What Immigration Reform Means for Women (Part 1/2)

The US immigration system affects women differently from men. This is the first of a two part series.

In the summer of 2011, I visited a community organization in Georgia to hear the testimony of immigrant women who had been impacted by anti-immigrant legislation recently enacted in the state. As a social worker, I listened in horror as a counselor at a domestic violence service center noted a sharp decline in women coming to the center since the state had passed its draconian new anti-immigrant measures.

When I came home, I called colleagues at programs in other states, and they confirmed that it was something they were noticing too. Immigrant victims of domestic violence were terrified of deportation and potentially being separated from their family, so they were not coming forward to report the abuse to the police or otherwise get help. Immigrant women should not have to choose between suffering from abuse and facing separation from their families, yet because they are terrified of the very real threat of deportation or detention, many silently suffer.

This phenomenon is just one example of how the US immigration system — and efforts to reform it — can impact women differently from men. While much of the US immigration debate has centered on controversies over citizenship and “border security,” less attention has been paid to the enormous impact of immigration policies on women, who make up 51 percent of undocumented immigrants and face unique challenges as they try to make a living in a new country.

The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (S.744) passed the Senate on June 27, 2013, with a vote of 68-32. While the Senate’s immigration reform bill will make a difference in some key areas, it falls far short in others. As the bill moves on to the more conservative House, advocates are working to ensure that the issues facing immigrant women and families remain in the forefront. Here are some of those major issues.

Workplace Inequality

Just like US-born women, undocumented immigrant women face discrimination, long hours, and wage gaps on the job while they try to make ends meet for their families as the primary earner. Many came to the United States specifically to be breadwinners and send money back home.

Many undocumented immigrant women working in the so-called “informal” economy — as nannies and housekeepers, for example — are paid under the table, which makes regular paystubs or written proof of employment impossible to obtain. Others are working at home, caring for their own children and families.

This is problematic because any pathway to citizenship is likely to require applicants to show written proof of continuous employment before they are allowed to receive permanent residency status and eventual naturalization. For the roughly 50 percent of undocumented women who are working at home or raising families, this requirement becomes a barrier. Others are working in situations where asking the employer for documentation would lead to threats or unfair leverage over working conditions, precursors to exploitation and trafficking. Fortunately, the drafters of the immigration bill have included a provision that would allow for these workers to prove their employment history with sworn affidavits instead of pay stubs. For primary caregivers, women who are pregnant, seniors, and people with disabilities, the Senate bill added exceptions to the work requirement, much to the relief of family advocates.

Citizenship should not be tied to continuous employment, but if it is, it’s critical that alternative methods of documentation, and exceptions for caregivers and the most vulnerable, remain acceptable for the pathway to citizenship, so that the contributions of caregivers are not devalued and women working in the informal economy are not left out.

Women in traditional workplaces face challenges as well. The electronic employment eligibility verification system known as “E-verify” is a special cause for concern. Women are more likely to experience errors in the E-verify process, particularly immigrant women, and face more barriers to correcting those errors. “E -Verify errors can result from ‘name inconsistencies’ on various authorizing documents,” explains a policy brief from the National Immigration Law Center. “These name inconsistencies can result from name changes, most commonly because of marriage or divorce. Additionally, name inconsistencies can result from the use of surnames or other culturally defined name-use practices.”

Under the Senate bill, workers detected by the E-verify system would be immediately reported to DHS. And if a worker is unable to correct a mistaken notification in the short ten-day timeframe allotted, her employer will be forced to fire her, which can be the difference between economic devastation and making ends meet. While most immigrant worker advocates are opposed to the E-Verify program because of the potential for detrimental errors — as well as the undue burden it places on small employers like those who employ domestic workers — the proposal is not likely to disappear.

Family Separation and Unification

One of the cruelest aspects of current deportation policy is the ongoing separation of foreign-born parents from their US-born children. Last December, ColorLines magazine reported that “between July 1, 2010, and Sept 31, 2012, nearly 23 percent of all deportations — or, 204,810 deportations — were issued for parents with citizen children.”

Those children face numerous emotional and even cognitive disruptions following separation. The consequences, according to the American Psychological Association (APA), are long lasting. “Children and adolescents whose parents are taken into immigration custody can suffer severe psychological distress, resulting in anxiety, loss of appetite, sleep disturbances, withdrawal, aggressive behavior and decline in educational achievement,” the APA notes. “Research even suggests that the longer the parent and child are separated, the greater the child’s symptoms of anxiety and depression become.”

Democratic Senator Al Franken introduced his HELP Separated Children Act as an amendment to the proposed immigration bill after a particularly traumatic worksite raid in his home state of Minnesota, which left several children without one or both of their parents, with no warning and no way to contact them. At least one child had an infant sibling at home. The HELP amendment, which has now been incorporated into the larger Senate bill, allows parents to make arrangements for care of their children and require federal authorities to consider the best interests of children when it comes to detention, release, and transfer decisions affecting their parents.

Immigrant families trying to legally bring their relatives to the United States face a related challenge. With 4 million people trapped in a legal backlog awaiting a decision on their immigration applications, their families are facing years of separation. While the Senate bill includes many steps to clear the backlog and make things move faster for those waiting to be reunited, some categories of family-based visas, like those for adult married children, have been eliminated to make way for “merit-based” visas.

Since family-based visa programs are the primary avenues women use to earn legal status, replacing those programs with the “merit-based” system in the bill is another blow to women and families. The system, which offers “points” for applicants who meet certain criteria, heavily favors younger, educated, English-speaking immigrants. This puts people who have less opportunity for advancement in their home countries — notably women and people from poorer nations — at a disadvantage. Hawaii Democrat Mazie Hirono organized more than 20 co-sponsors for an amendment to address this disparity by creating another merit category, but it was not incorporated into the final bill.

An analysis of the proposed merit-based system from the Immigration Policy Center made the case that even if points were awarded for primary caregivers, who are overwhelmingly women, “the maximum number of points available for primary caregivers is ten. If caregivers have to compete with applicants who have been employed in the labor market and can accumulate up to 40 points through different categories, the playing field for these women is anything but level.”

The analysis goes on to critique the point system’s shortsighted devaluation of home care and domestic work. “Immigrant women who perform their work in the domestic sphere help sustain the current workforce, raise the future workforce, care for the elderly and sick, and play a critical role in household well-being,” the center observes. “Their contributions to the economy are, therefore, not only immediate, but will also be felt in the future. In addition, unpaid health and childcare provided in the household largely by immigrant women contribute to the physical, cognitive, and emotional development of household members. Those contributions are instrumental not only in individual well-being, but also in the human development of the country.”

Although the immigration bill’s main backers in both parties seem to favor the merit-based approach, Hirono was successful in pushing through an amendment that authorizes a government study to examine its possible negative effects.

The families who have been most neglected by current policy are the ones headed by LGBT spouses. Up until the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) on June 26, neither US citizens nor legal permanent residents could sponsor the immigration petition of a same-sex foreign-born spouse. The debate about including LGBT equality in the bill was contentious, and families were heartbroken when an amendment to address this disparity was ultimately withdrawn from consideration. But only two days after the Supreme Court’s DOMA ruling, a Florida couple became the first same-sex partners to have their marriage-based green card petition approved, pointing to the hope that LGBT families will be spared further discrimination in the bill.

*[Note: Read the final part on September 8. This article was originally published by FPIF.]

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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