Irasema Garza addresses the audience

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–As immigrant women approach parity with men in terms of population, advocates at a forum this week said it’s important to understand the different reasons that often draw them to the United States so their rights can be better addressed by reform efforts.

The Obama administration addressed one of these issues later that day when the Department of Homeland Security issued a ruling that adds domestic violence to the list of possible reasons for granting asylum to female immigrants.

Agnes Maldonado, executive director of the National Latino Alliance for the Elimination of Domestic Violence, based in Albuquerque, N.M., heralded the news.

"We have had a number of cases dealing with immigrant women facing serious domestic violence situations," she said in an e-mail. "The numbers are limited in scope relative to other issues, but the cases are complicated to deal with, thus involving a large amount of time and resources. We look forward to specific guidance from the Obama administration."

Family Issues Left Out

Beyond the high-profile issues of the legal treatment of domestic violence and genital mutilation–an issue not included in this week’s ruling–much of the immigration reform debate focuses on immigrants as workers and leaves out the family issues that are most important to women, said Karen Narasaki, president and executive director of the Asian American Justice Center, a civil rights group based in Washington, D.C.

"One thing that doesn’t get talked about much is the legal system and how it works for family visas," Narasaki said. As a case in point, she mentioned long waiting periods for family visas. She said it’s ridiculous for a U.S. citizen from the Philippines to wait 23 to 24 years to bring a sibling into the country, or a legal resident to wait seven to nine years to reunite with a spouse.

"We need a policy that works more in terms of bringing families together," Narasaki said, calling on Congress to expedite the process.

Reps. Marie Hizono (D-HI) and Michael Honda (D-CA) said they want to address these concerns and improve immigrants’ quality of life, according to a press statement by New America Media, an association with offices in New York, California, and Washington, D.C., which represents more than 2,000 ethnic media organizations.

"Women at the head of immigrant families often bear the brunt of disparities that our communities face," Honda was quoted as saying.

According to the Census Bureau, women represent roughly half of the 35 million immigrants in the United States.

High Hopes, Low Pay

"Many groups don’t want to look at immigration through a gender lens," said Irasema Garza, president of Legal Momentum, a New York-based nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the rights of women and girls.

Garza said immigrant women represent a major source of growth in the labor sector, even though their jobs are concentrated at the bottom of the economic ladder in the service industry. That makes them more likely to seek unionization because it can lead to better wages and more protection from workplace exploitation.

A New America Media survey released on July 14 found that female immigrants come to the United States not necessarily to make more money–80 percent of them earn less than $2,000 a month–but to build better futures for their children and make permanent homes for their families. Many of those interviewed said the main reason for leaving their homeland was to join other family members already living in the United States.

After their arrival, 57 percent of female immigrants go on to become U.S. citizens while 65 percent obtain legal resident status. One barrier they face is limited access to quality health care. Thirty percent lack health insurance, and 43 percent go to the emergency room to be treated for an illness.

"A lot of women work 12 hours a day and that takes a toll on their health," said Chung Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, an umbrella policy and advocacy organization for more than 200 groups in the state.

The dangers these women face include a higher risk of domestic violence. Another obstacle that female immigrants must overcome is a limited knowledge of English. Sixty-four percent have little-to-no proficiency in the language, even though 62 percent have taken classes to learn it.

"The desire to learn English is the ticket for themselves and their children to a better life," said Angela Kelley, vice president of immigration policy and advocacy at the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C.,-based think tank.

The panel was held on July 15 at the Ford Foundation, an independent, nonprofit organization that supports Women’s eNews. It was sponsored by New America Media, New York Immigration Coalition, New York Community Media Alliance and the Ford Foundation.

Latrice Davis is a freelance journalist based in New York.