Senate Tackles Issue of Women, Families, and Deportation in Immigration Hearings

This week, the Senate held a couple of hearings to address the needs of women and families and to review how to reform our current method of detaining immigrants for removal proceedings. Whether it’s a good faith demonstration of the Senate’s seriousness to address all aspects of immigration for reform, or merely to advance its political agenda, these hearings highlight how this country’s current immigration system significantly impact the most vulnerable groups in our communities.  With so many issues highlighted below, it will be a miracle if Congress can come to a balanced compromise in the next few weeks (or months).

The Effect of Temporary Visas on Women and Families

An issue seldom raised in immigration discussions is the impact that temporary work visas, particularly H-1B visas, have on dependent family members and on women. On families, the effect is visceral. Spouses and children of H-1B employees are not authorized to work, which puts them solely dependent on the income of the H-1B employee and highly vulnerable in abusive relationships. As it stands, DHS has yet to reveal the data on how many H-1B visas are issued to men and how many to women.  According to Professor Karen Panetta’s testimony, the gender imbalance in the STEM fields can be attributable to many causes but clearly there are deleterious effects for women (both domestic and foreign).  The current employment data reveals the low number of women in the STEM fields.  Dr. Panetta encourages Congress to provide a mechanism for employers to permanently sponsor their workers rather than providing incentives to hire temporary workers, in her opinion, depresses American wages. For the challenges of permanent visa backlogs on the separation of families, read our Senate hearing recap here.

Eliminating Various Family Preference Categories

The issue for Congress to tackle is how to define family and what priority should be given this status.  Is family merely a nuclear unit?  Or should it encompass more members (siblings, aunts, uncles, etc.)?  A recent letter from numerous Congress members highlights the challenges. Because of the visa backlog, some have posited the idea of eliminating certain family preference categories in order to relieve the backlog and reallocate those visa numbers.  But would this drastic measure satisfy our current priority for uniting families?  Would it make more sense to increase visa numbers altogether, quotas that has been stagnant since the early 1990s? Mee Moua, President of the Asian American Center for Advancing Justice, indicated 69.7% of women obtained legal status through family immigration (compared to 60.6% of men).  Most compelling was this testimony in response to Senator Sessions query on prioritizing visa categories based on the immigrant’s educational background:

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.

In other words, if immigrant women are never afforded the opportunities in their home countries to obtain an education or a professional occupation outside the home, those women would never be able to emigrant to the U.S. based on educational or employment qualifications. Ms. Moua also gave an impassioned plea to Congress to avoid arbitrarily eliminating certain family categories such as adult children.  “Children will always be our children whether they are over 21 years or not.”  Moreover, who will care for an aging population if no those immigrant’s children or their network of family members?

Documentary Requirements

One interesting prospective request by Ai-jen Poo, Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance was for Congress to consider those, particularly women, who reside in a document-less society. Immigrant women serve as domestic workers, care givers, and homemakers (nannies, maids, housecleaners, garment workers) who often times lack the paystubs or other employment records commonly found in traditional industries.  If Congress were to impose significant documentary requirements in its comprehensive immigration reform proposal, this would disproportionately impact women.  Congress should instead allow for flexibility in its requirements: proof of presence rather than proof of employment, can be abundantly available from community based organizations, churches, other community groups.

Detention of Immigrants

Today’s hearing focused on the challenges of the detention process for immigrants.  Due to a conflict of meetings, the Committee was unable to conduct a full length hearing, but important issues were still raised in the time allotted:

  • Are we unnecessarily detaining immigrants based on non-violent charges?
  • Should we revise the ever-expanding, unique only to immigration, list of excludable offenses?
  • How did congressionally-mandated bed-quotes for detention centers drive ICE policy for mandatory detention?
  • Does it make fiscal sense for our mandatory detention system to be in place or should we look at alternative programs for intensive supervision?
  • Can we implement tracking technology that was not available in the 1990s (during the last immigration reform) for non-violent low-risk immigrants to ensure their appearance at detention hearings as an alternative to mandatory detention?  If so, how effective would this be?
  • To what extent should immigrants be afforded due process rights by providing federally funded legal assistance?  Does this make fiscal sense?
  • How much discretion should immigration judges have when making determinations on immigration cases?

As we spiral deeper and deeper into this morass called CIR, it is clear there is no easy solution.  The only consensus this country has reached is that our immigration system is broken.  I applaud the Senate for shining light on issues that have rarely received any attention in the news.  The rest, we’ll have to wait and see in a few weeks, after Congress returns from break.

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