In the wake of the recent passing of the harsh anti-immigrant law in Arizona, Gloria Steinem, writer, feminist organizer and cofounder of the Women’s Media Center, and Pramila Jayapal, an immigrant herself, and founder and executive director of OneAmerica, a national organization that works for civil and human rights for immigrants, consider the unique impact of immigration on women.
Close your eyes and conjure up the image of an “illegal immigrant.” If you see a male farm worker, petty criminal or even a drug dealer and potential terrorist, you’re not alone. Those often threatening and always-male images are the most common not only in anti-immigrant rhetoric, but in mainstream news media and movies. Fear of immigrants has all but eclipsed even the cherished symbolism of the Statue of Liberty.
In the wake of Arizona’s SB1070—the harsh anti-immigrant law that not only condones but promotes racial profiling that endangers entire groups of the innocent—all sides seem to agree that the Federal government has abdicated its responsibility to institute a fair and just immigration system that meets our values and our needs, as families, businesses and communities. Republicans have used SB1070 to coalesce around “border security first” in spite of the fact that it is the underlying system that is broken and needs to be fixed first. Democrats have been caught red-handed with inaction and unwilling to lead on introducing a meaningful reform bill less they stir up a jingoistic hornet’s nest on the right.
In fact, both parties have closed their eyes to the millions of immigrant voters across the country who are watching closely to see who takes leadership, and which party (perhaps for generations to come)these voters will embrace or spurn.
Meanwhile, workplaces are raided, families are divided, and the situation of real life immigrants grows ever more Kafka-esque. Today, the Obama Administration deports approximately 1,000 immigrants each day, even more than during the Bush Administration. Businesses—afraid of the I9 audits, called “paper raids”—fear losing hundreds of workers with no real reform in sight. And in a lesser reported but crucial consequence, even tourists, diplomats and visiting experts now reconsider trips here, leading to losses for the United State of experts, tourist income, and global goodwill everyday. The fearful and irrational procedures at our borders and in the interior have even become subjects of global hit movies such as “My Name is Khan” or “The Visitor.”
Of course, even a stopped clock is right twice a day. All the factions in this immigration debate have a point or two. But the truth is that the debate on immigration would be easier and far more accurate if the American public understood who immigrants really are — and why they come to America. The reality is that immigration is, in large part, about women and children. It’s time to wake up to this fact.
Consider the following:
- The super majority of both documented and undocumented immigrants – whether newly arrived or resident in this country — are women and children.
- Many female immigrants are fleeing domestic violence, female genital mutilation, and other human rights abuses against females in their own countries. Female immigrants are much more likely to have been the victims of violence than to be its perpetrators — just as are females in general.
- Of the immigrants who endure this broken system long enough to become permanent legal U.S. residents, 54.6% are women. Due to bureaucratic delays and restrictions on family visas, they still must wait between six and twenty-two years to bring even one family member into this country.
- Female immigrants suffer even more workplace wage discrimination than do their male counterparts. The threat of deportation makes them fearful of reporting sexual assault, sexual harassment, domestic violence and other punishments that are overwhelmingly female.
- Women and children make up more than 90% of the thousands of unwilling immigrants brought here every year by sex traffickers, yet such victims are far more likely to end up in prison than are the traffickers.
- The average immigrant woman is better educated than her male counterpart, even when both are in low-paying jobs. Women are also more likely to be students in English language classes – many classrooms are as much as 70% female – because they want to instruct or to keep up with their children.
- Though immigrants who are permanent legal residents pay the same taxes as do citizens, they are not allowed to receive Medicaid for five years. This punishes women disproportionately because they are child bearers and caregivers It also endangers the public in general by reducing the level of health in schools and workplaces. Nonetheless, this prohibition was enshrined in the recent healthcare reform bill.
For all these reasons and many more, immigration is a women’s issue. That’s why mainstream women’s organizations like the National Organization for Women have passed well-informed and valuable resolutions on immigration policy, yet Congress has yet to ask for their testimony. Most immigrant advocacy organizations are also led by women, yet the mainstream media rarely feature spokeswomen in immigration debates. Indeed, the popular image of immigrants is so far from their reality that even immigrant groups and the women’s movement have yet to harness their collective power together. Imagine how much both movements would gain if they worked in a coordinated fashion to move comprehensive immigration reform?
The truth is that millions more Americans would be the natural allies of immigrants if they were presented with an accurate picture of who immigrants really are. That number of supporters would be increased still more by knowing how important a part of the economy female immigrants are. While there are no statistics breaking out the economic contributions of women immigrants, economists estimate that giving them stability by passing immigration reform would increase the gross domestic product of the U.S. by $1.5 trillion over the next ten years — and women are a key part of that contribution.
As for the border debate, no country on earth has succeeded in sealing off a border effectively, from the Berlin Wall to the Bamboo Curtain, and those that have done the best job — say, North Korea — have only isolated and punished themselves.
In the U.S., punitive measures that threaten the circular flow of immigrant seasonal workers have actually meant that more remain here. They fear returning home because they may die or fail to cross the border again. Indeed, if the biased and the fearful were to succeed in deporting the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants now living here, it would not only decrease our GNP, but the process itself would cost more than the Iraqi and Afghan wars combined.
It’s hard to imagine how this broken system could get worse. However, it’s clear where the mending must start: See immigrants as they really are. Then make policy that fits reality.
The WMC is a non-profit organization founded by Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem, and Robin Morgan, dedicated to making women visible and powerful in the media.