(WOMENSENEWS)-- As Senate lawmakers take up immigration reform this week, new research suggests that gender biases in existing laws create barriers and vulnerability to domestic abuse for women trying to gain legalization in the United States.
The Immigration Policy Center released the report last week, which was based on immigrant men and women from the Phoenix metropolitan area between 1998 and 2007 originating from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Authors found that laws tended to treat immigrant women as dependents in ways that hurt their chances for entry and integration in the United States.
"It is important for those drafting and approving laws to be cognizant of how gender disparities can affect immigrant women," Cecilia Menjívar, the report's co-author, said in an email interview. "And perhaps this is where activists can play a key role in helping to disseminate accurate information about how women experience the legalization process."
Emily Butera, senior program officer at the Migrant and Justice Program and the Women's Refugee Commission, based in New York City, said she is feeling optimistic that this research, combined with advocacy work by women's groups across the country, will preserve and strengthen provisions that uniquely affect women.
"I think for the first time policymakers are seeing immigrant rights as a women's rights issue, and we are seeing that recognition reflected in the bill before the Senate," she said.
Butera added that there is still a long road ahead though.
"These are not issues that are going to be resolved solely through legislative action," she said. "We need improvements in our immigration laws and a cultural shift with regard to the roles ascribed to women by our immigration system. Improvements in the immigration law will begin that process, but there is a lot that will also have to be done in implementation, including rulemaking that provides flexibility in eligibility requirements for legalization, work visas, asylum and other applications of relief, and in training of personnel who will carry out the new laws."
The Immigration Policy Center has highlighted two ways in which the Senate version of the bill redresses gender bias.
One is a provision that grants exceptions for time spent on maternity leave and primary caretakers when it comes to an employment requirement.
Under current immigration law the pathway to legalization requires proof of continuous employment or an average income that is not less than 125 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, a measure used by the U.S government to determine who is poor.
For millions of women who are either stay-at-home mothers or earn low wages this could be a hurdle.
For 2013, the federal poverty guideline is an annual income of $23,550 for a family of four. Add $4,020 for each additional person in larger families, or subtract that same amount for smaller families.
The second helpful new provision for women in the bill is flexibility on income-documentation requirements that will give many applicants--such as domestic workers in a "paperless economy"--a better chance in their path to citizenship.
On June 2 Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said on MSNBC's "Meet the Press"< that he hopes that comprehensive legislation would "overwhelmingly" pass the Senate by July 4. He added that he thinks as many as 70 of the 100 senators will support the bill heading to the full Senate on June 10, NBC News reported. Schumer told reporters: "We are moving forward because we believe in a bipartisan way this is so vital for America, and we'll have a good bill."
Four Pathways Studied
Menjívar, a professor at the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics at Arizona State University, coauthored the Immigration Policy Center report with Olivia Salcido, a professor of justice studies, also at Arizona State.
The researchers concentrated on the four main pathways to citizenship: employment-based immigrant visas; family reunification; political asylum; and the Violence Against Women Act.
One central finding is that immigration laws presumed that the male was the breadwinner and the female the dependent and that employment-based visas "are the most skewed" by this bias.
In 2004, 140,000 employment-based visas were issued, about half to women who in 72 percent of cases were issued as "dependents," not principal visa holders.
"Women's status of dependency, presumed and reinforced by immigration law, hinders women's legal incorporation in the host society," the authors find.
Menjívar and Salcido interviewed a 19-year-old Guatemalan with a second-grade education who worked three jobs to support family back home and in Phoenix. "So there is no reason why the U.S. government would want to grant me legalization for cleaning or cooking or taking care of the couple," the young woman said. "I have been told that for me it's impossible, that only people with good jobs can be legalized through jobs."
Hitting Different Barriers
Highly skilled female workers from these regions also hit barriers imposed by the assumption of dependency. The report describes a Mexican college graduate, with several years of professional experience, who was denied a visiting visa three times because "as a single and attractive woman she ran the risk of overstaying her visa."
When it came to those seeking family reunification, female interviewees were assumed to be primary members of a family unit, as mothers, wives, daughters or sisters. Women are presumed to attend to dependents and take on other domestic responsibilities.
The study suggests that this avenue for legalization, although one of the greatest promoters of the increase in female immigration, cements the image of women as dependents. On top of that, a common requirement for a dependent is a marriage certificate, which blocks many women who are in undocumented common-law unions.
The study also finds that laws written specifically to protect women, such as the Violence Against Women Act, continued to play out along gender bias guidelines.
Some survivors of domestic violence, for instance, were asked to prove they lived with their abuser based on documentation they did not have, such as joint bank statements or utility bills with their name and address to prove their paper trail in the United States.