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Women Need Immigration Reform: What You Can Do About It

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Women immigrants in the United States are a positive force in their communities. Rather than criminalizing them, argues the author, we must let them take care of their families.

Recently on the Women's Media Center site, Gloria Steinem and Pramila Jayapal argued that immigration is a woman's issue—that far from matching the frightening image often imagined by those in favor of the new draconian Arizona law, SB-1070, the large majority of U.S. immigrants both documented and undocumented are women and children.

The fear that prompted the Arizona law may be spreading among some Americans. Voters in a town in Nebraska approved a ban on hiring or renting homes to undocumented residents. And a recent poll shows a majority support the Arizona law, although the Washington Post/ABC News poll earlier this month indicated a racial split: 68 percent of whites support the law while only 31 percent of people of color back it. But we know from polling and other research that the women who seek new lives here are hardly the drug runners and terrorists that stereotypes portray.

In a 2009 poll, women immigrants reported that their number one reason for migrating to the United States was to join family already here, not to profit from welfare or other benefits. In fact, undocumented immigrants cannot receive federal welfare benefits. Even legal immigrants are ineligible from participating until they have been in the country for a minimum of five years. And, contrary to the myth of the criminal immigrant, studies show that immigrants commit fewer crimes than citizens and contribute to the stabilization of communities.

Rather than committing crimes, the 4.1 million undocumented women immigrants in the United States are disproportionately victims of them. They suffer disproportionately higher rates of domestic violence, on the job violence, job discrimination, sexual exploitation and human trafficking. They are “potentially the most vulnerable group of workers that we have in this country, the most likely to get discriminated against [and] abused,” explains Irasema Garza, president of Legal Momentum, The Women’s Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Many SB-1070 supporters also believe that the undocumented population is not interested in becoming “legal.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The majority of women immigrants reported that they want to become U.S. citizens. They indicated that the desire to keep their families stable was their prime motivator. But when most undocumented immigrants approach lawyers about changing their status, they find that under current law it is impossible for them to gain legal status. The United States accepts only a few “categories” of immigrants, like professionals or academics, and the numbers of available visas have not been updated in years, according to the Immigration Policy Organization’s report, Breaking Down the Problems.

The report continues, “There are few legal ways for most immigrants to come to the United States.” The poorest immigrants, the ones willing to risk the dangerous crossing, have no chance of being admitted legally. Even immigrants with the required family connections face a decade-long waiting list, reads the report.

The passage of SB-1070 has put pressure on the Obama administration to pass comprehensive immigration reform. As the legislation is crafted it is imperative that the challenges faced by women immigrants are not forgotten. A bill that promotes only enforcement and border security but does nothing to address the broken immigration system will negatively impact women. “These policies are really hurting women and children and we don’t tend to look at it that way,” explains Garza.

Earlier this year Legal Momentum, with the support of over 60 organizations, sent a letter to Congress outlining the dangers facing immigrant women. “Immigrant women are 40 percent more likely to suffer from violence either in the home or at work,” says Garza.

Women often toil in jobs in the informal economy including home healthcare, childcare and domestic work. As participants in these “hidden” occupations they are often underpaid and subject to exploitation. They do not call police when they are victimized for fear of deportation and separation from their children. Unscrupulous employers know this and often seek to exploit them.

While the situation is less precarious for documented women, their legal status is still more likely to be dependent on a partner or family member than a male immigrant. Dependent legal status makes women vulnerable to abuse, as they are often unwilling to call police on a violent partner on whom their legal presence in the country depends. If they call police and domestic violence charges cannot be proven, they risk losing their legal status and possible separation from children.

“Immigration policies, on their face, appear to be neutral. But in reality they have potential serious impact on immigrant women,” says Garza. In their congressional sign-on letter, Legal Momentum makes several policy recommendations to address the major threats facing women including: violence, family separation, poverty and on-the-job exploitation.

Legal Momentum recommends that women be granted access to independent legal status to decrease their vulnerability to violent partners. Women also need better legal counsel in cases where their rights are violated.

In order to ensure that women are able to participate in a path to legalization, the organization states that informal sector work needs to count as work and fines for illegal entry need to be affordable. Garza explains that when legalization fees are too costly, mothers will sacrifice their own legal status to pay for other family members.

Legal Momentum maintains that workplace raids and increasing deportations are tearing families apart without addressing the greater problem. Separating citizen children from their undocumented mother causes nothing but heartbreak. Their letter proposes a halt in enforcement-only tactics and action to shorten the decades long waiting list for family visas.

At this time there are no pending immigration reform bills in the Senate. Charles Schumer (D-NY) was working with Lindsey Graham (R-SC) on the framework for a bill but Senator Graham withdrew from talks, delaying further the introduction of legislation. Garza indicates that once a Senate bill is introduced that Legal Momentum will continue their lobbying efforts on behalf of women and their families. She says that she has been pleased about the levels of interest and support shown by the women’s community regarding SB-1070 and issues facing immigrant women generally. She concludes, “We can’t be selective feminists. These are women—they’re women here in the country, they’re women with children and they’re women that are experiencing some of the worst economic conditions, potential victims of abuse both at home and at work.”

More articles by Category: Feminism, Gloria Steinem, Immigration
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