Criminal Moms

This past September, I was honored to be part of a delegation of powerful women leaders from across the country who came to Atlanta to bear witness to the testimony of immigrant women, children, and service providers who are struggling because of anti-immigrant policies in Georgia. This was the second delegation organized by a coalition of organizations called We Belong Together, that is trying to draw attention to the destructive effects of immigration enforcement on families.

Even as a social worker focused on the intersection of violence, ethnicity, immigration status, and the workplace for most of my career, the stories I heard on this trip overwhelmed me. Despite the hatred I have observed in the media and even in my hometown in the Florida panhandle, I still find it hard to believe that mothers struggling to care for their families could be demonized so viciously.

Beyond immigration status, we have seen stories from a class lens too. Two stories on the popular site Feministing, reported about mothers who were severely punished, simply for trying to access educations for their children.

Tanya McDowell was living as a homeless woman when she was arrested for sending her five-year-old son to a school district where she — surprise! — didn’t have a permanent residence. Ms. McDowell has said that she only wanted a better education for her child….She was just sentenced to 5 years in prison after pleading guilty in the case.

One year earlier Ohio mother Kelley Williams-Bolar was convicted of lying about where she lived in order to get her daughters into a better school district. Her sentence? 10 days in county jail, three years of probation, community service, and payment of up to $30,000 in back tuition she could be required to pay the school.

My own mom, Lisa, found a (still very humble) apartment above her means as a secretary, just on the border of the school district that would give me a quality education. She opted to sleep on the couch for most of my teenage years so that my brother and I could have beds. She wore the same clothes to work every week, and never, ever bought anything for herself. We ate generic cereal, we dressed in generic brands, and we had our share of money scares but I cannot recall one time that she let me feel that fear. I am sure she would tell you that she is no hero, and no martyr, it’s just that a mother does what she needs to do to ensure her children have a better life.

The struggle facing undocumented immigrant mothers in the U.S. is magnified by a culture of xenophobia and hate, and it makes their sacrifices even more profound. My mom didn’t have to leave her family, friends, hometown or home country because economic and ecological crises had swallowed any opportunities for decent work. She didn’t have to cross a border in the middle of the night risking death, rape, robbery. She didn’t have to live in constant fear of being pulled over for a traffic ticket and having her children ripped from her arms and put in the social service system while she languished in a detention center.

To my sister delegates on this upcoming WBT delegation to Alabama, I look forward to your return reports. When we can uplift the humanity of all people regardless of immigration status, when folks can relate those harrowing stories and lives to their own struggles, when we all agree that families should be together, and all mothers should have the opportunity to provide food and shelter for their children without being arrested, then we will be witnessing progress.