Thursday, nearly 300 people were arrested in front of the White House during a rally calling on President Barack Obama to halt mass deportations. Among them was Terry O’Neill, President of the National Organization for Women (NOW).

O’Neill was arrested during El Dia Decisivo, a civil disobedience action led by Casa de Maryland and the newly formed Casa de Virginia. She spoke to the Feminist Newswire just hours after being released from custody.

“NOW, for a very long time, has been engaged with allies in the fight for immigrant women’s rights,” O’Neill said. “NOW has long taken the position that unless you simultaneously end sexism, racism, homophobia and all the -isms that are out there, we can’t achieve true equality,” she said. As part of the We Belong Together Coalition: Women for Common Sense Immigration Reform , the group supported the Senate’s action to reform US immigration laws last year, but O’Neill said there are still “huge problems.”

“Most women who come [into the United States] come as family members of men who have visas,” she said. O’Neill called attention to the particular nest of bureaucracy facing immigrant women. “She may be a brilliant scientist, but she can’t even look for work,” O’Neill said. The employment-based visa holder can claim certain family members as dependents, but depending on the terms of the employment or family-based visa, those family members cannot seek employment in the United States. The Immigration Policy Center says family visas can “facilitate” women’s labor force participation, but they certainly do not guarantee such participation. “In the meantime, her (skills) are atrophying. She’s losing her ability to use her skills and talents while she’s waiting around for her paperwork to be processed,” O’Neill said. “We need to divert those resources from deportation to providing services.”

Advocates for comprehensive immigration reform have criticized the present Congress for its failure to prevent families from being torn apart by deportation, but O’Neill also called attention to the impact of laws that put single immigrant women at a disadvantage. “Look, not every married couple that comes into this country is going to stay married,” she told the Newswire, adding that individuals who depend on their spouse’s visa face the greatest vulnerability if and when the relationship changes. “Where’s she going to get her economic security? If the relationship is or becomes violent, the woman is extremely vulnerable.”

Advocates fought to expand the number of “U Visas” available to victims of crimes like trafficking or domestic violence, but O’Neill said there still aren’t enough. The aggressive coordination of local law enforcement with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers also discourages immigrant women from coming forward if they are subjected to violence.

“If (victims of a crime) live in a community that’s largely undocumented, women will be hesitant to bring it to the authorities,” O’Neill said. “Because of the way ICE behaves, because of their insistence on scooping up large numbers of people because their only crime is that their papers aren’t in order – as long as ICE is behaving that way, that makes it harder for immigrant women to come forward.” O’Neill said this is true with or without legal status.

According to Wednesday’s Washington Post, the White House announced plans to take executive action on immigration in the coming weeks. “We want President Obama to go big,” O’Neill said. “He said he’s going to do something. We want him to do a lot. Stop all of the mass deportation. Stop separating those families.”

Media Resources: Feminist Newswire 6/10/13; American Immigration Council; Washington Post 8/27/14

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