“I don’t see how the party that says it’s the party of the family is going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families that have been here a quarter century.” A Republican said that—a Republican named Newt Gingrich. Suggesting the immigration issue raises questions of family values poses a political risk for Gingrich; many in his party view undocumented immigrants as little more than threats to safety and economic security. The other Catholic GOP contender, former Senator Rick Santorum, derides path-to-citizenship proposals as amnesty programs that would attract lawbreakers and make those who played by the rules, as his grandfather did, look like “chumps.”

When people like Santorum think of undocumented immigrants, they often think of the men waiting for day labor outside a Home Depot, or perhaps the bus boy who clears their dishes at their local restaurant—“illegals” who take advantage of American generosity while taking jobs from U.S. citizens. That’s not the whole picture. Take, for example, a young woman I met at Casa Nazaret, a shelter for deported migrant women in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. Lupe was separated from her three young children (all U.S. citizens) because she lodged a domestic-abuse complaint, and the responding officer had been authorized to act as an immigration official.

Roughly 4.5 million American children have at least one undocumented parent residing in the United States, and in the first six months of 2011, 46,000 parents of these kids were deported. Many immigrant families are like Lupe’s: some members are documented, some not; they are firmly embedded in communities; they contribute to American culture, including paying taxes. For many, crossing the border to seek a living wage, and living with the threat of deportation once here, means prolonged separation from their families. Yet that kind of immigrant experience fails to register at presidential debates.

Migrant women’s experiences challenge Santorum’s claim that most undocumented immigrants simply choose to break the law. If women like Lupe, who desperately wants to be reunited with her children, came to represent “the immigration problem,” would he change his mind? Would we?

Too often lost in the immigration debate is the fact that nearly half the immigration population in the United States—documented and undocumented—is female. That amounts to 19 million women and girls—4.1 million of whom are undocumented. Women who cross the U.S.-Mexico border face unique risks precisely because they are women. They are often sexually assaulted by smugglers, abused on the job, and exploited in detention facilities. Undocumented immigration remains a serious problem, but our public conversation too often ignores the realities of broken families and sexual violence.

According to the UN, 70 percent of women attempting to cross the Arizona border are sexually exploited en route. And women are three times more likely than men to die of exposure to the elements. The majority of the estimated 1-2 million victims of human trafficking every year are migrants or refugees. According to the U.S. Attorney General, an estimated 14,500-17,500 people are trafficked into the United States every year, and, according to the UN, every year more than 20,000 Mexican children are victims of sex trafficking.

Those who do survive the passage north must adjust to life in the shadows. Men are often sponsored by their employers to receive green cards. Women typically are not, so they often find jobs in unregulated industries—such as domestic work—which offer few protections. Women who work as domestics, for example, are often exploited by long hours, social isolation, and low wages.

In January 2010, the Southern Poverty Law Center surveyed 150 undocumented women immigrants employed in the food industry. Respondents overwhelmingly reported feeling that their employers viewed them as “disposable laborers with no lasting value.” Both farm and industrial workers report being denied access to bathrooms and being discriminated against when pregnant. Women are less likely to complain about such treatment because they fear reprisals, including being separated from their families. According to the survey, intensified enforcement of immigration laws has made undocumented workers more vulnerable to workplace exploitation.

Sexual exploitation of undocumented immigrants is pervasive. Because women are vulnerable to sexual assault by “coyotes” or others, immigrants have begun using contraceptives as a matter of course. Female farm workers wear baggy clothing or bandanas to mask their sex. The January 2010 found that 80 percent of women of Mexican descent who work in California’s Central Valley reported being sexually harassed. Legal-aid attorneys note that undocumented women are seen as “perfect victims” because they’re scared to report abuse, don’t know their rights, and are presumed to lack credibility because they have already broken the law by immigrating.

Many undocumented workers come to the United States either to reunite with their family or to provide for them back home. Yet U.S. immigration procedures usually prolong family separation.

Santorum wants undocumented immigrants to “get in line” like his Italian grandfather did. Of course, many already are, and have been for years. Today there are significant backlogs in family-immigration cases. For example, the State Department is just now getting to visa requests made by adult children of U.S. citizens now residing in Mexico that were first made in 1993. What does Santorum think that does to families?

As Gingrich and Santorum know, the Catholic community has long served immigrants through pastoral and charitable outreach and political advocacy. For example, the Hispanic/Latino U.S. bishops recently issued a letter emphasizing the church’s traditional support for immigration reform.

This is not to suggest we ignore legitimate concerns about undocumented immigrants’ impact on the economy. But it does mean that until we come to terms with what makes undocumented workers leave their homes in the first place—and what they face along the way—crowd-pleasing rhetoric won’t solve the humanitarian crisis in our own backyards.

This article is adapted from Kristin Heyer's forthcoming book, Kinship across Borders: A Christian Ethic of Immigration (Georgetown University Press).

Photo: Andre Nantel / Shutterstock

Kristin Heyer is professor of theological ethics at Boston College. Her co-edited volume Christianity and the Law of Migration (Routledge) was released in July 2021, and she is at work on Moral Agency and the Promise of Freedom (Georgetown University Press).

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