Contrary to public perception, three-quarters of all immigrants to the United States are women and children.
That's why policies regarding a pathway to citizenship, deportations and labor and employment categories being considered in the Senate "Gang of Eight's" immigration reform proposals must be understood, perhaps primarily, as women's issues. And that's what the We Belong Together campaign is highlighting as the struggle for immigration reform gears up again in October.
In early September 2013, the campaign helped organize one of the largest civil disobedience actions led by women pushing for action on immigration reform. On Sept. 12, 115 women, including 25 undocumented women, were arrested while blockading an intersection outside the U.S. House of Representatives to protest the House's inaction on immigration reform.
But as immigration reform has taken a back seat in recent months to debate on Capitol Hill about the budget and military intervention Syria, immigration reform organizers are gearing up for actions in early October in an urgent push to demand Congress create a path to citizenship for the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the nation.
And women's groups are pressing to ensure that major policy issues that affect women and families within the larger immigration reform debate remain a central message as more than 40 immigration reform groups across the country rallied during a national day of action Saturday, Oct. 5, to build up to a national rally in Washington on Oct. 8. The We Belong Together campaign hopes to build on its momentum from the Sept. 12 action and continue to spotlight its gender analysis during October, which is Domestic Violence Awareness month.
"There really hasn't been a lot of focus on women as the face of any failed immigration policy that we have or the beneficiaries of any reform policy that we get," said Pramila Jayapal, co-chairwoman of We Belong Together. She told Truthout the group is planning actions for the week of Oct. 14 to keep the momentum building from the Sept. 12 action.
Jayapal said the group has been working closely with lawmakers to get key provisions into the latest Senate immigration proposal that passed in June, including a flexible employment verification standard that would recognize domestic work as well as stay-at-home mothers as workers. Another provision added protections for victims of domestic violence and workers. The proposal increased the number of U-visas, a special visa created for victims of specific crimes.
According to Jayapal, all the immigration reform proposals to come out of the Senate previously would have excluded the majority of women immigrants from any legalization program because of the stringent way in which legalization requirements were tied to providing a paycheck stub.
But the group is moving forward on other policy goals such as alternatives to detention and deportation policies that tear families apart as well as the inclusion of same-sex couples for eligibility for permanent residence in the United States. Jayapal told Truthout the organization is working with congresswomen to form a women's working group to push women-friendly amendments forward in the House of Representatives. A similar strategy was effective in the Senate.
Patty Kupfer, managing director of America's Voice, an immigration reform advocacy group, was arrested during the Sept. 12 action in DC. She is hopeful, like Jayapal, that women-friendly amendments can pass in the House of Representatives' immigration reform package.
"We have a lot of champions in the House of Representatives, but obviously it's a tough climb with Republicans in control and really dragging their feet on this," Kupfer said. "We have so many women members of Congress that really have this issue in their hearts, and I think that we will see it highlighted in an important way."
But even as immigration reform seems to remain sidelined on Capitol Hill, House Democrats have outlined a plan to release a bill in the coming weeks that they hope will garner support from House Republicans in a strategy that would combine the Senate Judiciary Committee's reform bill from May with a bipartisan bill from the House Homeland Security Committee on border security.
The border-security bill would remove a provision to double the number of required border patrol agents that was tacked onto the Senate's immigration reform bill in the final days before its passage. But amendments still provide a challenge for legislators on either side of the aisle, including a diversity visa program and others relating to border security.
"The action that happened on Sept. 12 was important politically but also symbolically for the movement to have the largest civil disobedience action that has happened so far in support of immigration reform take place with all women. I think that it was a real inspiration to a lot folks in the movement and a reminder that women are important leaders in this movement too," Kupfer said.