Harrowing experience for immigrant women means challenging path to American dream | Global Refuge

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Harrowing experience for immigrant women means challenging path to American dream

Portrait of Krish O’Mara Vignarajah

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah

April 2, 2024

On a small island off the coast of Lower Manhattan, a statue stands as a testament to the promise of the American dream. It’s not the towering Statue of Liberty – Mother of Exiles – but rather the likeness of Annie Moore, an Irish teenager who etched her name into history as the first immigrant to step onto U.S. soil through Ellis Island in 1892.

In bronze, Annie stands eyes wide open with anticipation, and over a century later, her image continues to resonate with millions of women who journey to the United States, seeking refuge and opportunity in this land of promise.

As we celebrate Women’s History Month, we need to examine the harrowing experiences of these women. Now more than ever we need comprehensive immigration reform that’s just and humane, especially in light of how our current system disadvantages immigrant women.

It’s no secret that women, like other groups, are forced to flee their home countries due to conflict, poverty, violence, and persecution. What isn’t as widely discussed is the trauma and obstacles they face. Women are especially vulnerable to mental health concerns caused by heartbreaking, and often dangerous conditions before, during, and after migration.

En route to the U.S., women are at a higher-risk to face gender-based violence and may end up being detained in inhumane conditions. The journey to seek refuge can be just as perilous as conditions in their home country. It’s been shocking, but not surprising to hear reports of women fleeing through Mexico or waiting in its northern border cities and being victims of kidnap, rape, trafficking, and other forms of harassment.

Organizations have also documented inadequate healthcare, neglect and abuse when women are
detained after crossing the border. The fact that women who’ve escaped dire circumstances in their home countries are criminalized and sometimes brutalized on the government’s watch is deeply disconcerting.

Women are also disproportionately impacted by backlogs as those seeking entry into the country are more likely to come through the family-based immigration system than men. According to the National Organization for Women, 70 percent of women attain legal status through a family-based visa, but the backlog is so severe that about four million people are currently waiting to be reunited with their loved ones. Time and time again we see a dysfunctional immigration system penalizing the people it’s meant to help by keeping them in what feels like an interminable limbo.

Once in the country, female immigrants may face a number of challenges ranging from living apart from their families and domestic violence to unfair labor practices and lack of access to critical services such as childcare. For those who entered via family-based immigration, they may also face long waits for work authorization, hampering their ability to support themselves and their family. And depending on their country of origin, the bare necessities may be even more difficult to obtain if they’re grappling with cultural differences and language barriers.

The organization I lead, Global Refuge — the nation’s largest faith-based nonprofit dedicated exclusively to serving immigrants and refugees — advocates for just immigration policies and practices. We have seen firsthand the devastating mental and emotional toll that harmful policies can take on women and their families, particularly as we worked to reunite thousands of families who were deliberately separated under the Trump administration’s shameful Zero Tolerance policy.

On the ground, staff in our network of Welcome Centers across the country create what we call
“the Long Welcome” by connecting refugees and people seeking asylum to community and social
services, legal assistance, education, mental health support, and healthcare. We know that when women are provided robust support, their families can go beyond surviving to thriving.

In fact, one of our partners, Lutheran Family Services Rocky Mountains, helps refugee and immigrant women in Denver build their careers through a pilot program titled “Pamoja” that trains early childhood educators who are fluent in multiple languages.

But many women don’t have access to that type of support and find themselves at the mercy of a dysfunctional immigration system. The remedy is a system that treats women fairly and humanely, and it’s only achievable through comprehensive immigration reform.

It’s past time that lawmakers think beyond politics and polls and consider how women are impacted by harmful immigration policies. Women who are victims of violence need additional ways to enter the country legally, and if they’re migrating with their children, they shouldn’t fear being separated from them. Doing what’s right means lawmakers need to expand protection pathways and center policy around the core American belief that families belong together.

Earmarking more funds for immigration courts, judges, and community-based programs is another step Congress needs to take to ensure women and their families aren’t living in limbo due to backlogs – and that they have the local support and services needed to settle in their new surroundings.

In the shadow of Annie Moore’s iconic statue, we find a new generation of immigrant women arriving on distant shores, not with fanfare, but with hearts full of hope and resilience. This Women’s History Month, let us honor with action their bravery, their determination as they navigate a new culture, and their unshakeable commitment to building a brighter tomorrow for themselves and their children.

Their footsteps may not be cast in bronze, but they will echo through generations, reminding us that America’s strength lies in its diversity, compassion, and shared humanity.

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