continue living in the United States.

In Texas, NDWA’s We Belong Together initiative is opposing Texas’s Senate Bill 4, a measure that punishes the state’s sanctuary cities. At a press conference in Austin on July 28, We Belong Together representative Jeanette Vizguerra, who has become a prominent face of the sanctuary movement, spoke out against SB4. She was joined by a group of elected officials from states who are battling attacks on cities similar to those in Texas, including councilmembers from cities in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

The importance of worker centers and activist groups like NDWA in resisting oppressive immigration policies cannot be overstated. Gomez calls the activists supporting her in Miami her “angels,” and says she is committed to the struggle alongside them.

“I am determined to keep on going, to confront whatever challenges come my way,” Gomez said.

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