06.27.1312:00 PM ET

Searching for Women in the Immigration Bill

It’s almost final. But where are the (immigrant) women? Sandra Fluke examines.

It’s all too common of a scenario, one that we’ve seen time and time again: women’s unique perspectives and needs being overlooked or forced out of the policy debates that directly impact us. Until women make up 50 percent, not 18 percent, of Congress this will continue to be a challenge. This time, women aren’t fully being taken into account in the immigration reform debate. Women are actually the majority of new immigrants arriving and those currently within the U.S.  Approximately 55 percent of the individuals who obtained a green card in 2010 were women, reports the Center for American Progress. Yet, here we are, on the precipice of a final vote on a Senate immigration bill with significant flaws in its design, because parts of it were written without the majority of immigrants, women, in mind.

The proposed bill harms women’s ability to immigrate legally by deliberately shifting away from our long-held tradition of family-based immigration.  Specifically, it eliminates the opportunity for siblings and adult married daughters and sons over the age of 31 to come to the U.S.  Instead, employment-based immigration is prioritized. Unfortunately, the industries emphasized in our employment-based system are primarily male-dominated sectors. In addition, because women in many countries are denied opportunities for education and professional employment, women are less likely to qualify. Currently, male recipients of employment-based visas outnumber women by nearly four to one. Thus, a seemingly gender-neutral move away from family-based immigration will leave many women without a meaningful avenue to become active members of our society. 

Before the immigration bill was even introduced, Sen. Mazie Hirono, the sole immigrant woman on the Senate Judiciary Committee and in the entire U.S. Senate, held an important hearing to consider reforms that would address the needs of women and families, while modernizing our immigration system. As Mee Moua, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC), noted in her testimony before the committee, many of the jobs that immigrant women hold are not adequately recognized by our immigration system. For example, in some metropolitan areas, immigrant women make up more than three fourths of the caregiving workforce. While this is a stable position that is critical to the strength of our communities and families, these women may not fare well in a system that measures advanced education and specific skill sets. However, time and time again throughout this debate, many of these concerns have fallen on deaf ears of some senators.

Senator Hirono and 12 women senators originally co-sponsored a bi-partisan amendment that would have made the proposed system far more equitable for women immigrants and provided a level playing field. This amendment has yet to be voted on. Another amendment would have provided some relief to a select few who could demonstrate extreme hardship due to prolonged separation with loved ones. A pact agreed to by the original co-sponsors of the bill, the Gang of Eight—made up of eight men and zero women—prevented that amendment from passing.

By blocking the adoption of these small reforms, the Senate is failing to acknowledge the many contributions immigrant women make to this nation. Present female family members help create stable structures for immigrant families looking to establish roots and contribute to our workforce and economy. Furthermore, experience demonstrates that immigrant women are more likely to initiate the process of applying for citizenship, and facilitate a faster and seamless integration of their entire family into our communities. Immigrant women are also becoming successful business owners and creating jobs at a higher rate than American-born women. Women deserve an immigration system that works for them, and America needs an immigration system without holes.

Despite these setbacks, Senator Hirono was able to make some strides in protecting women and families. She successfully amended the bill to commission a Government Accountability Office study on the impact that the new system will have on women and families. The knowledge gained from this study will be critical to holding Congress accountable when this system is shown to be inadequate for women. Similarly, Hirono led efforts to protect provisions that clear the inhumane family visa backlog and provide an 18-month grace period for siblings and adult married children over the age of 31 currently petitioning for visas.

Now we must defend those gains in the House of Representatives. House Republicans, who have signaled their hostility for the family-based system, may target these key provisions that greatly impact women and families. It will be imperative for our women champions, and every member of the House, to stand up for women and families, and for each on of us to call upon them to do so.