Feminism at the Border: Immigration as a Feminist Issue

The following post was inspired by and draws upon a speech by activist Sandra Fluke, given at American University on March 18, 2013.

You know the saying “human rights are women’s rights”?

Immigrants’ rights are women’s rights.

Before listening to Ms. Fluke speak at American University last week, I hadn’t really thought about the ways in which immigration is a feminist issue.  Don’t get me wrong, most things that involve women in any way can be feminist issues, but I’d never thought specifically about feminism and immigration, and the more I think about it, the more important it seems to discuss it.

Look, feminism often gets written off as irrelevant to larger policy issues.  “Women’s issues” get relegated to their own corner of the room, like they aren’t part of the party.  And it’s high time that we started talking about feminism not just as it relates to things like women’s health or to things like equal pay, but as a lens that we can apply to a lot of different issues.

Immigration is one of the most pressing issues in the US today.  It’s one of the few national security/foreign policy issues that most people have at some point really contemplated.  It appears in the news all the time.  But the ways that it impacts women are only just starting to enter the conversation.

For those who are unfamiliar with the legalities of the American immigration system, there are actually TWO systems that process immigration.  The first is the work visa system, and the second is the family system.  Women and children constitute almost two thirds of all immigrants to the United States today, and the vast majority of them enter the country under the family system.  There are a couple of ways that women get disproportionately hurt, both under the current system, and in light of the proposed reforms:

  1. Women are more likely to enter the country under the family system, which proposed reforms would shrink in an effort to shift towards the work visa system.  This means that it gets more difficult for women to immigrate to the United States.  When families have to break up so that one member can enter under the work visa system and then bring family members over through the family system, women are more likely to get left behind, and to go years or even decades without seeing their families.  As this system refocuses towards work visas, women will likely have to wait longer or be left behind more often.
  2. Women are less likely to QUALIFY for work visas in the first place.  There are a couple of reasons for this.  First, women are less likely to hold employment in their home countries, and more likely to work in informal sectors as caretakers, homemakers, etc.  This is particularly true in areas like Latin America.  But even when women DO work, they often don’t work in the fields that are prioritized for work visas, including engineering, etc.  This means that women are less likely even to qualify for work visas, to immigrate of their own accord.
  3.  The work visa situation means that women’s immigration statuses are dependent on men.  In case you weren’t yet convinced this is a feminist issue, realize that if women can’t immigrate of their own accord because they need to rely on the family system, they become dependent on husbands, brothers or fathers to facilitate their immigration.  They can’t, of their own accord, easily immigrate to the United States in order to seek a better life.
  4. Many immigrant women lack the documentation that the US government requires to prove residency status.  This is because many immigrant women work in informal sectors like childcare, meaning they lack documentation like pay stubs, and many of them have their residences in their husbands’ names, so they lack adequate documentation of this.  This makes it more difficult for immigrant women to earn their citizenship in the United States.
  5. Immigrant women are more likely to be abused at work or at home.  Again, because immigrant women are more likely to take work in the informal sector, they are often abused and underpaid.  Because America already has systemic problems with undervaluing homemaking, childcare, care for the elderly, etc., and also already has a problem with violence against women, these problems become compounded by immigrant status.
  6. There is a cap to U-Visas.  U-visas are what the United States issues to allow women who report abuse to stay in the country, even if they are undocumented or if they were brought here by their abuser through the family system.  This program was expanded under VAWA this year, and that was a victory, but recognize that U-visas have a cap.  There is a limit to how many the US will issue, and we are hitting that cap every year.  This means that immigrant women who report are still at risk for deportation, and are still unable to seek adequate recourse when they are abused.

Female immigrants face disproportionate risks, barriers and harms that accompany their attempts to immigrate.  In addition to what I already mentioned, immigrant women are more likely to be abused in detention facilities, are more scared to go to the police, and are less likely to be able to access adequate services when they need them.  It is time for the mainstream feminist movement to start paying more attention to these kinds of issues, to start applying the feminist lens to larger policy problems, because if we don’t, down the road those gaps will just get wider.  Women will continue to be hurt in areas that are not strictly “women’s issues”.  We are immigrants, we are part of the economy, we are part of the political field, and we have a stake in all of these issues.

No matter what kind of immigration reform you believe we need, the reality is that whatever immigration reform we get needs to start addressing these problems.  It needs to address the harms that immigrant women face and not create additional barriers to their entry to the country, making it disproportionately difficult for women to come here.  Women are a huge part of American society and the American economy, and it’s time to make space for immigrant women at the table.

For more information, please check out the National Coalition for Immigrant Women’s Rights.


~ by Randi Saunders on March 24, 2013.

One Response to “Feminism at the Border: Immigration as a Feminist Issue”

  1. This is such an important issue! Thank you for spelling it out so clearly!

    There have been so many laws in the past few years that have restricted immigrants from being here, from working, and from studying in higher education, as well as many that have encouraged racial profiling targeting immigrants around skin color and language. I think this has left most people unable to even consider this a feminist issue or to see how women immigrants are affected, how the institutionalized oppression of women immigrants is patriarchy, and how the current system affects entire families and immigrant communities. Such an important issue! Brilliant article!
    Thank you for the post!
    -Liza Wolff-Francis

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