Immigration is a hot topic of discussion, but it’s probably safe to say that most people don’t understand the ins and outs of our immigration system. According to the American Immigration Council, our system is built upon a few principles: “the reunification of families, admitting immigrants with skills that are valuable to the U.S. economy, protecting refugees, and promoting diversity.” The Immigration and Nationality Act is the policy which governs U.S. immigration; this act grants up to 675,000 permanent immigration visas annually (across a variety of visa categories), sets no limit on how many U.S. citizen’s spouses, parents, and children (under the age of 21) are admitted, and allows for the current president to meet with Congress annually to set the number of refugees who will be admitted into the U.S. Finally, it’s important to understand U.S. asylum; it is offered to people who are “facing persecution in their home countries on the basis of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular group.”
President Biden has been active regarding immigration policy since taking office; his administration has reversed some of the Trump administration’s immigration restrictions in several steps, which include boosting refugee admissions, preserving deportation relief for undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. as children, not enforcing rules that would deny green cards to individuals who could use public benefit programs, and cutting visa restrictions that were put into place at the beginning of the pandemic. Furthermore, Biden has proposed to allow more immigrants into the U.S., give undocumented immigrants a path to legal status, pass his Build Back Better Act, and protect the DACA and Temporary Protected Status programs. Finally, the Biden administration ended the Migrant Protection Protocols, which required individuals seeking asylum to wait in Mexico for their court hearings.
When talking about immigration policy with a friend, they were confused as to why I consider this a feminist issue. Many people probably think that issues which don’t obviously concern women (like the wage gap or gender discrimination) are not feminist issues. An issue doesn’t need to appear feminine on the surface to be a feminist issue; while not initially apparent, U.S. immigration policy disproportionally affects women.
Women and children make up roughly 75% of individuals migrating to the U.S. annually, and 70% of women attain legal status through family visas. With 4 million individuals currently waiting to be reunited with family (through family visas) due to backlogs, women are being affected much more than men due to their reliance on gaining legal status this way. Members of the LGBTQ+ community are also grossly affected by U.S. immigration policy, as they are unable to sponsor their partners or children for residency despite their familial/legal status in their home country.
Everyday Feminism offers important commentary on immigration as a feminist issue with one writer stating that “mainstream feminists must listen to women of color when they voice their struggles,” referring to the struggles of women who are navigating the U.S. immigration system. Women are often passed over for employment visas as these are awarded to those in “highly sought-after professions” (usually male dominated fields like STEM). Female-dominated fields, like domestic work, receive only 10,000 visas a year in comparison to the male-dominated category of general employment visas, which number at 140,000 annually. With the backlog of family visas and women being passed up for employment visas, it can be difficult for women to gain legal entry into the U.S.
The plight of immigrant women doesn’t stop upon entry to the U.S., too often they face harsh living and working conditions. 1 in 4 U.S. women experience domestic violence, but domestic violence is 3-6 times more likely to occur for immigrant women. This problem often goes unaddressed due to a fear of investigation by law enforcement, especially among undocumented women. Immigrants are also federally banned from using benefit programs such as Medicaid for their first five years of having legal status in the U.S., and while some states have waived this five-year ban, it’s uncommon.
Our immigration policy disproportionately affects women of color and their families, as well as members of the LGBTQ+ community, as the policies and visa requirements generally cater to well-skilled men. It is important that we understand how current policies affect marginalized individuals and that we participate in elections and discussions to stand up for groups of people who have no voice, otherwise these policies will not be changed.
For more commentary on immigration as a feminist issue, check out this podcast.