Women are a Critical Part of Immigration Reform: Let’s Include Them This Time

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Women are a Critical Part of Immigration Reform: Let’s Include Them This Time

By Michelle Brané and Emily Butera
Women’s Refugee Commission

On April 17, we at the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) welcomed the introduction of S. 744, the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013.” For those of us who are veterans of the immigration reform efforts of 2006 and 2007, this day marked a long-awaited return to a serious national conversation about our immigration system. But April 17 also represented a major step forward for the protection of immigrant women’s rights — something we at the WRC have been working towards for more than 15 years.

As we began to analyze the contents of the bill, it became clear that our efforts to bring policymakers the message that immigration reform is not comprehensive unless it includes women had begun to sink in. For the first time in the modern history of immigration reform efforts, the “Gang of Eight” Senators who drafted the legislation took seriously the need to think about the lives and experiences of immigrant women and their families, and to make sure that the contributions that immigrant women have made to this country were acknowledged and honored with an equitable and inclusive path to citizenship.

S. 744 marked a turning point in the fight for immigrant women’s rights. The bill provides more opportunities for women to legalize and get on a pathway to citizenship than any prior effort at reform.Exemptions and waivers to employment requirements for those who can demonstrate sufficient income or resources, are pregnant, on maternity leave, or are primary caregivers for children will help ensure that women can renew their Registered Provisional Immigrant (RPI) status (the first step in the legalization process) and eventually earn green cards and full citizenship. The bill also provides important protections for women asylum seekers and women eligible for visas to protect those who have been abused, battered, trafficked, or are victims of crime. Similarly, the bill encourages the use of alternatives to detention and includes provisions to protect the parental rights of those caught up in immigration detention and removal. In addition, the bill includes provisions that allow workers to use day labor center records and sworn affidavits to prove employment. This flexibility will help ensure that women who work in the informal economy will not be excluded from legalization and citizenship simply because they cannot provide proof of work. Lastly, in awarding caregivers the same number of points as master’s degree holders, the new merit-based visa provisions will help ensure that work as a homemaker is not an impediment to permanency.

But the bill is not perfect. Legalization and the pathway to citizenship will still be harder for women than men. High fees and penalties will disproportionately disadvantage women and limit their ability to achieve full citizenship because when difficult financial choices have to be made, families are more likely to preference the male members of a household. Similarly, it will be difficult for many families to overcome the public charge or income and resources requirements to earn status — even when both men and women in the household are working. In households where a woman stays home to care for children, it will be all but impossible. The 2011 deadline by which an individual must be physically present to apply for RPI status is already likely to exclude more women than men, since the number of women coming to the U.S. only recently equaled the number of men. Too many women will still be subject to detention— and separated from their families—because the bill fails to tackle the overuse of mandatory detention in our immigration laws. In addition, the imbalance between points for caregiving and points for employment and education in the merit-based visa system risks leaving many women behind. Lastly, the shift away from a family visa system that allows U.S. legal residents and citizens to petition for their sisters and brothers overseas will disproportionately affect women who have historically benefitted from family-based immigration.

As S. 744 heads for the Senate floor in June, it is critical that we protect and improve upon provisions that will determine women’s ability to participate. This will entail a fight, and we got a taste of the issues that will be at the heart of that fight during the Senate Judiciary Committee mark-up.

Although advocates were able to block passage of some of the worst amendments to the bill—which was reported out of the Judiciary Committee on May 21st—amendments offered by several members of the Senate Judiciary Committee would drastically narrow eligibility for legalization—and ultimately citizenship —for many women.  We know these amenemdnts will come up again and again as immigration legislation moves through Congress, so we must be vigilent in guarding against their passage in the months to come. Of the more than 300 amendments introduced, some of the most problematic for women included:

  • Lee amendment #7 to bar anyone who was not in the U.S. before December 31, 2009 from applying for RPI status, and to bar spouses and children who entered the U.S. after 2011 from being included in the principal applicant’s petition (amendment not considered)
  • Grassley amendment #7 to increase the penalty that must be paid to apply for RPI status to $5,000 (amendment not considered)
  • Sessions amendment # 29 that would require individuals to maintain an income that is four times the federal poverty line (over $90,000 for a family of four) for all 10 years they are in RPI status in order to apply for permanent residence (amendment not considered)
  • Hatch amendment # 5 to raise the income requirement for RPI status renewal for those who cannot meet the employment eligibility requirement to 125% of the federal poverty line, and to require that those whose eligibility depends on their income and resources maintain that income level throughout their 10 years in RPI status (amendment not considered)
  • Grassley amendment # 13 and Lee amendment # 12 to eliminate a provision that allows workers to provide sworn affidavits instead of pay stubs to prove their work history (Grassley 13 not considered; Lee 12 failed)
  • Sessions amendments # 17-19, to make women ineligible for RPI status and permanent residence if they could become a public charge in the future (amendments not considered)
  • Sessions amendments # 25-28, to make women ineligible for RPI status or permanent residence if they are likely to need means-tested public benefits—including Medicaid, Affordable Care Act tax credits, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or Supplemental Security Income—in the future (amendments not considered)
  • Sessions amendment # 24 to eliminate a provision that would allow removed parents, spouses or children of U.S. citizens or permanent residents to apply for RPI status (amendment not considered)

Fortunately, in addition to the considerable work done by the Senate Gang of 8 to make the pathway to citizenship accessible to women, champions for immigrant women’s rights emerged among the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. They should be applauded for their efforts to preserve the bill’s existing provisions and to build upon them in the amendment process. Some of their core victories for women included passage of amendments that:

  • Protect women from sexual assault during transport by immigration officials (Hirono amendment # 22)
  • Require Customs and Border Protection to consider family unity and humanitarian concerns in decisions to refer for prosecution or to repatriate (Hirono amendment # 23)
  • Ensure apprehended parents can make care arrangements for their children and participate in proceedings affecting their custody (Franken amendment # 7)
  • Permit women to pay penalties associated with RPI status in installments (Hirono amendment #12)
  • Limit the use of solitary confinement (Blumenthal amendment #2)
  • Limit immigration enforcement operations at sensitive locations such as schools, hospitals, and places of worship (Blumenthal amendment # 8)

As the bill moves onto the Senate floor—and the House begins it efforts at immigration reform—the rights and well-being of immigrant women will depend on all Members of Congress keeping women—and women’s realities—in mind. We’ve come a long way already. But as advocates for women’s rights, we must continue to stand together and keep the pressure on Congress to recognize that reform will not be comprehensive—or successful—unless it includes women.

Michelle Brané is an expert on U.S. immigration detention and reform. As Director of the Migrant Rights and Justice program at the Women’s Refugee Commission, she advocates for critical protection needs of immigrant women and children. Ms. Brané has over 25 years of experience working on immigration and human rights issues.

Emily Butera is the Senior Program Officer of Migrant Rights and Justice at the Women’s Refugee Commission. Emily manages WRC’s parental rights project and advocates for the protection of immigrant women, children, and families in immigration reform. She has co-authored numerous WRC reports, including Torn Apart by Immigration Enforcement, a 2010 study of the impact of detention on parental rights.

Follow the Women’s Refugee Commission on Twitter at @wrcommission and @WRC_MigrantRts

Cross-posted with permission from the Huffington Post

This post is a part of the YWCA USA’s What Women Want blog carnival about immigration reform. Read all of the posts and join the National Day of Action on June 6.

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