The National Organization for Women is proud to be one of the conveners of the National Coalition for Immigrant Women’s Rights, adding the voices of hundreds of thousands of NOW members and supporters nationwide to the issue of fair and comprehensive immigration reform legislation. Through this briefing and future discussions we will make clear our organization’s grassroots support for an immigration reform bill that will be fair, equitable and just. We hope to support a proposal that deals with the reality of the lives and hopes of immigrant workers and families – documented or not – and specifically with the plight of immigrant women and children living in the United States.
There are 14.2 million foreign-born women in the United States. Five-and-a-half million are naturalized citizens, another 5.5 million are documented and 3.2 million are undocumented. Each year, half of all immigrants entering the United States are women and girls. However, public policies regarding immigrants do not reflect the impact that being female has on immigrants’ lives in the United States. This applies to both documented and undocumented workers.
The economic reality of immigrant women and children today is disheartening. A disproportionate number of immigrant families are living in poverty, the wage gap for immigrant women is even higher than for native-born women, and working conditions are often inadequate and hostile. They have no protection against sexual harassment, no ability to organize for better wages, or even the basic protections from overtime abuse or occupational safety hazards.
Among the factors affecting low wages is the high percentage of immigrant women, both documented and undocumented, working in the service industry, primarily in domestic work. Forty-two percent of private household services are provided by immigrants under arrangements that are often informal, and prone to abuses and exploitation. Domestic workers, in particular undocumented immigrant women, are faced with extremely low wages, working 60-70 hours per week or more for as little as $200 per week. This is downright exploitation, slavery and servitude – often under the most hostile conditions. Domestic service is a category of work that must be addressed, not ignored and excluded from labor standards afforded to other workers.
NOW strongly supports the inclusion of provisions in any immigration reform legislation that would offer a path to residency and citizenship for the undocumented living in the United States. Undocumented women and the country would benefit if they can come out of hiding, apply for residency and seek employment in the general labor market, earn at least the federal minimum hourly wage, pay taxes, and be eligible to contribute to and receive Social Security and unemployment benefits as other workers do.
Comprehensive immigration reform must also include improvements in the family reunification policy. The 1996 immigration provisions in the welfare act raised sponsorship requirements for relatives’ earnings to 125 percent of the poverty line. This particularly affects immigrant women who could use a relative’s assistance in care-giving obligations. Sponsorship financial tests must be revisited and reformed.
I am an immigrant. My family emigrated from Cuba in the early 1960’s. Cubans for the most part came into the United States without documents; we were afforded the opportunity to become legal residents and citizens of the United States without penalties, barriers and punitive measures. This great country has embraced me and other immigrants as the significant contributors that we are to its economy and to its democracy. Now we must give the same opportunity to this current generation of undocumented immigrants, whether they came through the borders or overstayed their visas. It is not only the humane thing to do, it is also in the best interests of the United States.