Women force arrest at Capitol over immigration

Franco Ordonez,Sarah Sexton

About two dozen undocumented immigrants were among 115 women arrested Thursday outside the U.S. Capitol after blocking an intersection in a move to reignite an immigration debate sidelined by the crisis in Syria.

Daniela Saczek, 22, of Miami, wrapped arms with a colleague from the Miami Workers Center. She squeezed her hand and chanted, “Yes we can” in Spanish. And they waited for police who, one by one, handcuffed and arrested each of the women.

“I’m extremely nervous,” Saczek said before walking into the street. “It’s the first time I’m going to be arrested, but we have to rise to the occasion. That’s what women tend to do.”

Saczek, who is originally from Venezuela and is a recent graduate of Florida International University, and the other women called on the House of Representatives, particularly the Republican House leadership, to bring a vote on a comprehensive immigration overhaul for the 11 million estimated to be in the country illegally.

Organizers said Thursday’s act of civil disobedience involved the largest number of undocumented immigrant women ever willing to submit to arrest.

The women, all dressed in red T-shirts that read “Women for Fair Immigration Reform,” traveled from 20 states, including Charlotte, N.C., Stockton, Calif., Texas and Missouri to call for changes to the system. They sought to raise awareness to an immigration system that, they said, disproportionately impacts women. More than half of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants are believed to be women and children.

“You rarely think about immigration as a women’s issue,” said demonstration leader Pramila Jayapal, co-chair of We Belong Together, a New York-based coalition that advocates for immigration overhaul on behalf of women. “But in fact, women and children are the ones who are benefited the most by good immigration policy or burdened the most by failed immigration policy. And what we’ve seen in this country is failed immigration policy.”

Immigration was one of the top issues in Washington over the summer before Congress left on its summer recess. But things changed dramatically when the United States was dragged into an international crisis over an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria that killed hundreds.

The immigration debate was sidelined as President Barack Obama pressed to use military force in Syria and sought congressional approval. The Syria crisis has consumed the returning Congress. Hope among many activists now is that a diplomatic solution guided by Russia will help refocus on immigration.

Several Hispanic House members joined the Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute on Thursday to caution House leaders not to get distracted by the international crisis. David Valadao, D-Calif., acknowledged that immigration had fallen to the wayside as Syria, the debt ceiling and other issues took precedence.

“We’re here to say we don’t want that,” he said. “We need to get involved. We need to make sure leadership does not forget about the importance of this issue.”

But even in the absence of the Syrian crisis, an immigration overhaul remains in limbo. The Senate passed its own comprehensive overhaul bill in June. But House leadership has no plans of taking up the bill. The Republican leadership has instead focused on separate provisions that, among other things, addresses border security and measures to help children who were brought to the country illegally.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., a member of a bipartisan House team drafting a comprehensive immigration bill, addressed the group of women Thursday morning at the rally. She said a House bipartisan bill has been drafted and is ready to be introduced. But she said it’s unclear whether the Republican leadership would allow it to be voted on.

On Thursday, the 115 women linked arms and sat in a circle around Independence Avenue. They chanted in Spanish: “Women united, can never be defeated.”

Saczek said Congress should show the same courage as the undocumented women willing to be arrested.

“These women are risking everything, and they don’t even have the courage to vote,” she said.

By Franco Ordonez and Sarah Sexton
McClatchy Washington Bureau