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Report: Path to Legal Status Harder Now for Women Immigrants

A Chicago protest of a 2006 bill criminalizing as felons all undocumented immigrants and those who assist or employ them drew about 300,000 people. Today immigration legislation continues to be one of the nation's hottest topics, but despite its high profile, the authors of a May report say its impacts on women are often overlooked. (Photo: Araceli Arroyo / Flickr)

A report released late last month by the Immigration Policy Center (IPC) found gender discrimination is built into US immigration law.

Two experts working with the not-for-profit nonpartisan organization spent 10 years interviewing women from Mexico and Central America living in Phoenix, Arizona, about their experiences with the US immigration system and concluded that “immigration laws assume dependencies that privilege male applicants over females and that often make women an afterthought in the implementation of immigration laws.”

Published just ahead of the Senate debate that started Tuesday on the comprehensive immigration reform bill S744, the report documents the damage done by the sexism that its findings suggest runs rampant in the implementation of immigration laws regulating visas, family reunification, political asylum and support for undocumented victims of domestic violence.

Building from a previous IPC report that found visas based on employment were more skewed along gender lines than other visa categories, coauthors Drs. Cecilia Menjivar and Olivia Salcido interviewed women working jobs classified as “low-skilled,” for which only 5,000 visas are available each year. It is estimated about 1.8 million people immigrate to the United States each year.

“There is no reason why the US government would want to grant me legalization for cleaning or cooking or taking care of the couple,” said a Guatemalan woman who supported her family on three jobs as a janitor, fast-food employee and eldercare provider. The IPC report calls for laws that give greater status to typically unpaid and low-paid work in sectors like child care and food service.

The authors also spoke to women in the professions who faced other problems, including a Mexican woman who was denied a visa three times because, officials told her, a good-looking single woman ran the risk of overstaying, apparently implying fears that she would enter into a romantic relationship and decide not to return to Mexico.

Menjivar said there is only so much legislation can do to curb discrimination and that the next step is training on-the-ground decision makers to recognize their own biases. “They have the law, they have guidelines, but ultimately, these are street-level bureaucrats that make decisions based on their own personal views,” she said.

Women seeking political asylum face more obstacles because they are less likely to be seen as credible political actors, the report found. A Salvadoran woman was denied asylum not only because she had not saved the written death threats her family received during the war in her country, but because the threats were directed at her husband.

After a long fight to reauthorize a new Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) to protect more survivors of domestic and sexual violence, undocumented immigrant women are still at risk of being effectively held hostage by abusive partners, who often threaten to have them deported if they speak out. The denial rate is high for the special visas available under VAWA for undocumented women who need a way out of abusive relationships, and the Department of Homeland Security asks for additional evidence in these cases more often than it does for other types of visa petitions, according to the VAWA Law Blog. Women seeking visas under VAWA must prove they lived with their abuser, but the IPC report found that they are often completely excluded from documents like leases, bills or any kind of paper trail that would make that possible.

The Senate bill is known as the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act. The provisions in its 1,000 pages are as wide-ranging and potentially contradictory as the name suggests.

Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colorado) is a member of the group of cosponsors known as the “Gang of Eight,” comprising four Republicans and four Democrats. In a statement Tuesday, Bennet called the Senate vote to begin debate on the bill “a golden opportunity to rise above politics and pass a commonsense, bipartisan bill that will fix a broken immigration system that is bad for our families and bad for our economy.”

The IPC report indeed found that the current system is bad for families. Reuniting families separated by migration is the most common route for women to immigrate legally to the United States, but according to Menjivar and Salcido, it is also the most fraught with gender bias. They say cultural practices in Mexico and Central America, along with stereotypes in the United States, assume men to be breadwinners and household heads, while women are expected to be caretakers and homemakers. “For this reason, many women came to rely on male relatives to petition for them in the legalization process. Thus, while family reunification constitutes only one of several paths to legalization, it is one of the greatest promoters of the increase in female immigration, which in turn cements the image of women as ‘dependents,’ ” they wrote.

Menjivar told Truthout she does not anticipate that the final immigration package, whatever form it takes, will address the inequalities highlighted in her report, and it does appear lawmakers have other agendas. In a statement on Tuesday, another Gang of Eight member, GOP Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) was focused on enforcement, saying, “At the end of the day, I think it’s all going to hinge on whether we can secure the border and have real security measures.”

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