Credit: We Belong Together
(WOMENSENEWS)–Charlie, an 11-year-old born in Florida, experienced a devastating rupture in his family when his father was detained and deported one day while he took his older children fishing. When he tells this story of how his father didn’t come home that day, Charlie articulates the worst fears of millions of children.
Charlie’s mom is now a single mother, struggling to care for her family on one income rather than two. Charlie and his siblings have a hard time concentrating in school.
The stress and suffering felt by this family is not unique; the recent raid on an immigrant community in Wisconsin demonstrates that it is echoed in millions of homes across the country. Just this past weekend, 1,000 undocumented children were bussed, unaccompanied by adult family members, to a make-shift detention center in Arizona, where they must sleep on the floor, surrounded by chain-link fences, awaiting deportation.
Every day an average of 1,100 people are deported, according to 2012 data from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and many of them are parents.
Our country is at a crossroads of crisis and opportunity. The crisis is one faced by millions of immigrant women and families who bear the brunt of our broken immigration system. The opportunity is a chance to end this suffering, to uphold civil and human rights and to make sure that the United States lives up to its values of family and fairness through immigration reform.
President Barack Obama can alleviate the suffering of millions by ending deportations through administrative relief. Congress can act to create solutions, including a roadmap to citizenship for over 11 million people living in our country. Yet both are stalling, and in so doing they are failing immigrant women and the entire nation.
In order to truly address the failings of our current immigration system, we must ensure immigration reform addresses the challenges faced by women and children, who make up 75 percent of all immigrants to the United States. And if we are to create real and lasting solutions, we must use this opportunity to ensure women’s rights and equality.
Family Visa Backlog
Deportations are not the only element of our immigration system that separates families. Four million people are currently trapped in the family visa backlog. They wait years, sometimes decades, to be reunited with their families. The family visa system is the mechanism through which most women are able to immigrate legally, yet this channel is barely functional.
A naturalized U.S. citizen, 76-year-old Manok Cha estimates that she will be over 90 by the time her daughter, who lives in South Korea, is granted a family visa and allowed to come to this country. Cha has spent her life caring for others, and now fears that there will be no one to care for her in her old age. Immigration reform must honor the importance of a family-based immigration system and eliminate the family visa backlog to help keep families together.
Our immigration system also fails women in many other ways. The visa system disproportionately favors men: currently only 1-in-4 employment visas are issued to women despite the critical roles immigrant women play in our economy. Immigration reform must anticipate and encourage future flows in professions populated by women, allow dependent visa holders to work with full protections and adjustment to permanent status and expand protections for immigrant female workers in asserting labor and civil rights. For instance, the demand for care workers–positions predominantly filled by immigrant women–will likely increase by 48 percent in the next decade, according to the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute, yet our current system does not recognize this reality.
Risk of Violence
Immigrant women are also particularly vulnerable to domestic violence, as they can be compelled to stay in dangerous situations because of their isolation, financial dependence on their abusers and the threat of deportation. That fear becomes a nightmare when women who finally call law enforcement for help are themselves arrested and put into deportation proceedings, a practice that occurs all too often. Immigration reform must expand protections for asylum seekers and survivors of trafficking.
Immigrant women are not only more vulnerable to violence at home, but also experience high rates of abuse and exploitation on the job. In countless work places across the country–and especially in industries where there are large concentrations of immigrant female workers, including domestic work and farm work–female workers are told that they must endure unsafe working conditions, violence, sexual harassment and theft of wages, or they will be reported to immigration officials. The hope of immigration reform provides us an opportunity to bring all workers out of the shadows. Provisions of one promising proposal, the POWER Act, can protect immigrant workers from retaliation by unscrupulous employers.
We have a tremendous opportunity to fix our broken immigration system, and in so doing ensure the health, well-being and safety of women, children and families. Congress and President Obama must act now to grant relief to families torn apart by deportations and enact fair and common sense solutions. Our families, our communities and our country cannot afford to wait any longer.
Andrea Cristina Mercado spoke at the May 29 hearing on The Impact of Immigration Policy on Women and Children sponsored by the Congressional Progressive Caucus. She is campaign director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, co-anchor of the We Belong Together campaign. Mercado has worked with immigrant women for over 10 years.
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