Monday, April 8, 2013

The Case for Women in the Immigration Reform Conversation

Guest blogger: Alexandra Ledyard – third-year law student, University of San Francisco

What do contraception and immigration have in common? Sandra Fluke. Fluke, who rose to prominence last year after testifying before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform about the need for contraception access, recently gave the 2013 Emily Taylor and Marilyn Stokstad Women’s Leadership lecture at Kansas University. In her speech, Fluke made the case that women’s rights and immigrant rights are one and the same. Although comprehensive immigration reform is rarely thought of as a woman’s issue, it is in fact central to the fight for women’s equality.

In fact, just like last year’s contraception panel, comprehensive immigration reform is looking very XY-chromosome dominated. Look no farther than the bipartisan knights of immigration reform, the “Gang of Eight”: Marco, Jeff, John, Lindsey, Dick, Robert, Chuck, and Michael. And no, for those of you not familiar with your United States senators, Lindsey is a man. Beyond the Gang, the lack of mention or inclusion of women in the national immigration conversation is deafening.

There’s the media, which portrays immigration reform through a male-focused lens—the undocumented males scaling border walls, stealing our farm jobs in the Central Valley, and soliciting construction jobs outside Home Depots across the country. But what does the media tell us about immigrant women? The media narrative of immigrant women is a pendulum, constantly swaying from villain to victim, and back. On the one hand there is the “anchor babies” portrayal—immigrant women as conniving freeloaders delivering their immigrant babies to wreak havoc on the American taxpayer system. On the other hand, immigrant woman are portrayed as the helpless victims of deportation, detention, and domestic violence. Yet, mostly, there is silence. Media portrayal matters because it shapes the public’s opinion of immigrant women, which, in turn, shapes policy. Alas, the media is not solely to blame.

Take President Obama. When the President kicked off his comprehensive immigration reform tour in Nevada this past January, the only women mentioned in his entire speech were the those “notable guests” present, all politicians. To borrow one of President Obama’s favorites words, the only immigrant folks deemed worthy of mention by name or company affiliation were men. There was Ken Salazar “of Mexican-American descent;” Alan Aleman, DREAM’er; and the (perennial favorite) cofounders of Google, Yahoo, Intel, and Instagram. There certainly are immigrant women entrepreneurs. In fact, according to the Economic Census’s Survey of Business Owners there are 1,018,743 women business owners in the United States who emigrated from foreign countries, to be exact.  Thirteen percent of all women-owned firms are held by women born outside the United States.  This argument, however, is missing the point. Why should we, the American public, be more impressed with the founder of a company that makes digital pictures look like they were taken with a Polaroid, than one of the millions of immigrant women who comprise the very fabric of American communities, workplaces, and schools?

The numbers don’t lie. Today, women comprise more than half of the immigrant population in the United States. In fact, women make up 51% of all lawful permanent resident seekers, up from 38% in 2000.   These are women that care for our children and aging parents, are members of their children’s PTA, start businesses, raise their families, and are increasingly playing the role of breadwinner. Yet, millions of immigrant women are marginalized and silenced by a broken immigration system. The time has long since come for our immigration system to not only recognize these women, but start working for them.  The immigration system must provide a clear and broad path to both lawful status and citizenship that recognizes the valuable contributions of immigrant women and their work.


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