Even though there are approximately 19 million foreign born women in the U.S.—accounting for 12.3% of the female population—we tend to hear very little about them. A closer look at the female immigrant population reveals many important facts—immigrant women are incredibly diverse in terms of country of origin, time in the U.S., citizenship rates, income, poverty, and labor market participation. This week, the Immigration Policy Center (IPC) released a report, Reforming America’s Immigration Laws: A Woman’s Struggle by Kavitha Sreeharsha, a senior staff attorney at Legal Momentum’s Immigrant Women Program and a fact sheet detailing the demographic makeup of immigrant women in the U.S.

Immigrant women also experience the U.S. immigration system in a way that is distinct to men, and often leaves them at a disadvantage.

In Miami in February 2009, Rita Cote’s sister called 911 to seek police protection after a domestic violence incident. Ms. Cote’s sister had lawful immigration status but had a limited capacity to speak English. Law enforcement agents asked for identification for everyone at the scene. Ms. Cote urged the agents to first address the domestic violence issue but they insisted that Ms. Cote’s sister could only press charges by going to the police station. After Ms. Cote showed her passport to the officers the officers arrested her, and took her away. The domestic violence crime went unaddressed.

Stories such as this are far too common. According to Sreeharsha, lawmakers and others often overlook the specific immigration reforms necessary to ensure that women are treated equally and fairly. If not done right, CIR may inadvertently create new barriers to women and establish eligibility criteria that are beyond the reach of some immigrant women. For example, a CIR package must include a path to legalization that values the contributions of immigrant women as part-time and informal workers. Without immigration reforms, many immigrant women will continue to lack economic access, experience separation from their families, and be subjected to exploitation and criminal activity.

The report makes the following recommendations:

  • Legalization must equitably value women’s work: Avenues for legalization that value work must recognize and ‘count’ the range of immigrant women’s work in the informal economy such as domestic work, child care, and home health care. Part-time and contract work, as well as work for multiple employers, must count toward legalization. Because many recent legalization proposals have required full-time employment or schooling, they fail to take into account the unique barriers faced by many undocumented women.
  • Legalization fee structures must ensure incentives for immigrant families to apply for legal immigration status for all eligible family members. High fees may limit the number of applications a family can afford, resulting in applications only being filed by and for male heads-of-household. Fees must be on a sliding scale so that they are not cost-prohibitive for low-wage women workers.
  • CIR must reduce family visa backlogs: Because women disproportionately immigrate through family-based channels, they are especially vulnerable to long backlogs, which heightens women’s dependency on partners and increasing the likelihood of exploitation by family members and employers. Measures to promote family reunification and reduce backlogs will thus particularly benefit immigrant women.
  • Improve personal security and autonomy by expanding access to independent immigration status: When women attain legal status based upon a family relationship, other family members gain control over whether she ever attains legal status. This dynamic can jeopardize women’s autonomy and safety. Immigrant women’s economic and physical security is enhanced when they can independently obtain legal immigration status.
  • Eliminate local law-enforcement partnerships such as 287(g) and Secure Communities: These partnerships result in undocumented immigrant women being drawn into the immigration-enforcement system as victims and witnesses of domestic violence and other crimes. Crime perpetrators, abusive spouses, and abusive and exploitative employers call DHS to report undocumented immigrant victims for deportation. This very effective power-and-control tactic silences crime victims and keeps them from seeking help.
  • Reform the immigration detention system in order to not re-victimize vulnerable immigrant women detainees. Such reforms must include meaningful access to health services. All detainees should be screened and undergo a risk assessment that evaluates vulnerable immigrants such as crime victims, pregnant women, sole caretakers, and those with health conditions so that they can be allowed to seek alternatives to detention, humanitarian release, or release on their own recognizance.

Ultimately, the author concludes, only through a comprehensive immigration reform package—meaningful reform that values the contributions immigrant women make as mothers, wives and workers—can we reconcile these disparities.