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Is Gender Justice Getting Shafted in Immigration Reform?

Immigrant women’s labor, whether it’s off the books, or on payroll, is fueling the economy.

Last Monday, in what became a heated exchange with Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Mee Moua, executive director of the Asian American Justice Center, defended programs allowing families to immigrate together to the U.S. (Photo: The US Department of Labor)

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The politics of immigration touch upon major faultlines in American society: not just the legal boundary between citizen and foreigner, but also lines of race, class, nationality, culture and, increasingly, gender. Women, who make up about half of the U.S. immigrant population and an estimated 40 percent of undocumented adults, face unique challenges as migrants. However, gender issues have gone almost entirely unremarked in official immigration-reform talks—that is, until a Senate hearing last Monday, when Mee Moua, head of the Asian American Justice Center, seized an opportunity to call out the invisibility of women in the debate.

The opening came when Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) asked bluntly which immigrant would be a better candidate for legal status: an applicant for a family reunification visa or a skilled professional from overseas? Although family visas are the channel by which generations of migrants have brought family members to the U.S., Sessions’ rhetorical question suggested that skilled professionals make more desirable Americans.

Moua countered that Sessions’ hypothetical reflected deep gender imbalances in the immigration system. The “less desirable” migrant, she argued, would likely be “female, would not have been permitted to get an education and if we would create a system where there would be some kind of preference given to say education, or some other kind of metrics, I think that it would truly disadvantage specifically women and their opportunity to come into this country.”

The tense exchange marked one of the first moments in the current round of reform talks that Congress members have been asked to confront the gender biases inherent in our immigration policies. Such biases have a long history: Male-centered guestworker schemes date all the way back to the Chinese Exclusion Act era of the late 19th century, when blatantly xenophobic laws brought in masses of Chinese male laborers while shutting out their family members in an attempt to deter the workers from settling in the United States.

Today, despite the strides women have made in high-skill fields (most professional workers are now women), they are still heavily underrepresented in “guestworker” programs for professional immigrant workers, which skew heavily toward the vaunted, notoriously male-dominated science and tech (STEM) fields. For example, the controversial H1B visa program for professional temp workers, long touted as a spigot for STEM talent, brought in about 350,000 immigrant men but fewer than 140,000 women in 2011. Meanwhile, lawmakers are weighing proposals to sharply limit family-based visa programs—which make up about 65 percent of authorized permanent immigration—alongside plans for expanding the prized professional visas. As Pramila Jayapal points out at, men tend to hold professional visas, intended to anchor household “breadwinners,” while women are overrepresented among family visas, which can chain their legal status to an authorized (male) worker.

These biases are no political accident, but a symptom of the privileging of corporate demands over community needs. Immigrant women’s labor, whether it’s in the household, off the books, or on payroll, is fueling the economy. But because it doesn’t seem to directly contribute as much to corporate bottom lines, it’s overlooked.

Beyond the economics, a more fundamental, unspoken question lies at the heart of the immigration debate: Does Washington place a higher premium on capital or social equity? Any real conversation about the latter would be forced to begin with migrant women, who live at the intersection of multiple injustices. Though many male immigrant workers suffer labor abuses, gender inequality adds an extra layer of vulnerability to the working lives of migrant women.

Working-poor migrant women are concentrated in informal sectors such as cleaning and caretaking. Some low-wage jobs, like home health aides and other domestic workers, are virtually synonymous with “immigrant woman of color.” Not coincidentally, those sectors have historically been excluded from critical federal labor protections, such as overtime pay and safety regulations. Jobs traditionally worked by women have not only been culturally devalued as mere “women’s work,” but also legally degraded by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which for decades categorically excluded women of color serving as domestics in private homes. In other sectors, such as industrial farming, women make up a significant minority of workers and endure myriad, hidden gendered abuses, from health disparities to sexual assault in the fields.

Marginalized by the law and the economic hierarchy, a migrant nanny might have virtually no recourse against a boss who sexually harasses her, fearing that she’ll lose both her job and her visa status if she reports him. Or she might be pressured to stay with an abusive partner who threatens to have her deported if she tries to escape.

Immigration reform could be an opportunity to address such injustices and, by extension, the broader social inequities reflected in migrant women’s struggles. But so far, the mainstream reform agenda’s primary aim has been to keep cheap labor flowing into the labor market. So while lawmakers fixate on potentially doubling the number of H1-B visas, there’s little talk about enacting more gender-inclusive reforms.

Women’s exclusion would actually intensify under certain immigration reforms, if legalization were to require formal proof of employment. Though men also work in “casual” jobs, like day labor, domestic work is an especially precarious, as well as under-regulated, informal sector. And since domestic workers generally lack recognition as part of the labor force, Washington will likely ignore the recommendations of Institute for Women’s Policy Research to create a special program to bring domestic workers into the country legally, in response to high demand for home health aides and other care workers.

Yet real reform would move the debate beyond using immigration as a mere tool for economic growth. More radical reform advocates want to effectively decouple labor status from the immigration process altogether and see immediate legalization of all undocumented immigrants. That in turn would advance the rights of domestic workers and other disenfranchised migrant women. Andrea Mercado, campaign director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, tells In These Times via email, “Immigration reform must ensure that eligibility for citizenship at any stage is not linked to proof of work, leaving out millions of women.” Moreover, she says, lawmakers should recognize immigrant women’s economic role and ensure that domestic workers “have strong labor protections and are not separated from their families.”

The devaluation of immigrant women’s labor is intertwined with the devaluation of women as human beings. The reforms now under consideration continue to assess worthiness of citizenship based on a person’s potential contribution to the GDP. Without bringing gender and human rights into the dialogue, Congress will unfairly exclude women from the promise of true economic and social citizenship.

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