Analysis of the Senate Immigration Bill (s. 744) and Women’s Priorities for Immigration Reform

Priority: Roadmap to Citizenship

The Senate bill provides a strong roadmap to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who are here in the United States. It also recognizes the contributions of women’s work and women workers in several ways.

The Good

  • Undocumented immigrants would be able to apply for Registered Provisional Immigrant (RPI) Status, valid for 6 years and renewable for 6 more years. RPI status would allow immigrants to work and travel while they await adjustment.
  • To qualify for RPI status, an undocumented immigrant would need to have been physically present in the U.S. before December 31, 2011 and had continuous presence since that date. No proof of employment would be required to qualify for RPI status. To renew, applicants would have to show regular employment, but there are exceptions to this for primary caretakers and maternity. In addition, women who work in informal work environments could provide, as their proof of employment, paperwork from organizations that assist workers in finding employment or sworn affidavits from non-relatives who have knowledge of the individual’s work history. Applicants would also need to show that they are unlikely to fall below the federal poverty level.
  • In order to adjust to Legal Permanent Resident (LPR) status (after border security triggers are met), RPIs would have to show payment of taxes, English proficiency or course of study, and proof of regular employment during RPI status. The same exceptions and forms of proof of employment that applied to RPI renewal would apply for LPR status applications.
  • Spouses and children would be included as “dependents” under the primary RPI applicant’s application if they have been in the US before December 21, 2012, and would not need to show proof of employment.
  • In the event of death, divorce or domestic violence of a spouse or parent, dependent family members would be able to continue their path to citizenship.
  • Some deported family members who are outside the U.S. would be able to qualify for a waiver from the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to return to the U.S. and obtain RPI status.
  • Agricultural workers, which include many women, would be able to apply for a “blue card,” authorizing them to work and travel. They would apply as primary workers or as dependents on a spouse’s application and be eligible for LPR status within 5 years of enactment. DREAMers would also have an expedited path to citizenship.

Needs Improvement

  • Women may have a particular challenge showing continuous employment in low-wage jobs or seasonal industries.
  • The cut-off date of December 31, 2011 would leave many women and men out.
  • Single women or mother-headed households may find it difficult to meet income requirements (100% of the federal poverty line for RPI renewal and 125% for LPR adjustment).
  • English language requirements for adjustment would leave many people out, with a disproportionate impact on low-income
    women.
  • Fines and fees charged throughout the process may be too high for many families.

Priority: Family Reunification

Because 70% of women obtain their legal status through the family immigration system, this backlog has disproportionately burdened women and families. The Senate bill provides good provisions for legal immigrants that are currently waiting in the 4.3 million-person family immigration backlog. However, eliminations of certain visa categories for family immigration are an enormous blow to what has been the cornerstone of U.S. immigration policy. The Senate bill would add a merit-based employment and family system for future immigration, with unclear ramifications for women and families. (This merit-based system is covered under the next employment priority category.)

The Good

  • The current 4.3 million person family backlog would be processed and eliminated within 10 years.
  • Minor children and spouses of both LPRs and citizens (both within the current backlog as well as for future applications) would be re-classified as “immediate relatives,” as would the parents of adult LPRs and citizens. This would allow for immediate access to an immigrant visa and exemption from caps on number of available visas. That means that spouses, minor children and parents of LPRs would no longer have to wait years to be together.
  • The modified V visa would allow family members to work and live in the U.S. once they have been petitioned for, instead of having to wait decades for their LPR status in their countries of origin.
  • A new visa would allow family members to visit the U.S. for up to 60 days per year.

The Bad

  • U.S. citizens would no longer be able to sponsor their siblings and their adult children over the age of 30. (Note: There would be an 18-month grace period after the bill is enacted, so petitions for family members in these categories would still be allowed during that time.)
  • LGBT individuals would not be able to sponsor their partners.
  • Although there would still be some ability for non-immediate relatives to apply through the new merit-based system, it is unclear if this system would be as inclusive of women as the current family system. Fixes should be made to ensure that women and families can still gain sufficient points under the new point system.

Priority: Worker Protections and Employment Based Immigration

Only 27% of employment visas currently go to women. In addition, women who are the beneficiaries of their spouse’s work visa are currently not eligible to seek employment outside of the home. Many women who are in the workplace suffer tremendous violations of worker rights and physical and verbal harassment. The Senate bill offers fixes to many but not all of these issues.

The Good

  • The proposed merit-based visa system would provide additional ways for future women workers to gain legal status in the U.S. The bill includes a category of visas for occupations that require little formal training, and for caregivers. The merit-based visa system would evaluate applicants based on the number of points they are awarded for a range of factors, including education, employment experience, employment offers, civic involvement and English level. Certain family relationships and primary caregivers would earn 10 points—the same valuation as a master’s degree or a high need occupation.
  • A new W visa category would be established to fill high need occupations, likely including domestic workers. The W visa would allow workers to change employers, and to adjust status through the merit-based system. Spouses and children of W-visa holders would receive work authorization.
  • PhD graduates would be exempt from the worldwide limits on green cards.
  • The bill would provide increased protections for non-citizen workers who are victims of civil or labor violations.

Needs Improvement

  • As mentioned above, the merit-based visa system needs to be amended to provide meaningful pathways for women and to preserve family unity.
  • The bill provides the ability for spouses of some employment visa holders to be employed outside the home, however other spouses of H1-B holders would only be allowed to seek employment if their home country allows U.S. citizens to work in those countries. Spouses across all visa categories should be allowed to access employment and fully contribute their skills to the country.
  • The Senate bill would require all employers to use E-Verify in order to verify the immigration status of their employees. This could present an unbearable burden to many employers, particularly individual employers (such as families who employ nannies or other employers of domestic workers), and could be especially problematic for both women seeking care providers and the workers themselves. It is essential to amend the legislation to create exemptions to the proposed E-Verify requirement.

Priority: Protections for Survivors of Violence and Trafficking

Reform needs to expand protections and relief for asylum seekers and survivors of trafficking; increase the numbers of U-visas for those who experience domestic violence or crime; and ensure access to health care and social services for those who obtain RPI status. The Senate bill does provide several protections that address these issues.

The Good

  • The Senate bill would repeal the one-year asylum filing deadline and would also allow, in some situations, the ability for denied applicants to reapply for asylum.
  • A child of a refugee or an asylee’s spouse or child would be eligible to follow or join their parent or spouse.
  • The bill would expand the number of U visas and expand eligibility for U visas to include serious workplace abuse, exploitation and retaliation.

Needs Improvement

  • Although additional U visas are included, the number is still insufficient.
  • Bars to public benefits would be especially problematic for women who need temporary access to safety net benefits to escape abusive situations.

Priority: Due Process and Protections for Families

Immigration reform must protect parental rights, expand access to legal counsel and increase alternatives to detention, while ensuring due process. The Senate bill addresses some of these concerns.

The Good

  • The bill would require DHS to look at alternatives to detention before detaining someone and improve oversight and compliance for immigration detention facilities. The bill would also require DHS to meet due process requirements before arrest, and ensure access to legal counsel for vulnerable immigrants in deportation proceedings.
  • The bill helps ensure that parental rights are not terminated solely on the basis of an individual’s detention or removal. Children who enter the child welfare system because of a parent’s detention or removal would have greater ability to reside with relatives and ultimately reunite with their parents.
  • The bill gives Immigration Judges the discretion to terminate deportation proceedings against a parent if the parent’s removal would cause hardship to their U.S. citizen or LPR child.

Needs Improvement

  • The bill needs attention to parental rights protections including: allowing detained parents to make phone calls to arrange for their children’s care; allowing detained parents to participate in proceedings affecting custody of their children; and ensuring that parents have the choice to take their children with them if deported.
  • Parental rights regulations need to be incorporated into the ICE enforcement system as well, not only in the state child welfare agencies.
  • Vulnerable women could be found inadmissible for convictions of crimes that might result from domestic violence or trafficking. The bill should include judicial discretion exceptions for these situations.

Priority: Immigration Integration

Immigration reform should provide resources for and include a Federal government role for coordinating integration efforts, including legalization, citizenship and English learning.

The Good

  • Senate bill would create a coordinated national immigrant integration policy and provide resources for non-profits that work with immigrants to assist in legalization implementation. The bill also would create a state- and local-level pilot program to promote immigrant integration including improving English, financial literacy, workforce training and skills.

To Watch

  • It is important that women’s groups and advocates weigh in on the implementation process for integration to ensure that women, who can be isolated in domestic spheres as both mothers and workers, are fully included in both outreach and implementation.