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Report: Path to Legal Status Harder For Immigrant Women

A new report documents the damage done by the gender discrimination that it suggests runs rampant in immigration laws.

Photo Credit: Matthew Photography


Copyright, Reprinted with permission.

A report released late last month by the Immigration Policy Center (IPC) found gender discrimination is built into US immigration law.

Two experts working with the not-for-profit nonpartisan organization spent 10 years interviewing women from Mexico and Central America living in Phoenix, Arizona, about their experiences with the US immigration system and concluded that "immigration laws assume dependencies that privilege male applicants over females and that often make women an afterthought in the implementation of immigration laws."

Published just ahead of the Senate debate that started Tuesday on the comprehensive immigration reform bill S744, the report documents the damage done by the sexism that its findings suggest runs rampant in the implementation of immigration laws regulating visas, family reunification, political asylum and support for undocumented victims of domestic violence.

Building from a previous IPC report that found visas based on employment were more skewed along gender lines than other visa categories, coauthors Drs. Cecilia Menjivar and Olivia Salcido interviewed women working jobs classified as "low-skilled," for which only 5,000 visas are available each year. It is estimated about 1.8 million people immigrate to the United States each year. 

"There is no reason why the US government would want to grant me legalization for cleaning or cooking or taking care of the couple," said a Guatemalan woman who supported her family on three jobs as a janitor, fast-food employee and eldercare provider. The IPC report calls for laws that give greater status to typically unpaid and low-paid work in sectors like child care and food service.

The authors also spoke to women in the professions who faced other problems, including a Mexican woman who was denied a visa three times because, officials told her, a good-looking single woman ran the risk of overstaying, apparently implying fears that she would enter into a romantic relationship and decide not to return to Mexico.

Menjivar said there is only so much legislation can do to curb discrimination and that the next step is training on-the-ground decision makers to recognize their own biases. "They have the law, they have guidelines, but ultimately, these are street-level bureaucrats that make decisions based on their own personal views," she said.

Women seeking political asylum face more obstacles because they are less likely to be seen as credible political actors, the report found. A Salvadoran woman was denied asylum not only because she had not saved the written death threats her family received during the war in her country, but because the threats were directed at her husband.

After a long fight to reauthorize a new Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) to protect more survivors of domestic and sexual violence, undocumented immigrant women are still at risk of being effectively held hostage by abusive partners, who often threaten to have them deported if they speak out. The denial rate is high for the special visas available under VAWA for undocumented women who need a way out of abusive relationships, and the Department of Homeland Security asks for additional evidence in these cases more often than it does for other types of visa petitions, according to the  VAWA Law Blog. Women seeking visas under VAWA must prove they lived with their abuser, but the IPC report found that they are often completely excluded from documents like leases, bills or any kind of paper trail that would make that possible.

The Senate bill is known as the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act. The provisions in its 1,000 pages are as wide-ranging and potentially contradictory as the name suggests.

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