The politics of immigration touch upon major faultlines in American society: not just the legal boundary between citizen and foreigner, but also lines of race, class, nationality, culture and, increasingly, gender. Women, who make up about half of the U.S. immigrant population and an estimated 40 percent of undocumented adults, face unique challenges as migrants. However, gender issues have gone almost entirely unremarked in official immigration-reform talks–that is, until a Senate hearing last Monday, when Mee Moua, head of the Asian American Justice Center, seized an opportunity to call out the invisibility of women in the debate.
The opening came when Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) asked bluntly which immigrant would be a better candidate for legal status: an applicant for a family reunification visa or a skilled professional from overseas? Although family visas are the channel by which generations of migrants have brought family members to the U.S., Sessions’ rhetorical question suggested that skilled professionals make more desirable Americans.
Moua countered that Sessions’ hypothetical reflected deep gender imbalances in the immigration system. The “less desirable” migrant, she argued, would likely be “female, would not have been permitted to get an education and if we would create a system where there would be some kind of preference given to say education, or some other kind of metrics, I think that it would truly disadvantage specifically women and their opportunity to come into this country.”
The tense exchange marked one of the first moments in the current round of reform talks that Congress members have been asked to confront the gender biases inherent in our immigration policies. Such biases have a long history: Male-centered guestworker schemes date all the way back to the Chinese Exclusion Act era of the late 19th century, when blatantly xenophobic laws brought in masses of Chinese male laborers while shutting out their family members in an attempt to deter the workers from settling in the United States.
Today, despite the strides women have made in high-skill fields (most professional workers are now women), they are still heavily underrepresented in “guestworker” programs for professional immigrant workers, which skew heavily toward the vaunted, notoriously male-dominated science and tech (STEM) fields. For example, the controversial H1B visa program for professional temp workers, long touted as a spigot for STEM talent, brought in about 350,000 immigrant men but fewer than 140,000 women in 2011. Meanwhile, lawmakers are weighing proposals to sharply limit family-based visa programs–which make up about 65 percent of authorized permanent immigration–alongside plans for expanding the prized professional visas. As Pramila Jayapal points out at Colorlines.com, men tend to hold professional visas, intended to anchor household “breadwinners,” while women are overrepresented among family visas, which can chain their legal status to an authorized (male) worker.
These biases are no political accident, but a symptom of the privileging of corporate demands over community needs. Immigrant women’s labor, whether it’s in the household, off the books, or on payroll, is fueling the economy. But because it doesn’t seem to directly contribute as much to corporate bottom lines, it’s overlooked.