WASHINGTON -- Immigrant rights and feminist organizations are coming together in an attempt to reframe immigration as a women’s issue, which they hope will redefine the fight over changing the nation’s immigration laws.
So far, the groups have sought to influence immigration legislation in the Senate, undertaken large-scale demonstrations and united national women’s groups.
And even as chances of an immigration overhaul have faded in recent weeks, their efforts have mobilized women across the country.
“When you ask people what images they think of when they think of immigration reform, (it’s) often men, scary looking, scaling the border walls,” said Pramila Jayapal, co-chair of We Belong Together, a national immigration campaign that focuses on women. “The idea that it’s really women and children that are the majority of immigrants to the United States is completely lost.”
The groups see opposition to a comprehensive immigration overhaul as having a larger effect on gender equality, and they say it is part of a “war on women” that devalues the work of female immigrants and keeps them vulnerable.
Their opponents, meanwhile, see it as nothing more than a stunt to push a pro-immigration agenda. Gender is immaterial to immigration policy, they said.
“Saying ‘a vote against immigration reform is a vote against women’ is dishonest and insulting,” said Kristen Williamson, spokeswoman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which promotes policies that reduce immigration. “In reality, a vote for amnesty and increased immigration is a vote against the American worker.”
Although household workers – many of whom are immigrants – began organizing as part of the feminist movement in the 1970s, a comprehensive case for immigration as a women’s issue was not made until 2010, when Jayapal collaborated with feminist icon Gloria Steinem to write an article linking the issues.
Since then, the cause has brought together immigrant and feminist organizations, including the Miami Workers Center, the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, the National Organization for Women and the Global Women’s Institute.
“I thought it was important to stand in solidarity with my sisters in the immigration movement and also say to women everywhere, sometimes the street is where you have to be,” NOW president Terry O’Neill said.
Other advocates said the time was right to bring a “gender lens” to immigration because of the high profile the struggle has attained in recent years.
“From our perspective, the coalition in support of immigration reform has never been as big and diverse as it is now,” said Natalie Camastra, a policy analyst for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health.
In September, 105 women activists were arrested at an immigrant-rights demonstration in Washington.
One of those was Leisha Acosta, a U.S. citizen from Charlotte, N.C., whose Honduran husband was detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in June. She said the government needed to consider families and mothers when setting immigration policy.
“We’re the ones that this is affecting. . . . We take care of our children, we’ve got to go to school. We have to divide ourselves in 20 pieces for a day,” Acosta said. “I say that we as women do more, and it’s time for our voice to be listened (to).”
The September protest was followed by nine demonstrations that targeted House of Representatives Republicans in different cities across the country, all organized by We Belong Together.
Berenice Ramirez, an undocumented 17-year-old from Mexico who lives in Florence, Texas, never thought of immigration as a women’s issue until she traveled to participate in the Washington demonstration. The trip changed her outlook.
“The first thing that popped into my head was my mother – like this is her,” Ramirez said. “She’s such a strong woman. These women are exactly like her that have been through so much for their children and their families.”
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According to advocates, more than a quarter of employment visas go to women as the primary holders, because the system prioritizes male-dominated industries such as technology; in addition, more visas are available for workers with higher skills and education, which many women cannot get in their countries of origin.
This means the majority of immigrant women rely on the family-based visa system and thus are disproportionately represented in the backlog of 4.3 million immigrants awaiting such visas.
The coalition of women says these elements of the immigration system make it harder for female immigrants, including those who are already here. Their opponents say the U.S. should not structure its system around needs of non-Americans.
Women in both chambers of Congress have collaborated with advocates to discuss provisions aimed at protecting women, like creating more visas for female-dominated industries. When the Senate passed comprehensive immigration legislation in June, Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, wrote an amendment aimed at women’s needs. She united a group of 13 of the Senate’s 20 women, including one Republican, in order to get it passed.
“It was important for me to go to the women senators and garner their support, because the ‘Gang of Eight’ didn’t think of this,” she said, adding that the bill written by the eight male senators inadvertently disadvantaged women by putting an emphasis on high-skilled work.
In the House, congresswomen have united in the Congressional Women’s Working Group on Immigration Reform, chaired by Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif.
“We want to make sure that . . . the specific needs of immigrant women are heard and expressed during the debate,” she said in an interview.
Comprehensive overhaul has not yet been brought to a vote in the House, though Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Nov. 21 that Congress needs to address the issue.
Opponents of the Senate plan said that the U.S. must focus on Americans’ best interests, regardless of any impact on gender.
“I think it would be a lot more helpful if these women’s groups and the women senators were more concerned about how single mothers in America are faring,” said Rosemary Jenks, director of government relations at NumbersUSA, which promotes decreasing the number of immigrants to the U.S.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which bills itself as “low-immigration, pro-immigrant,” said, women “probably do (face challenges). These women are in foreign families, hundreds of miles from home, in a strange culture. . . . That would be the case even if they were legal immigrants. That would be with case with an American woman moving from Virginia to Oregon.”
But movement leaders said the immigration fight has a much broader implication regarding equality in the United States.
“The reality is that if a woman, immigrant or otherwise, is discriminated against, is treated as less than equal, then that impacts all women,” Roybal-Allard said.