Although it has stalled in the US Senate for lack of consensus between Democrats and Republicans and is now likely to languish indefinitely, the recently-proposed immigration bill has women's advocates worried.
Women comprise 50 per cent of the foreign-born population in the US, 48 per cent of legal immigrants, 42 per cent of unauthorized migrants, coming from Latin America, Asia, Canada, Europe and Africa. And, like women everywhere, they battle with inadequate pay cheques, multiple family demands, domestic violence and sexual abuse, limited access to health care and other services, and gender stereotyping.
Elvira Arellano is an undocumented immigrant who went underground in Chicago with her American-born eight-year-old son in order to avoid being deported back to Mexico without him. Named as one of the "People Who Mattered" last year by TIME Magazine, Arellano has become an icon in the movement against separating US-born children from their undocumented parents. The practice is little-reported, but raids have resulted in families being torn apart; even young children and nursing infants have been removed from their mothers' care, often held in detention centers awaiting resolution of their cases.
Everyone agrees that the problem of illegal immigration needs to be addressed in the US, as elsewhere. But says Esther Nieves, director of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker social justice organization, the proposed Senate immigration bill "will tear apart families and separate workers from their loved ones. [The bill] falls far short of what is needed to address the nation's broken and out-of-date immigration system."
At the heart of Nieves' concern, and that of many other social justice and immigrant advocacy groups, is the move away from family reunification - the centerpiece of immigration policy since 1965 - to a law that favors highly skilled or highly educated workers seeking permanent residence.
In the latest compromise version of the proposed bill, current illegal immigrants seeking permanent residence in the US would be required to pay a $5,000 fine (about 14 times the average weekly salary of an immigrant laborer), return to their home country, and wait as long as eight years to re-enter the US. Future low-skilled workers seeking entry would be channeled into a temporary programme of "guest workers" allowing them to work in the US for three stints of two years each, with a one-year stay in their home country in-between, after which they could apply for residency through a merit-based system based on points granted for English language proficiency, level of education and job skills, and other factors. Siblings and adult children of legal immigrants would no longer be eligible for visas while visas for parents of US citizens would be limited. The bill also calls for stronger borders, punishing employers who hire illegal immigrants, and eliminating the backlog of visa applications from aspiring legal immigrants.
The proposed legislation has broad support among Americans, especially those seeking cheap labor or an intellectual edge in science and technology. But proponents of the bill haven't read the fine print, or fail to apply the lens of gender to its components. Kavita Sreeharsha, an attorney for the Washington DC-based Legal Momentum's Immigrant Women Project, says, "The current Senate bill doesn't take into account women's work and experience, which is always undervalued. It will be much harder for women to seek immigrant status given the proposed process. Historically, women have been 38 per cent more likely than men to gain family-based immigration. This bill basically removes the track to legal immigration for women. It creates an underclass, and that class is women and children. We are extremely concerned that women's voices are being left out of the debate."
The newly-formed National Coalition on Immigrant Women's Rights, comprising Legal Momentum, National Organization for Women, National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum and others, has pointed out that immigrant women are often left to suffer when their husbands are detained or deported. Subject to restricted benefits, predatory lending, housing crises and family disruption, they frequently suffer severe emotional and financial distress. They are also subjected to unfair and unsafe labor practices, inadequate health care for themselves and their children, and sexual harassment. Domestic violence can also be a problem, either in the US or in an immigrant's home country, which can trigger an attempt to reside legally the US.
According to Lydia Brashear Tiede, a human rights lawyer in San Diego, California, immigration relief available to battered women depends on where the abuse occurred. Explains Tiede, "A woman fleeing her country due to domestic violence can, when she enters the US, seek political asylum based on the domestic violence. This makes her subject to asylum law. To qualify, an individual must establish that she is a 'refugee'. But the treatment of domestic violence in the asylum context is starkly different from the treatment of domestic violence suffered by immigrant women already in the US, particularly when their partner is a US citizen or a legal resident. [Ed. note: US law has been amended to recognize that battered women should not have to rely on their abusive partner's help in petitioning for legal status.] Comparison reveals a indefensible double standard, wherein battered immigrant women living in the US face a much easier standard than their counterparts fleeing abuse in their home countries."
The American Bar Association (ABA) has called for a "regulated, orderly and safe immigration system that addresses the undocumented population, the need for immigrant labor, the value of family reunification and the need for an effective enforcement strategy." Further, it supports programmes for undocumented laborers and future workers "that include a path to permanent residence, labor protections, and identity and security checks. It also supports making legal status available to undocumented persons who entered the US as children and have significant ties to the nation." The ABA seeks the right to counsel in removal proceedings and due process and protection during the immigration procedure and calls for 'a transparent, accessible, fair and efficient system for administering immigration law." And it "supports means for victims of human trafficking, domestic violence and related crimes to obtain lawful immigration status and employment authorization [with] public benefits."
Speaking for the American Friends Service Committee, assistant general secretary Joyce Miller says, "We continue to believe that the US has as much to gain from newly arrived immigrants as it did from those who came to this country in preceding centuries." Gender-sensitive immigration advocates are working hard to see that women remain visible when it comes to remembering the contributions and the difference immigrants can make.