Why Immigration Policy Is ‘Sexclusionary’ (and How To Fix It)

The U.S. immigration system boxes women out in several ways, from the type of work it recognizes to the pressure it places on families. Here's how Congress can make reform work for everybody.

By Pramila Jayapal Mar 18, 2013

If you’ve been following the current debate and news coverage, you probably think that immigration reform is mainly about men–the undocumented males scaling border walls, working in agriculture, doing construction work and writing code. And when you do see women, they are normally portrayed either as helpless victims of detention or deportation or as conniving leeches delivering what anti-immigrants call "anchor babies." Between this male-centered media narrative, and the fact that the Congress members crafting immigration proposals are almost always men, it’s no surprise that immigration policy is what I’ve dubbed as "sexclusionary." From the numbers alone, it’s clear that immigration is a women’s issue. Women and children comprise three-quarters of people migrating to the United States. Yet our current policy excludes them from many of the opportunities and protections of the system, and boxes them into a small number of visa categories. As bipartisan proposals near completion in both the Senate and House, it’s critical that women across America change the conversation. We must highlight the ways in which immigration policy excludes and limits women and make sure this round of reform prioritizes issues that are essential to women’s equality. Here are six ways that U.S. immigration policy excludes women–and corresponding ways that immigration reform legislation can be crafted to instead prioritize the needs of women. 1. Recognize the work that women do as real work. Roughly 60 percent of undocumented women work outside of their homes, many in industries where employment is temporary, informal or unverifiable–think domestic caregiving and service work. The remaining 40 percent work at home taking care of their children and families. A plan that attaches citizenship to proof of work would leave out millions of women and devalue the real contributions of their work, whether at home or in the formal or informal economy. 2. And quit trapping skilled workers as dependents on their husbands. Currently, only 27 percent of all principal visa holders–those authorized to work–are women. Since the majority of principal visa holders are men, it follows that two-thirds of dependent visa holders are women. Immigrant women in the dependent visa category are not allowed to work, even though they have the same level of attainment of bachelor’s degrees as native-born women and bring skills with them. As a result, they end up staying home, financially and socially dependent on their husbands. In fact, both the principal and dependent visa categories have significant problems for women. Globally, the employment system prioritizes professions dominated by men–such as technology and agriculture–even though our labor markets have tremendous shortages in professions dominated by women. For example, experts estimate that those who need long-term care will more than double to 27 million people by 2050. Simultaneously, the direct care workforce–both for in-home or domestic care workers–will be the fastest growing occupations in the labor market in the next decade. These industries, along with restaurant and hotel industries, employ majorities of women workers but are never prioritized for employment visas. Moreover, any employment visas also need to ensure protections and rights on the job, so women immigrants can move from employer to employer and feel safe in reporting abusive employers. 3. Don’t make women wait 20 years to unite with their families. Currently, 70 percent of women enter the country through the the family sponsorship channel. As a result, the system’s inefficiencies, outdated regulations and long wait times disproportionately burden women. Today, more than 4 million people sit waiting in the family "backlog"–meaning they have applied legally for their close family members to enter the country, but must wait for excessive periods to be reunited with their families. If you are from Mexico, the Philippines or India, for example, the wait times can be as long as 20 years. Same-gender partners are also excluded from sponsoring family members at all, since federal immigration law does not recognize same-sex couples for the purposes of family sponsorship. Left with no options, many same-sex couples end up living apart, across country borders or becoming undocumented in order to stay together. 4. Make the U.S. once again a safe haven for survivors of violence and trafficking. Human traffickers and smugglers prey on immigrant women desperate to join their families. Women asylum seekers or refugees also often see the U.S. as one of their only options to escape terrible abuse and conditions in their home country. Until 1996, America had a proud history of protecting these women. But everything changed under that Congress. Lawmakers created new barriers for asylum seekers and, in the years since, policy makers have continued making it easier for survivors of gender violence (including rape) to be deported to their countries of persecution or detained for long periods of time. The disregard for important protections for women immigrants was only highlighted by recent ugly squabbles around reauthorization of the Violence against Women Act. The ultimate passage of VAWA–after protracted battle and high-profile failures–was secured only after eliminating a tiny expansion of the number of visas for immigrant women to come forward and report domestic violence without fear of retribution. It is more essential than ever that this round of immigration reform restore the U.S. history of providing a haven for immigrants who are victims of domestic violence, as well as ensuring protections for pregnant women, asylees and refugees, abused women and unaccompanied minors. 5. Protect families and ensure due process. Too many women and children unfairly bear the brunt of detention and deportation. As a Colorlines investigation uncovered, 23 percent of all deportations in a two-year period were issued for parents with U.S. citizen children. The stunning number of deportations taking place each year–over 400,000 in 2012 alone–have left tens of thousands of families destroyed and torn apart by outdated laws that punish aspiring Americans. Women, in particular, as primary caregivers are deeply affected. California Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard has proposed a fix to this, offering a bill that could be integrated into immigration reform legislation. The bill would provide protections for deported parents and for undocumented family members who care for young relatives. 6. Promote the ability for women to fully integrate into society. Approximately 10 million immigrant women speak limited English and need help from the federal government to learn our language and laws and ensure they can contribute their skills fully. English classes that currently exist often exclude women because they are tied to workforce training, take place at community colleges that require a basic level of English to enroll, or are held at times that are impossible for people who are caretakers to leave their homes and family responsibilities. Immigration reform legislation that includes an English language requirement without addressing these issues will leave millions of women at a severe disadvantage for the future. bell hooks described feminism once as "a movement to end sexist oppression." By this measure, immigration reform offers a powerful moment for women to ensure their voices and priorities are at the forefront. If that happens, U.S. immigration policy can start working for women, rather than against them. Pramila Jayapal is a distinguished taconic fellow at Center for Community Change and a co-chair of the We Belong Together campaign.