Observers who say the current immigration movement is leaderless need look no further than the cadre of women leaders, who fuel the movement and have done so for decades

By Pueng Vongs, New America Media


Protest leaderSAN FRANCISCO – May 10, 2006 – The movement for comprehensive immigration reform has sent oceans of people to the streets nationwide, and women have emerged as leaders of this upsurge.

“Many immigration advocacy groups across the nation are led by women,” says Lillian Galedo, executive director with Filipinos for Affirmative Action in Oakland, part of the National Network for Immigration and Refugee Rights.

“When I think about who’s on the conference calls, the majority are women. I think it’s because of their ability to stay focused and hang tough over a long period of time. They’ve been a part of the movement for a long time.”

Now, the women are stepping into the forefront.

Emma Lozano, executive director of Centro Sin Fronteras in Chicago, has been working for immigrant rights since 1983. For nine months she asked Spanish-language radio deejays to speak out against tough anti-immigrant bills. The result was a Chicago protest on July 1, 2005 that gathered 50,000. That followed later with the first major protest in early March in Chicago, which drew 300,000 and put the movement on the map. On May Day she helped turn out 400,000 people in Chicago.

Lozano, whose father was a migrant farmworker, recently helped to write the nation’s first county resolution upholding immigrants’ rights.

“When the Sensenbrenner bill came people were afraid to speak out against it and they feared a backlash, but I said we can’t be afraid of that,” Lozano says.

Lozano has also tailored programs specifically for women, who are migrating today globally at a rate faster than men.

The number of female immigrants, legal and illegal, worldwide rose from 46 percent in 1960 to 49 percent in 2000, according to a United Nations report. In Europe, Latin American and North America, women make up more than half of the immigrant population. The Pew Hispanic Center says of the 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, 4 million of them are women.

That also means that a greater number of them are being caught in immigration crackdowns.

Lozano launched La Familia Latina Unida as a result of the rising number of families torn apart because of toughened immigration laws. “After 9/11 more families came to us seeking help. “ She says mothers were being arrested, single moms, and “a 2-year old was even deported. “

As a result of the surge in women immigrants entering the country as domestic workers and caregivers, Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) created a program to protect their rights. The coalition had also created a ground-breaking program for male day laborers.

“(The women) have unique issues. Many get paid very little, they have to deal with sexual harassment, they are raising families simultaneously,” says Salas.

Salas’ mother was a garment worker and her father, a farmworker. Salas originally came to the United States from Durango, Mexico undocumented.

“I know what coming from a rural background and poverty is like, and also the opportunities in the U.S. It is a dual experience of opportunity and discrimination,” says Salas. Her group was instrumental in bringing out more than one million people to immigration reform rallies in Los Angeles the past few months.

“Our main focus is to help immigrants speak to their stories, struggles, dreams and hopes,” Salas says. CHIRLA has a committee of household workers and nannies who travel with her to address policymakers in Sacramento and Washington D.C. “They educate our elected officials and advocate for themselves on things like fair wages, respect in the workplace and the need for laws to be changed.”

Aarti Shahani co-founder of Families for Freedom in New York, also recently traveled to Washington with 300 families affected by deportations.

She began her work following the 1996 immigration reform and founded her organization for the numerous women who were turned into single mothers because their partners were deported or detained by the U.S. government. She works with an array of multi-ethnic groups from the Caribbean, Africa, Latin America and South Asia.

Shahani was born in Morocco of Indian descent. Shahani’s uncle was deported from the United States in 1999. Her father, a green card holder, is currently facing deportation charges.

The current reform movement has been dominated by the call for legalization, she says, and there has not been enough emphasis on protecting the rights of legal immigrants.

“In the past decade we have witnessed the government deeply expand deportation and detention systems,” she explains. Grounds on which legal residents can be deported include being convicted of crimes, overstaying visas or violating visa conditions.

“Yes, we should legalize as many as possible, but we should not diminish the value of legal status in the process,” she says. “Deportation is the hidden piece even in the most progressive proposals right now. “

Moderate measures like the McCain-Kennedy bill would grant some form of legalization but in the process lessen the value of it, she says.

It is through the work of these women leaders that the movement is thriving.

“Women have put life into this movement,” says Lozano. “We are the nurturers, we take care of the children, we work in the home and the factories. Sometimes men are afraid to come out and stand up because they are targets.”

“We’ve been doing this work for a long time,” says Salas. “What’s interesting is now we’ve seen men emerge who want to take center stage.”


Photo by Kevin Chan of New America Media is committed to presenting diverse points of view. However, the viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at IMD.