Immigration reform: It's not just for men anymore

Local activists join a national movement to address the plight of immigrant women.
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Women are speaking out to shape immigration reform.

Local activists join a national movement to address the plight of immigrant women.

Yasmin Christopher is used to fighting for things she cares about. 

The Bangladeshi native was brought to the U.S. by her father when she was four years old, along with her siblings, mother and aunt. She worked as slave labor on her father’s farm. 

Yasmin is now a student at Seattle University Law School and spokesperson for a national campaign against human trafficking. As an immigrant, she’s also been on the frontlines of immigration reform.

In fact, I met Yasmin a few years ago when we shared a jail cell together. We had both taken part in a civil disobedience protest to draw attention to the issue.

Last week, Yasmin traveled to Washington, D.C. to advocate for immigration reform. She was among hundreds of women from all over the country who are now talking about immigration as a women’s issue. “I got to bring my whole self in  — as a woman, an immigrant, a survivor of trafficking,” she said after the trip. “I felt empowered on all levels because we talked about the issues from a women’s perspective.”

From a numbers perspective, the majority of immigrants to the U.S. are women and children. Yet, current immigration channels often exclude women. Only 27 percent of all immigrant employment visas go to women. Female spouses of immigrant workers are not allowed to work even though they have important skills and education. Three-quarters of the women who come to the U.S. do so through the family sponsorship channel, an antiquated and backlogged system where 4.3 million people have been waiting — sometimes for decades — to bring immediate family members to the U.S.

By tying the legalization of undocumented immigrants to work verification requirements, previous immigration reform proposals have failed to recognize the essential work of women. Currently, 60 percent of undocumented women are in the workforce. The majority work in temporary or informal industries, including domestic work as nannies or health-care aides for the elderly and sick. Those jobs don’t provide pay stubs or verification of work. 

The remaining 40 percent of undocumented women are at home taking care of their kids so that other family members can go out and work.

All of these women perform essential jobs that contribute to our economic engine. But their work is disregarded because their jobs are off-the-books, so to speak. If verification of work remains a requirement for any immigration legislation, they would be denied a path to citizenship.

Recent news reports indicate that the "Gang of Eight" Senators currently crafting a bipartisan immigration bill are also weakening the family immigration system. Republicans want to eliminate categories of family sponsorship entirely, including the ability for a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident to bring a child over 21 years of age into the country. Women would be disproportionately affected by such a change since they make up the majority of those in the family sponsorship backlog.

Without a strong voice advocating for these women, they would be left out of all immigration reform proposals. That’s why the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum launched their national campaign, We Belong Together: Women for Common-Sense Immigration Reform. 

The campaign seeks to engage women, both immigrant and non-immigrant, in immigration reform and offers up specific ways in which immigration reform proposals must be crafted in order to address the issues of women immigrants.

I am a co-chair of the We Belong Together campaign. I noticed several years ago that, even though many of the leaders of major immigrant organizations in the country were women, we rarely framed the issue as a women’s issue. Many women activists, even those pushing for progressive policies on civil rights, voting rights and pay equity, were supportive but not pushing for immigration reform. We are now doing the education and framing to show that immigration is a women's issue and that current immigration policy pigeonholes women and limits their full potential. 

As the all-male "Gang of Eight" prepares to release a bill in the coming weeks, it becomes even more essential that women speak out loud and clear so that our priorities are addressed in any reform legislation.

That is why, a few weeks ago, Yasmin and a dozen other women from Washington State joined hundreds more in Washington, D.C. The Washington delegation included luminaries like Elaine Rose, CEO of Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and a former Assistant Attorney General for former Governor Chris Gregoire.

"Immigration reform became so much more real for me,” Elaine told me after the trip. “I had never thought of immigration reform as a women's issue. It was also eye-opening to realize the link between a woman's immigrant status and her lack of access to health care."

The trip made “the urgency of immigration reform real” for Elaine, who has begun to think about how to build bridges between immigrant women and her work at Planned Parenthood Votes.

Monica Mendoza, a freshman at University of Washington, also attended the We Belong Together launch in DC. Monica's career as an activist began in high school when she worked on immigration reform through the Northwest Youth Alliance. She went on to spearhead a legislative directive at the University of Washington around the state's DREAM Act. Most recently, she's been working with OneAmerica.

Monica's recent D.C. experience "opened my eyes," she said. "Every movement — especially immigration reform — has all men at the forefront. I learned how immigration IS a women’s issue, that it’s harder for women to earn citizenship. I feel like I can go out and talk about immigration as a women’s issue now.”

For these Washington women, and for the many more across the country who joined them in D.C., this is a critical moment for fostering a new understanding of immigration as a women’s issue. The shift has the potential to engage a whole new group of people in the push for immigration reform.

In a recent national poll for We Belong Together, conducted with 800 women, Lake Research Partners tested immigtration messages tailored specifically for women. This was the first such gender-specific messaging around immigration. The best-testing messages were the ones that connected the need for immigration reform to the values of America as a land of opportunity for women and girls. By the end of the 15-minute survey, a stunning 30 percent of the women who started out with mixed views on immigrants shifted to positive viewsAnd using a woman’s voice to deliver the messages was more persuasive.

The results underscore how important it is for women to educate women about why immigration is an issue they should care about. 

“The women I’ve talked to since coming back have been dramatically moved by talking about immigration reform from this perspective,” Yasmin said. “It’s like the emotional and personal piece wasn’t there before. But now, they get it. They identify with the integral role that immigrant women, like all women, play. We have an amazing opportunity to get women to use their votes and their voices to move immigration reform.”

Let’s put women back in the picture on this important issue and engage them in fighting for reform that treats women fairly.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Pramila Jayapal

Pramila Jayapal

Pramila Jayapal is a Democratic member of Congress, representing Washington state's 7th District.