U.S. immigration reform is typically discussed by lumping the roughly 11 million illegal residents of the country – men, women, families, and children – into one general group. Few people talk specifically about policies that could deal with the distinct challenges each sub-population experiences. However, in 2013 the debate has shifted to include immigrant women as a result of organized and vocal special-interest groups and a better-informed media. Lawmakers have faced serious pressure to modify current immigration practices to favorably affect immigrant women. As the policy drafts roll in from Congress, it’s clear some members listened.
In its first substantial proposal on immigration reform, the Gang of 8 put forth a bill that appears to tackle the complex and longstanding problems of undocumented women. From family dynamics to employment history, the 844-page Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act makes a respectable effort to rectify the appalling realities these women encounter.
1. Citizenship is realistic for undocumented women.
Immigration-reform advocates were not only adamant about the necessity of a direct pathway to U.S. citizenship for illegal immigrants, but urged Congress to analyze specific obstacles many undocumented women face that would likely preclude them from the process. A pathway to citizenship with stringent employment-history requirements would immediately erase any hope for undocumented women to obtain legal U.S. residency, given the informal nature of jobs they usually work.
The Gang of 8’s immigration bill addresses these concerns and allows for lenient employment records in its proposed pathway to citizenship. While mostly discussed as a tax issue – the citizenship pathway mandates candidates pay any outstanding tax debt – the bill does not require applicants to provide detailed salary and wage history to either the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) or the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Consequently, undocumented women may apply for legal residency and eventually naturalization even with employment backgrounds of unrecorded, cash-only jobs – those often associated with domestic work.
2. Family unity is valued.
Many undocumented women are mothers, and families historically face tragic scenarios of deportation in which parents are ejected from the country while their children – U.S. citizens – become trapped in foster care (Recent numbers suggest that over 5 million children in the U.S. have at least one undocumented parent yet 80% of those children are citizens). Families are torn apart by distance and legal roadblocks as children become wards of the government.
The Gang of 8’s immigration bill provides a twofold solution: it permits deported parents to return to the U.S. and enter the applicable pathway to citizenship, and prevents the loss of parental rights strictly on the basis of deportation.
3. Domestic violence is recognized.
Undocumented women often enter the U.S. with their spouse or partner, and some estimates suggest as much as two-thirds of all immigrant women are completely financially dependent on their significant other. When domestic violence occurs in such relationships, these women face little to no protection from U.S. law enforcement, and a realistic fear of deportation coerces them into silence.
Under the Gang of 8’s immigration reform proposal, visas for undocumented domestic-violence victims double, and spouses of illegal immigrants can also apply for legal status if their partner meets the pathway requirements.
The existence of these three provisions outlined in the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act shows that some members of Congress have already started focusing on the unique difficulties faced by illegal immigrant women. Only time will tell if Congress decides to act justly on such knowledge or continue to ignore the plight of millions.