Skip to main content

Why we're risking arrest over immigration

By Ai-jen Poo and Terry O'Neill, Special to CNN
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu September 12, 2013
Immigration reform must bring equal treatment for women, Ai-Jen Poo and Terry O'Neill say.
Immigration reform must bring equal treatment for women, Ai-Jen Poo and Terry O'Neill say.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ai-jen Poo, Terry O'Neill say immigration reform must bring equal treatment for women
  • They say only 28% of work visas go to women, who do jobs that often aren't valued
  • They say reform should free up visas for those jobs -- nannies and home health care workers
  • Writers: Immigrant women make huge contributions to U.S. and need an equal shot

Editor's note: Ai-jen Poo is the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, co-anchor organization of the We Belong Together campaign. She has been organizing immigrant women workers since 1996. Terry O'Neill, a feminist attorney, former law professor at Tulane and the University of California, Davis, and activist for social justice, is the president of the National Organization for Women, the NOW Foundation and chair of the NOW Political Action Committees.

(CNN) -- On Thursday, we will link arms with more than 100 women and claim the street outside the House of Representatives. We will not move until the House recognizes that women and children are at the heart of the immigration debate, and reform must treat them fairly.

Women and children constitute three-quarters of all immigrants to the United States, but the debate about immigration reform -- which has stalled in the House -- has largely ignored the disproportionate burden they bear in a system that is failing.

Immigrant women make outsize contributions to our families, communities and country.

Ai-jen Poo
Ai-jen Poo
Terry O\'Neill
Terry O'Neill

But they are denied core American values -- the right to equal opportunity and equal treatment under the law. Although women make up 51% of U.S. immigrants, only 28% of work visas are given to them as principal holders. Women disproportionately work in paperless or informal economies -- as nannies, housekeepers, home health care workers -- that don't get awarded work visas.

These jobs rarely provide proof of employment, such as a pay stub at the end of the week. While many immigrant men face this challenge as well, women are disproportionately affected by it. Immigration reform efforts that link eligibility for citizenship to proof of employment fail to recognize the essential work that many immigrant women provide in these crucial roles.

The Senate bill allows for alternative ways to verify employment, such as an affidavit from a church or community-based nonprofit. And a bipartisan group of 13 women senators also recognized the need for a merit-based visa system that would include professions that women predominantly occupy. Unfortunately their amendment did not make it into the Senate bill.

Because they so rarely get work visas, most immigrant women enter the United States as dependents on their spouses' visas and they are prohibited from working. This not only prevents many women from contributing their considerable talents and skills, it makes their immigration status entirely dependent on another person, creating a situation primed for abuse.

An immigrant woman in an abusive relationship may not report her spouse to authorities or seek help for fear that she will lose her ability to remain in the country.

Immigration overhaul stalled
Rep. Steve King on immigration

A comprehensive reform bill should ensure that women have equal opportunity to receive work visas by allocating them among employment categories typically held by women, not just professions typically held by men. As baby boomers reach retirement age, the need for caregivers and domestic workers will skyrocket. Though these jobs are essential and in high demand, they are often less valued than the jobs -- typically held by men -- that are awarded work visas, such as in tech and finance.

The way that most women enter the United States is through the family-based visa system. In fact, nearly 70% of immigrant women attain legal status this way. Unfortunately, the family visa system has an enormous backlog -- about 4 million people are stuck in it, the majority of whom are women and children. Some women are forced to wait for decades before being reunited with their families -- something that is unbearable even to contemplate for most parents. Comprehensive immigration must clear this backlog and keep families together.

We were reminded during the 50th anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington that the most difficult and enduring change requires the personal commitment and courage of individuals acting together. As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other great leaders showed us, from time to time that can mean the willingness to be arrested for standing up for your most deeply held values and beliefs.

Inspired by King and the campaigns that made up the civil rights movement, we are putting ourselves on the line at the Capitol as part of a national campaign, We Belong Together, to promote immigration laws that treat women fairly, that reflect our core American values. If they don't, we are diminished as a nation.

Real reform includes a path to citizenship, keeps families together and upholds the family immigration system, provides protections for survivors of violence and against workplace abuses, protects the health and well-being of women and children, honors women's work inside and out of the home, and is not driven by a focus on enforcement.

Every day, immigrant women from all walks of life demonstrate incredible courage and take enormous risks to contribute to the well-being and success of their families and loved ones. They move to the United States to give their children better lives; they work so that their families will have food on the table; they take care of the young and the old; they open businesses. Theirs is a story that defines this country.

While the majority of Americans recognize that the time is now to fix our immigration system, the House has not acted. It seems intent on piecemeal measures that continue to keep women from contributing fully and keeping their families together.

If getting arrested is what it takes to show the House we're serious, it's worth it. House members must have courage and unite, as we have, to pass immigration reform that treats women fairly and keeps families united.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ai-jen Poo and Terry O'Neill.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT