Immigration reform is not often considered to be a women’s issue but in fact is a critical part of the fight for women’s equality. The recent momentum behind Comprehensive Immigration Reform is exciting but has been missing a focus on the issues that directly affect women, girls and families.

Female immigrants are our mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, colleagues and friends. Women currently comprise 51 percent of people migrating to America. They are coming for the same reasons many of our ancestors came: to escape persecution or poverty and to seek a better life.

They are working in essential jobs, caring for our children and elderly, attending our schools and universities and otherwise supporting our communities, but are often hindered in these roles by their unstable immigration status, fear, and lack of family unity.

Unfortunately, our current immigration system doesn’t work. The laws that are designed to legally reunite families have harsh consequences, little room for discretion and wait lists that can be up to 23 years long.

Every day in Maine and across the country, families live in fear of being torn apart. The U.S. now deports more than 400,000 people each year, and almost a quarter of these deportations were issued for parents with U.S. citizen children.

Immigrant women are among the most vulnerable populations in the U.S., too often becoming victims of domestic violence, exploitation, harassment and other human rights abuses. The looming specters of deportation and family separation cause many women to suffer in silence both at home and in the workplace — too afraid to seek help.

It’s time for a system that brings women out from the shadows and preserves their basic rights. We need reform that will strengthen our communities, not promote a culture of fear and instability. If there is going to be a meaningful conversation about immigration reform, it must include a commitment to protecting families and giving equal opportunities and respect to women and girls.

Seventy percent of immigrant women attain legal status through a family-based visa. Comprehensive Immigration Reform is a chance to strengthen family-based immigration law. Key improvements would be reducing the long waiting times for visas and broadening the current definition of “immediate relative” to include gay/lesbian partners, adult children, parents and siblings of all permanent residents and U.S. citizens.

Strong, common-sense immigration reform includes a broad and clear path to citizenship that recognizes the contribution of women, both in the paid workforce and at home. Granting work authorization to agricultural workers and guest workers is a great idea; doing so while leaving women who stay home caring for children or supporting their families without a chance to gain legal status would be both sexist and short-sighted.

Research indicates that legalizing undocumented workers would increase the U.S. gross domestic product by more than a trillion dollars during the next decade. In contrast, high rates of detention and deportation will cost the U.S. up to $40 billion per year by some estimates. We can change this. There is potential for comprehensive immigration reform to substantially strengthen the national economy.

While it’s encouraging to see bipartisan leadership in Congress around this issue, the final result cannot be a series of half measures. Creating an immigration system that empowers women, protects families and provides equal opportunity for all should be at the core of our values. It’s time our lawmakers make a commitment to those values in the policies they support. Supporting immigration reform that truly supports family unity, human rights and fairness is good for women and girls and it’s good for America.

Andrea Summers serves as vice chair of the board of directors for the Maine Women’s Lobby. She is also an accredited representative at the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project.

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