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Immigration Reform: Good for Immigrant Women, Good for American Feminism | The Nation

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Immigration Reform: Good for Immigrant Women, Good for American Feminism

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We Belong Together rally for immigrant women's rights
Women at the We Belong Together campaign launch pose with Dolores Huerta. Photo by Miriam Fogelson via Women Together.

"Ain't I a woman?"

About the Author

Pramila Jayapal
Pramila Jayapal is the Distinguished Taconic Fellow at Center for Community Change and the Co-Chair of the We Belong...

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As woman after woman stepped to the microphone at the Hyatt Regency ballroom in Washington, D.C., and made the case for why immigration is a women’s issue, Sojourner Truth’s words rang in my ears.  Immigrant women living in states across the country—from Texas to Minnesota to Missouri to Maine—shared stories of being detained and not seeing a child for three months, of surviving domestic violence and not being able to call for help, of caring for someone else’s children but not being paid.  They joined white, black and brown women representing reproductive justice, environmental, labor and working women’s organizations and luminaries like Dolores Huerta, Sandra Fluke and Ilyse Hogue as part of the March 18th campaign launch for We Belong Together:  Women for Common Sense Immigration Reform.

If Sojourner Truth’s speech was a seamless call to action to connect slavery and women’s rights, the launch of the We Belong Together campaign was a passionate call to women to engage in the immigration debate. 

Immigration policy really is about women.  Two-thirds of immigrants to America are women and children.  Current immigration policy and past reform proposals are what I have called “sexclusionary” in many ways:  women’s work has not been recognized as real work, only 27% of employment visas go to women, protections for survivors of gender-based violence are being eroded, and Congress is threatening to limit the very family sponsorship system that has allowed so many women to come to America.

Previous and current debates have largely left out any analysis of immigration as a women’s issue.  Partly because of that, previous immigration reform proposals were structured in ways that would have left out millions of women from any path to legalization, and would have weakened parts of the immigration system that women depend on. For example, if legalization and a path to citizenship are tied to showing proof of employment (as has been the case in the past), millions of undocumented women would be excluded who work as domestic workers, in informal industries, or at home taking care of their own children.  Similarly, the current push by Republican Senators to eliminate certain family immigration categories—such as adult children or siblings—and weaken the overall family immigration system would disproportionately affect women, 70% of whom come to the U.S. through family sponsorship.

Last month, many of these issues were front and center during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on women and immigration.  This was the first time in all the immigration policy debates for women to be the center of a hearing on the Hill. Senator Mazie Hirono, who chaired the hearing and is currently the only immigrant Senator, spoke movingly about her own experience of immigrating to America with a mother who was escaping domestic violence.  Republicans, loath to appear anti-woman, put forward two witnesses who largely made the case with Democratic witnesses for the disproportionate burden that women face from a broken immigration system. All five witnesses emphasized not only the challenges immigrant women face but also the contributions—from engineers to domestic workers to mothers.

Recent polling indicates that there is enormous potential to engage women voters on immigration. In a national dial survey with 800 women across the country conducted by Lake Research Partners for the We Belong Together campaign, women responded best to messages that connected the need for immigration reform to three things:  America’s commitment to providing freedom and opportunity to women and girls; the shared experience of moving to put food on the table and do what is necessary for family; and the belief that it is what you contribute—not what you look like or where you come from—that defines you as American.   By the end of the fifteen-minute survey, a stunning 30 percent of women who started out with mixed views of immigrants shifted to view immigrants positively.  And using a woman’s voice to deliver the messages was more persuasive than when a similar message was tested with a man’s voice.

The opportunity clearly exists to move women—U.S. born and immigrant—who have not been vocal on immigration before to start to speak up, and to advocate loudly so that immigrant women do not get left out of any immigration legislation.  There are three important reasons why women’s groups across the country should make a clear feminist argument for why immigration is a women’s issue.

First, women voters need to speak up to make sure that immigration policy does not continue to exclude documented and undocumented immigrant women.  A “Gang of Eight” all-male Senators is close to completing a bi-partisan proposal to fix our outdated immigration system. Congress needs to hear the voices and priorities of women across the country and remember that women—along with immigrants—cast determinative votes in last year’s election.

Second, if there is one thing that resonates for women, it is that regardless of where we come from or what we look like, we want to be fully recognized for the breadth of our contributions. For immigrant women, the very act of immigration is about opportunity, equality and freedom.  Women immigrants come to America to care for their families, escape gender-based violence, or express their sexual identity.  The women’s movement has always fought for these kinds of core values and principles—from ending slavery to the right to vote and the ability to work—and needs to lead again on immigration.

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Finally, we need a stronger and broader women’s movement if we are going to make strides forward instead of falling back.  We need strength to fight the challenges to our reproductive rights and the defunding of Planned Parenthood.   Women still only earn 77 cents on the dollar compared to men. We need to grow our movement and bring in fresh, new voices.  We need brown, black and white women to be loud and proud.  We need to expand the idea of choice to be about all the choices we make in our lives: including which country we choose to live in so we can be whole and full women.  For immigrant women, fighting for some of the standard platforms of the women’s movement may feel unthinkable when deportation is staring you in the face every day. Immigration reform will free their voices to speak fully again. The struggle for immigration reform allows the women’s movement to build relationships.  We need to start building that movement of the future right now, when it counts most for immigrant women.

So, as the debate continues, let’s raise immigration reform as a women’s issue. It’s time to say loudly, “Ain’t we all women too?”  It’s time to stand shoulder to shoulder as women to demand our full place at the table and an immigration system that works for us.  Let’s build our movement together.

Read Aura Bogado's post and see the accompanying infographic, Five Things You Should Know About Immigration Reform.

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