The new year brought a new Congress to Washington, DC, but some lawmakers seem intent on repeating the same old bad habits — playing politics with the lives and well-being of immigrant women and families. On Wednesday, the House passed five amendments to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) funding bill (H.R. 240), each more offensive than the last. These amendments — part of a poison pill plan to shut down the federal government — look more like a reel of anti-immigrant legislative outtakes than serious policy solutions.

One amendment — proposed by recurring villain in the lives of immigrant women Rep. Robert AderholtRobert Brown AderholtLobbying world The Hill's Coronavirus Report: WHO vs. Trump; Bernie's out Bottom line MORE (R) from Alabama — would increase the likelihood of deportation for immigrant women who are survivors of domestic violence, promoting fear and isolation for women already living on the margins. Another would tear families apart by undoing DHS’ commonsense prioritization of deportation cases, resulting in more parents deported, more families separated, and more children placed in foster care. Others, through de-funding efforts, would destroy President Obama’s administrative relief programs for DREAMers and longtime residents with citizen and/or lawful permanent resident children.


For many conservative lawmakers, this debate is just another excuse to beat up on President Obama by attacking his policies. Unfortunately, it’s women and families who pay the real price. Watching these callous, self-serving, politically motivated-attacks on immigrant women and families, I couldn’t help but think how different the actions of anti-immigrant lawmakers are from those of actual immigrants working for reform.

In November of last year, I had the honor to organize with a group of immigrant women what became an 18-day hunger strike in front of the White House. Together these women, part of DREAMers’ Moms USA, and supporting organizations like the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH), kept vigil on the freezing sidewalk in front of the president’s home to demand relief for the 11 million aspiring citizens living in this country.

These courageous women began their hunger strike not knowing when it would end, and risked their health to send an uncompromising message. Our demands were simple: since Congress had failed to pass humane immigration reform — leaving millions of people living in the shadows — it was time for the president to act, to extend much needed relief until Congress could finish the job.

As undocumented mothers of DREAMers, they understood better than most what is at stake in our nation’s moral struggle over immigration reform. They also risked more than most by forgoing food for over two weeks. Because undocumented women are essentially barred from affordable health programs, not a single participant had health coverage, and most had not seen a provider in the last several years — including several women who had existing conditions that would normally require a doctor’s care. If the hunger strike led to a health crisis, they would have had nowhere to go.

The strike began on a cold, blustery day in Lafayette Park. Every day brought challenges to our bodies and spirits: park regulations prohibited chairs or even pillows to sit on so we huddled close and handed out blankets to keep the cold at bay. With each day that passed, participants grew weaker, and the days stretched long with no food and only water and visitors to pass the time. 

As news of our event spread, we were blessed with supporters from all walks of life, including Reps. Luis GutierrezLuis Vicente GutierrezThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic primary fight shifts to South Carolina, Nevada Democrats rally behind incumbents as Lipinski takes liberal fire Dem leader says party can include abortion opponents MORE (D-Ill.) and Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), longtime champions for immigrant women. Reps. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) held a press conference to amplify our message, and one of the undocumented DREAMer Moms, Lenka Mendoza, bravely told her story.

Our spirits were lifted with Obama’s announcement on November 20th of an executive order to provide temporary relief to an estimated 5 million undocumented immigrants. Unfortunately, many mothers of DREAMers would not be included in the welcome but limited program, and none who qualified for relief would have access to affordable public health programs.

Yet remarkably, even though not every DREAMer Mom would benefit, even though the women who did qualify would still be denied healthcare, and even after 18 days of standing in the cold: these women hugged and cheered. The battle was far from over, but they rejoiced that some families would be able to stay together, that some would be able to live without fear. When I asked them about the limits of the reforms, they told me, “We’ll fight for that later, on another day.”

Their selflessness, humility, compassion, and commitment continue to inspire me. These mothers put their bodies on the line for their children, for their communities, for one another, and to make our nation a better place.

Those in Congress who would rather grandstand than legislate, and who insult these women’s sacrifice by trying to dismantle the president’s lawful and necessary reforms, sure could take a lesson from the DREAMer Moms. I know I did.

Del Castillo is field coordinator for the VA Latina Advocacy Network of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health.