Family Immigration and Immigrant Women 
September 22, 2009
Family-based immigration is a cornerstone of the immigration system. Not surprisingly, women are significantly impacted by family immigration laws and their experiences are critical to any discussions on the reform of family immigration.
Long backlogs and extreme bureaucracy exacerbate immigrant women’s vulnerability, heightening women’s dependency on partners and increasing the likelihood of exploitation by family members and employers. Reforms to the immigration process must include efforts to streamline the family immigration process, and protect the family immigration system. Without these changes, women will continue to unsafely migrate, work and live in the shadows, and lack the economic access and equality they need to prevent abuse and exploitation and to attain economic security in the United States.
Historically, lack of access to capital and social constraints, both in their home countries and in the United States, result in immigrant women disproportionately immigrating through family based immigration compared to men. The family-based systems result in an overwhelmingly female population experiencing years of delay due to immigration cases processing backlogs. The employment-based immigration backlogs result in many women remaining in forms of legal immigration status that do not include permission to accept employment while they wait for permanent immigration status. Similarly, women who receive lawful immigration status as dependent (derivative) family members of employment-visa holders also do not receive employment authorization.
Many women who are outside the United States cannot afford to live separately from their spouses and families. These women risk unsafe and unlawful migration to the United States out of necessity. Women who migrate illegally are far more vulnerable to unsafe conditions and are particularly at risk for sexual assault. Once in the United States, many immigrant families need two incomes to support themselves and their children. Whether they are victims of extended backlogs or a system that precludes their employment while in the United States, immigrant women are left with no choice but to work in the underground economy without legal work authorization. Women who work without status are extremely likely to be subject to exploitation from their employers, who know that their employees will not report crimes against them. Those women who elect not to work are economically vulnerable, which can lead to problematic power dynamics within a relationship and are at greater risk for domestic violence and sexual assault within the family.
Women who are victims of domestic violence also utilize the family-based immigration system to self-petition for status under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Reducing family backlogs and prioritizing spouses of lawful permanent residents will have a distinct impact for VAWA self-petitioners. Any improvements will allow victims and their family members to have quicker access to lawful residence and provide them with the stability so necessary for women seeking to independently rebuild their lives, free from violence.
Family-sponsored immigration by the numbers:
Women and the employment-based visa system:
For further information, please contact:
Soraya Fata, Staff Attorney, email@example.com, (202) 326-0045