Sara Monroy-Huddleston, a Mexican immigrant and the first Latina woman to run for Iowa’s State House of Representatives, spent years at a local domestic violence agency where she witnessed the systemic obstacles immigrant women faced when trying to escape their abusers. “They face not only domestic violence,” she says. “They face many barriers: cultural barriers, language barriers. They don’t know how to contact agencies. Locals misunderstand their culture and make assumptions that they are on welfare. They can’t drive.”
Several years ago, a woman from El Salvador showed up at the agency crying, unable to communicate her crisis in English. Monroy-Huddleston learned that the woman came the United States to live with her husband, a citizen, so that she could pursue a better life and eventually bring over her two daughters, who were two and seven years old. But without adequate English skills, she struggled to navigate the complicated immigration system. As a result, she did not get proper documentation and became one of the millions of people living in the shadows. When her husband began to beat her, she didn’t tell the police because she feared deportation. “A lot of abusers who are U.S. citizens say to their undocumented partners, ‘If you report this, I’m going to get you deported,’” Monroy-Huddleston explains. Monroy-Huddleston helped the woman get a work permit and file for permanent residency. “Still, she had to wait,” she recalls. Immigration law prohibited her from leaving the country to visit her children; meanwhile, they grew up apart from their mother. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is misery.’ And this is what so many immigrants go through.” The girls were finally cleared to come here legally, nine years later.
Only when people come out of the shadows can they fully give back to society.
Monroy-Huddleston came to Iowa in 1990 as a foreign exchange student and met her future husband while attending Simpson College. After the couple settled in Storm Lake, Monroy-Huddleston became a staple of the community, devoting herself to community service and advocating for the rights of domestic violence victims. Having received training from mental health professionals and even the FBI, she shared her expertise at a variety of community organizations throughout Iowa and around the country. She emerged as a well-known community leader. Then, at the prompting of a local journalist and friend, she ran for city council and won.
She spent 12 years serving on city council, focusing her efforts on strengthening community relationships and making Storm Lake a destination for tourists and new residents alike. She worked to make the centerpiece of their town, a glistening, sandy-shored lake, a destination for eco-tourism. By building bridges between immigrants and long-time residents, she has made the community more hospitable to newcomers, strengthened its workforce, and expanded its diversity.
Monroy-Huddleston wants to capitalize on the vibrant community members of Storm Lake by ensuring that every person is an equal participant in the system. That’s why she supports immigration reform. Only when people come out of the shadows can they fully give back to society, she says. Abused women like the mother from El Salvador can escape, work, pay into the larger system, and revitalize their local economy. The benefits of a streamlined, welcoming immigration system will benefit the whole community. After all, says Huddleston, “Citizenship is more than just a legal document.”