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Women’s issues take immigration reform spotlight

Women immigrants find themselves subject to abuse and lack of rights with little recourse, according to testimony from experts and activists who are urging national lawmakers to prioritize women in any comprehensive reform plan.

The director for National Domestic Workers Alliance, Ai-jen Poo, told Congress that past immigration overhauls have focused solely on the economic needs of U.S. companies, to the detriment of the immigrants’ rights.

“Today women and children represent two-thirds of all immigrants in the United States,” Poo told the Senate Judiciary committee on Monday. “But, unfortunately, past rounds of immigration reform have excluded women’s experiences.”

Another witness, Mee Moua, from the Asian American Justice Center, noted that nearly 70 percent of women immigrants attain legal status through either a spouse or family member.

“Since women are more often denied access to resources and education and face social constraints in their home countries, they are both overrepresented among family-based immigrants and underrepresented among employment-based immigrants,” Moua told the committee.

When women immigrants arrive through family visas, they often end up working at informal jobs such as home health, house cleaning, and childcare, according to the witnesses. They then end up at the mercy of employers who abuse them through low pay, no pay, no benefits, no time off, and even physical abuse. Many women immigrants are also subject to abuses in the home, where their spouses have freedom. In both places women immigrants have little legal recourse.

The witnesses emphasized greater worker-based immigration for women, to allow them independence, and adopting a proof of residency that does not depend on pay stubs, to allow the many women working in informal businesses to prove their time spent here.

Witnesses stressed that women immigrants, working in informal settings, will be a crucial part of the coming work force, with baby-boomers retiring.

Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, who was chairing the hearing, said she had lived many of these experiences. When Hirono was 8, her mother brought her to Hawaii from Japan in order to escape an abusive, alcoholic husband.

“It’s from my own experience as an immigrant that I believe immigration reform should make the family immigration system stronger,” Hirono said. “And we should not ignore the challenges immigrant women face.”

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