On Wednesday morning, a few hours after attending President Obama’s immigration speech in Las Vegas and then getting on a red-eye, Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, sounded tired but optimistic. “I’m really excited about the urgency and the momentum that there is on immigration right now,” she told Salon. But as tough of a slog as immigration reform is going to be, she and other advocates who work with immigrant women have an extra challenge: Making sure, as the details of proposed legislation are fleshed out, that their voices are heard on issues like family reunification and informal employment.
Although elected officials and pundits have been wringing their hands over the GOP’s Latino problem — their apparent motivation for coming to the table on immigration — and its woman problem, the truth is, President Obama’s big advantage was the intersection of the two. Jessica Arons, director of the Women’s Health & Rights Program at the Center for American Progress, points out that Latinas voted for Obama over Romney by 53 points, while his advantage with Latino men narrowed to 32 points, and Latino turnout overall was up.
So it’s worth laying out now how different approaches to immigration reform would affect women differently. Take the pathways to citizenship for undocumented workers, which may include proving consistent employment. “For a lot of immigrant workers, including domestic workers, it’s impossible to prove, because the nature of the way they’ve been forced to work very much in the shadows and underground,” said Poo.
“Overall, one of our big concerns is to ensure that women and children are included in the conversation,” said Michelle Brané of the Women’s Refugee Commission. “Often as we talk about reforming the immigration system, the fixes and the points that are made are created around protection or pathways to citizenship or roads to relief for men, though it’s not necessarily intentional.”
Agricultural workers, who tend to be male, were specifically called out as having special eligibility in the Senate blueprint, partly because their employers have long been organized and with political clout — something domestic workers are just starting to do.
The issue of linking citizenship to steady paid work goes deeper, Brané pointed out: ”Women working in the home, who have been the caretakers of the family, may be seen as a burden on society, which obviously isn’t true.”
No one knows yet what new status categories might be created under any reform, but Brané pointed out that in some current work visa categories, people whose spouses are authorized to work cannot themselves work — and often, though not always, those spouses are women. “That makes sense to a certain extent, but it can also put women in a very vulnerable situation, and it doesn’t really recognize current family structures.”
There will be other, more familiar fault lines: Buzzfeed reported this week that the president plans to include recognition of same-sex, bi-national partners, though certain Republican senators have already resisted. “Which is more important: LGBT or border security?” John McCain said Wednesday. “I’ll tell you what my priorities are. If you’re going to load it up with social issues, that is the best way to derail it, in my view.” Lindsey Graham compared its addition to putting “legalized abortion” in the bill. (Perhaps he doesn’t know it’s already legal, or perhaps he misspoke and meant “taxpayer funded abortion” which is what McCain said the next day.)
The Senate is expected to vote soon on a slightly-revamped version of the Violence Against Women Act that won’t contain the expansion of visas meant for victims of abuse, in a nod to the technicality that the House used to reject it (that all revenue-generating measures must originate in the House.) Immigration advocates told the Washington Post that “Democrats have promised to include the increase in U visas in their push for a comprehensive immigration overhaul.” That measure drew some opposition from Senate Republicans when it was debated last year.
There’s also the open question of what public benefits immigrants with new status will be able to access. Based on the existing language around the program to defer deportation of people brought to the country as children, it may not be much. “We’re really troubled by some of the language in the fact sheet that specifically excludes those with temporary status from public benefits and the exchanges on the Affordable Care Act,” said Jessica González-Rojas, executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. Arons added, “I worry about that being used as a precedent for immigration reform. Even now there’s a five-year ban on Medicaid eligibility for people who enter this country legally.”
The talk in the Senate blueprint of tying reform to increased enforcement also has many advocates worried. “We need to look at the risks women face when they cross the border, and also how they’re treated when they arrive,” said Brané, including people who may be trafficked and people seeking asylum.
“The challenge, too, is what’s the definition of more enforcement and what’s the goal?” said González-Rojas. “The women we work with in the Rio Grande Valley, they’re terrorized by the border patrol. And many of them have status. More and more enforcement is a really scary thought because the way it plays out in communities is very problematic.”
The Obama administration’s stepping up of deportations has already split up families. Several groups focused on immigration and women, including the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum have banded together to create We Belong Together, which focuses on the impact of deportation on families. And as long as the rhetoric focuses on skilled workers or the labor market above family reunification, those families risk being left out.
For now, Poo’s plan is to appeal to the unprecedented number of women in Congress. “I’m hoping that they’ll champion these issues from the perspective of working moms, who are often able to do their jobs because of domestic workers, and the perspective of caregivers themselves, who have families themselves that they don’t want to be separated from,” she said.