SAN FRANCISCO -- With a draft immigration reform bill expected as soon as next week, advocates are calling on Congress to make sure any pathway to citizenship includes a sizable -- and often overlooked -- sector of the U.S. immigrant population: women.
As of 2011, 51.1 percent of all foreign-born people in the United States were women, a trend that has been building since the 1970s.
Yet they receive less than one-third of work visas, according to Miriam Yeung, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum. That means a majority are denied employment, ostensibly excluding them from any reform that attaches citizenship to proof of work.
“When we’re talking about building a roadmap to citizenship, we need to include women,” Yeung told reporters during a national telebriefing on Thursday hosted by New America Media. Yeung also noted the inability to work leaves women financially dependent on a male spouse. It’s “a grave imbalance of power” in the home, she said, and one that makes women more vulnerable to problems like domestic violence.
The vast majority of immigrant women (70 percent) gain permanent residence in the United States through family-based visas, according to a report by the Asian Pacific American Legal Center. Yet there is such a backlog in the system that many end up waiting years, even decades, to join their relatives in the United States.
Yeung is calling for an immigration reform bill that includes work visas for professions largely populated by women, such as domestic workers. She is also pushing for clearing backlogs in the family-based visa system that prevent relatives from joining their families here; making the United States a safe haven for survivors of trafficking; and due process rights.
She noted American women – who have outnumbered male voters in recent elections – could be a game changer in the movement for immigration reform.
NAPAWF has partnered with the National Domestic Workers Alliance to create a campaign aimed at bringing American women into the conversation about immigration reform. The campaign, called We Belong Together, organized a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in March on the effect of immigration reform on women and families. It also rallied hundreds of women for an April 10 march in Washington in support of immigration reform.
Other groups, including the Internet site MomsRising, have used social media and online activism to highlight the role of women in immigration reform.
“For the first time in my experience, immigration reform is being understood as a women’s issue,” observed Frank Sharry, who served as director of the National Immigration Forum for 17 years before founding the advocacy group America’s Voice.
As for Washington, Sharry noted, “both parties have a political incentive” to pass immigration reform. “The only thing that can screw it up is if Congress gets in their own way and they trip over each other on the their way to the finish line.”
The Race to the Finish Line
Angela Kelley, vice president for immigration policy and advocacy at the Washington, D.C. think tank Center for American Progress, said she was “optimistic that we’ll have a bill by this time next week.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee would then likely debate and make amendments to the bill during the month of May. It would then head to the Senate floor in early-mid June, Kelley estimates.
But what happens in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives is a different story.
Kelley laid out three possible scenarios.
First, the House could wait to see what happens in the Senate; if the bill passes by a large majority, the House could decide to vote on the Senate bill. This is probably unlikely, especially if House Republicans perceive the Senate bill as being too lenient in its pathway to citizenship and too light on enforcement.
Second, the House could produce its own bill through the work of their own “Gang of Eight” – a bipartisan group of legislators who, like the group in the Senate of the same name, has been working on its own version of an immigration reform bill. Kelley notes that the bill being drafted in the House reportedly also has a legalization program.
The third scenario is that the House would give up on a comprehensive immigration reform bill, and instead opt for piecemeal legislation that tackles specific immigration-related issues separately.
Whatever emerges, Kelley estimates that with a majority of House Democrat votes and a handful of Republicans, the final bill would likely pass. “It’s possible we could be done by August,” Kelley said. “But there’s no certainty.”
Key Issues to Watch
When it comes to legalization, the question isn’t just how long an undocumented immigrant will have to wait before gaining residency and eventual citizenship, but also “how wide the path will be,” said Kelley.
Will legalization really be open to the 11 million undocumented immigrants already living in the United States or will some be left out, such as those with prior deportation orders, or those who have already been deported and have re-entered the country illegally? Will same-sex bi-national couples be able to apply for a green card through their spouse the way other married couples can?
The question of enforcement could be another stumbling block. Republicans have long touted enforcement and “border security” as a prerequisite to any kind of legalization program. Democrats, meanwhile, want to make sure that legalization is not dependent on an unattainable goal.
“We don’t want the status of 11 million people to be contingent on something happening at the border that’s hard to control and isn’t measurable,” said Kelley. She stressed instead the importance of concrete steps like producing an analysis or report on the border, or dispatching additional agents, resources and infrastructure.
Finally, the plight of families is another major consideration with any immigration reform bill. There are currently at least 4 to 5 million people waiting in a backlog for family-based visas, and advocates worry about who might be cut off if certain categories are eliminated.
Down the line, Kelley wonders if the requirements will be too onerous for people to meet. “Does the path maintain its width, or get narrower, and harder for people to stay on?”
Cashing In on Immigration Reform
With hope of reform also comes the opportunity for unscrupulous attorneys and notarios (notaries public), who could take advantage of the situation for their own financial gain, promising to help people apply for citizenship and then pocketing the money.
“I’m even worried that when the bill is announced next week, there will be notarios advertising – and that will be a rip-off,” said Frank Sharry of America’s Voice.
“The ethnic media,” he said, “has an important role to play to steer people to low-cost or no-cost attorneys and reputable attorneys.”
But, Sharry added, “the most important factor in the immigration debate isn’t money like in so many other issues – it’s votes.”
For Miriam Yeung of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, the question of how America treats immigrants comes down to how Americans see themselves.
“We know that families [in these communities] are really important,” she said. “I think this is a moment in our country to grapple with core values and who we value as family members.”