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By Michelle Brané and Emily Butera

This blog was originally posted on May 17, 2013 on the Huffington Post

On April 17, we at the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) welcomed the introduction of S. 744, the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013.” For those of us who are veterans of the immigration reform efforts of 2006 and 2007, this day marked a long-awaited return to a serious national conversation about our immigration system. But April 17 also represented a major step forward for the protection of immigrant women’s rights – something we at the WRC have been working towards for more than 15 years.

As we began to analyze the contents of the bill, it became clear that our efforts to bring policymakers the message that immigration reform is not comprehensive unless it includes women had begun to sink in. For the first time in the modern history of immigration reform efforts, the “Gang of Eight” Senators who drafted the legislation took seriously the need to think about the lives and experiences of immigrant women and their families, and to make sure that the contributions that immigrant women have made to this country were acknowledged and honored with an equitable and inclusive path to citizenship.

S. 744 marked a turning point in the fight for immigrant women’s rights. But the bill is not perfect. And amendments introduced by several members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to drastically narrow eligibility for legalization – and ultimately citizenship – would have a disproportionately detrimental effect on women. As the bill moves through committee and onto the Senate floor, the rights and well-being of immigrant women will depend on Senators keeping women – and women’s realities – in mind.

The face of today’s immigrant is increasingly female: Immigrant women comprise 51% of all immigrants in the United States and 100 immigrant women now arrive in the United States for every 96 men. More than 5 million women in the United States are undocumented. Legalization programs that discourage or prevent women from participating have not been – and never will be – effective.

Immigrant women’s contributions are different than but equal to men’s: Forty percent of undocumented women work in the home, caring for their children and families. Sixty percent of immigrant women work in the informal economy, where work is often temporary or unverifiable. Any legalization program that requires continuous employment or limits the documents that suffice as proof of employment will leave women out. In a survey of over 4,000 low-wage workers in the three largest cities in the U.S. – New York, Chicago and Los Angeles— 98% of undocumented nannies, 92% of maids and housecleaners, and 77% of garment workers did not receive any pay stubs. In isolated and informal workplaces it is unrealistic to expect workers to ask their employers for documentation, especially immigrant workers with such little control over the terms and conditions of their work in the first place.

To be able to legalize and get on a pathway to citizenship, women must have a fair and appropriate way to prove their physical presence, employment history and contributions: Historically, women have been disadvantaged by legalization programs in immigration reform. A comprehensive study of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) by the Urban Institute and Rand Corporation found that women faced significant difficulty proving physical presence and meeting requirements for legalization because 1) important documents such as leases, utility bills and bank accounts were in their husbands’ names and 2) many women who worked in the informal economy struggled to prove employment. Adding to these challenges, the historical devaluing of women’s work as homemakers meant that IRCA left many women behind.

S. 744 provides more opportunities for women to legalize and get on a pathway to citizenship than any prior effort at reform. But these provisions must be protected and improved: Exemptions and waivers to employment requirements for those who can demonstrate sufficient income or resources, are pregnant, on maternity leave or are primary caregivers for children will help ensure that women can renew their Registered Provisional Immigrant (RPI) status (the first step in the legalization process) and eventually earn green cards and full citizenship. Similarly, provisions that allow workers to use day labor center records and sworn affidavits to prove employment help ensure that women who work in the informal economy will not be excluded from legalization and citizenship simply because they cannot provide proof of work. Lastly, in awarding caregivers the same number of points as master’s degree holders, the new merit-based visa provisions will help ensure that work as a homemaker is not an impediment to permanency.

Legalization and the pathway to citizenship will still be harder for women than men: High fees and penalties will disproportionately disadvantage women and limit their ability to apply to achieve full citizenship because when difficult financial choices have to be made, families are more likely to preference the male members of a household. Similarly, it will be difficult for many families to overcome the public charge or income and resources requirements to earn status – even when both men and women in the household are working. In households where a woman stays home to care for children, it will be all but impossible. The 2011 deadline by which an individual must be physically present to apply for RPI status is already likely to exclude more women than men, since the number of women coming to the U.S. only recently equaled the number of men. Any further rollbacks of this date will make even more women ineligible. Lastly, the imbalance between points for caregiving and points for employment and education in the merit-based visa system risks leaving many women behind.

Amendments that limit eligibility for legalization and increase costs will undermine women’s ability to get on a pathway to citizenship and will increase the likelihood that immigration reform will exclude many women. As advocates for women’s rights, the Women’s Refugee Commission is particularly concerned about amendments that would:

• Bar anyone who was not in the U.S. before December 31, 2009 from applying for RPI status, and bar spouses and children who entered the U.S. after 2011 from being included in the principal applicant’s petition (Lee 7)

• Increase the penalty that must be paid to apply for RPI status to $5,000 (Grassley 7)

• Require individuals to maintain an income that is four times the federal poverty line (over $90,000 for a family of four) for all 10 years they are in RPI status in order to apply for permanent residence (Sessions 29)

• Raise the income requirement for RPI status renewal for those who cannot meet the employment eligibility requirement to 125% of the federal poverty line, and require that those whose eligibility depends on their income and resources maintain that income level throughout their 10 years in RPI status (Hatch 5)

• Eliminate a provision that allows workers to provide sworn affidavits instead of pay stubs to prove their work history (Grassley 13 and Lee 12)

• Make women ineligible for RPI status and permanent residence if they could become a public charge in the future (Sessions 17-19)

• Make women ineligible for RPI status or permanent residence if they are likely to need means-tested public benefits – including Medicaid, Affordable Care Act tax credits, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or Supplemental Security Income – in the future (Sessions 25-28)

• Eliminate a provision that would allow removed parents, spouses or children of U.S. citizens or permanent residents to apply for RPI status (Sessions 24)

Fortunately, in addition to the considerable work done by the Senate Gang of 8 to make the pathway to citizenship accessible to women, there other champions for immigrant women’s rights among the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. They should be applauded for their efforts to preserve the bill’s existing legalization provisions and to build upon them in the amendment process, including by:

• Changing the date on which an individual has to be present in the U.S. to apply for RPI status from December 31, 2011 to April 17, 2013 (Blumenthal 15) or to the date of enactment of the immigration law (Feinstein 14)

• Permitting individuals who apply for RPI status to petition for spouses and children who are outside the U.S., if they meet eligibility requirements (Hirono 14)

• Modifying the penalty paid in connection with an application for RPI status (Leahy 8) and permitting the penalty to be paid in installments (Hirono 12)

These amendments are only a sampling of the more than 50 amendments that would affect women’s access to legalization. WRC’s full vote guide on women and legalization is available on our website. If your Senator is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, we urge you to call or email them and ask them to Vote YES on amendments that strengthen protections for women and Vote NO on amendments that would leave women behind.

While we are only at the beginning of our fight for full inclusion of women in immigration reform, this is a fight we can win. We’ve come a long way already. As advocates for women’s rights, we must continue to stand together and keep the pressure on Congress to recognize that reform will not be comprehensive – or successful – unless it includes women.

Michelle Brané is director, Migrant Rights & Justice Program at the Women's Refugee Commission. Emily Butera is senior program officer, Migrant Rights & Justice Program.

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