Recognizing Immigrant Women’s Needs in Immigration Reform

shutterstock_29804083While the recent debate over reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act and the Trafficking Victims Protection Act may have reminded the nation that there are “women’s issues” in immigration law, it doesn’t necessarily follow that most people regard immigration reform as a woman’s issue. Despite the fact that immigrant women make up a growing share of workers, entrepreneurs, single heads of households, and new voters—while remaining primary caregivers in families—the laws we craft to reform our broken immigration system have often been insensitive to the obstacles and challenges immigrant women face in applying for immigration status.

As Kavitha Sreeharsha identified in a 2010 paper for the Immigration Policy Center, there are pitfalls we face in crafting inclusive immigration laws:

“…a CIR package must include a path to legalization that values the contributions of immigrant women as part‐time and informal workers. It must recognize that women need independent opportunities to apply for legalization (as opposed to merely deriving it from a spouse or father). It must account for the fact that many immigrant women—who make significant contributions to the workforce—nonetheless have had less formal access to educational and employment opportunities. CIR must also consider the role that women play in immigrant families and as the predominant beneficiaries in the family immigration system.”

In other words, laws that appear neutral on their face might, in fact, make it more difficult for undocumented women to access a legalization program or for women hoping to immigrate to the U.S. to obtain a visa. And in the meantime, in the absence of such reforms, the existing deportation and removal laws and policies often weigh most heavily on women, who are either left to try to keep their families together while their husbands or partners face deportation charges, or find themselves caught up in the net of Secure Communities and other enforcement activities that most often pull otherwise law-abiding immigrants into removal proceedings through traffic stops and other low-level encounters with police.

Two examples from the current debate help to illustrate how the legal requirements that appear neutral may make it more difficult for women to access the immigration system. The legalization proposals in 2006 and 2007 included full-time employment requirements as a condition of either registering for legalization, maintaining that status, or transitioning to lawful permanent resident status. It was often assumed that women and children would apply for “derivative” status—that is they would ride along on the principal (husband’s) application. While many people challenge the employment provision in general, one of the most significant criticisms against it has been that women who are full-time caregivers or who are only employed part-time would have no independent means to apply for legalization. The assumption that family members can or should ride along on an application isn’t a problem in itself—it is often more efficient and less expensive to process a whole family at once—but it does assume a family dynamic that isn’t always in place.

Similarly, the 2007 CIR bill would have drastically cut family-based immigration in favor of a points system that would privilege applicants with higher education and skills. In all likelihood, such a  proposal could have hurt the chances of immigrant women to enter the U.S., as many currently enter under the family category—and may come from countries where their access to education or other opportunities is limited precisely because they are women. Thus, an immigration system based solely on credentials at the time of entry would miss out on the rich contributions of many immigrant women who realize their true potential when they move to the United States.

Fortunately, the concerns from past debates are being raised today thanks to a growing network of immigrant women’s groups, immigration groups, and the broader women’s movement. They are using the month of March to focus on lobbying Congress, marching on Washington, and pressing for a different kind of immigration debate. This is yet more evidence that the significance of the 2013 immigration reform efforts are no longer just about immigration.  As diverse communities come together in support of immigration reform, they send a loud and clear message to Congress: fixing the broken immigration system isn’t just about changing laws, but is instead about how America values its people—women and men alike.

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