Our broken immigration system affects millions of Americans, and thousands of Mainers, every day that passes without reform. We hear about the effects on workers, families and kids, but we don’t always hear the stories of the women who bear the brunt of the broken system in so many ways.
For groups like ours, which work with immigrant communities every day, the stories of women struggling in the current system lend an urgency to pass a national bill that seems to be lacking from the current leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Take, for example, Adele Ngoy. Ngoy is a mother of three, a fashion designer and the owner of a Portland clothing boutique. She is also an immigrant from the Congo, which she left many years ago to flee the violence of the war-torn country and to find a better life for herself and for her children.
Ngoy left behind her own design firm in the Congo and worked seven years as a seamstress while also learning English. After many years of hard work and struggle, she is now a manager in a local fashion company and president of a local nonprofit, Women Around the World. She’ll be the first to say that her sacrifices have been more than worth it since immigration has given Ngoy the chance to be near her children, live in safety and build a more secure life for her family and her community.
While some U.S. House leaders are dragging their feet on immigration reform — Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, refused to bring the Senate bill to the floor — millions of women like Ngoy are struggling in silence. The values that helped her succeed here — family, hard work, independence, security — are also core American values. In a country that prides itself on protecting families and giving equal opportunities to women, we must ensure women are recognized in our immigration laws, too.
Today 51 percent of the people who migrate to the U.S. are women. Combined with children, they make up more than two-thirds of U.S. immigrants. Millions of female immigrants perform essential jobs here, such as taking care of children and aging parents.
But despite these contributions, female immigrants receive only one-quarter of the work visas issued by the federal government. Most women who immigrate under employment visas enter as dependents on their spouse’s visa; they are left with no ability to work, despite their credentials.
We cannot let immigrant women fall by the wayside in the debate over reform. Women have a significant stake in the outcome of the immigration reform, and worthy reform must respect their needs and contributions.
A first step is recognizing the value of women’s work. Of the millions of undocumented women in the country, about 60 percent have jobs, often as domestic workers or caretakers. But these women are left out of the current immigration system simply because they don’t have pay stubs or other conventional proof of employment. Immigration reform must fix this problem by allowing flexible forms of proof of employment. This would allow all women working in informal industries rightful access to a path to citizenship.
Common-sense reform also means having laws in place that allow families to stay together.
More than 4 million people have applied to be legally reunited with their families in the United States. Family-based visas are the route to legal status for more than 70 percent of immigrant women, but family visa backlogs now extend for decades. These backlogs split up families, and they disproportionately affect women.
Congress should eliminate these delays and preserve family immigration categories, including those for siblings and adult children. We are grateful that Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Maine Democrat, continues to speak out in favor of family unity in immigration reform policies, and we hope her colleagues in the House do the same.
Immigrant women also need protections on the job and in communities.
Women who enter the U.S. as dependents ought to have full worker protections, including being subject to minimum-wage laws and eight-hour workdays; they should have access to help in the face of violence, trafficking and sexual harassment; and they should be guaranteed due process in cases of deportation or whenever families are at risk of being separated.
It’s time for House leaders to unite their members around the American values at the heart of immigrants’ experiences. It’s time for them to take the lead in pushing for common-sense reform that includes a path to citizenship and treats women and children fairly.
Our communities’ strength depends on it.
Vivien Labaton is co-chairwoman of We Belong Together, an organization advocating for comprehensive immigration reform.
Amy Halsted is associate director at Maine People’s Alliance, a progressive advocacy group.