Moving Immigrant Mothers Beyond Second-Class Status

This article is part of our Mama’s Day 2013 series published in partnership with Strong Families.

As we get ready to celebrate and honor the work that mamas do every day, I am struck by the severe disconnect between what immigrant mamas need to take care of their families and our current immigration policies.

In the major immigration proposals being discussed, undocumented immigrants must come forward to register, submit biometric data, pass background and national security checks, and pay fees and penalties in order to be eligible for a provisional legal status. Individuals with provisional status then have to wait until preexisting legal immigration backlogs are cleared before applying for lawful permanent residency (i.e., a “green card”), and ultimately for U.S. citizenship. Consistent with current law, people with provisional legal status cannot get welfare, student aide, or any other federal benefits, including the new health-care law.

Provisional status is basically a second-class status. And just like every other time the United States has created a second-class status for some group of people, it’s really hard and unfair for that group of people. In this case, provisional status means that these individuals are not full citizens of the United States, so they are not entitled to benefits and protections that my family and I have. And because provisional status will last for nearly 15 years, we are creating a long-term underclass of individuals and families with little chance to integrate into our communities and achieve their full potential. Fifteen years is a waiting period that covers a generation of children who won’t be able to access critical anti-poverty and health programs.

Cindy Pearson, executive director of the National Women’s Health Network and a co-founder of Raising Women’s Voices for the Health Care We Need, says, “Immigrant exclusions unjustly deny health care access to women who already face numerous barriers to health insurance and the care they need. These exclusions can have lasting, harmful consequences for the health of immigrant women and families. They also undermine the Affordable Care Act’s goal of making quality, affordable health insurance available to everyone in this country.”

In many ways, conversations within the immigration reform debate merely extend our already regressive policies toward immigrants. Most of the 31 federal benefits programs currently exclude legal immigrants from receiving assistance by instituting a five-year waiting period. These immigrant families aren’t eligible for food stamps (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP), non-emergency Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), to name a few programs.

We created these programs to make sure that low-income families are not threatened by hunger, illness, or other daily crises. For immigrant families, too, access to these programs is the difference between having healthy food on the table, being able to get health care, and caring for family elders. Waiting periods—whether because of program requirements or because of provisional legal status—hurt immigrant families already at the margins. Around 17.2 million children have at least one parent who was born outside the United States, and close to one-quarter of them are poor. Children of immigrants comprise more than 26 percent of all low-income children in the United States, but they don’t benefit from critical government programs because of immigrant exclusions.

Over the past 225 years, we have fought wars, held sit-ins, marched, and passed legislation to stand up for the idea that all people in our country and in our families are created equal. But immigrant exclusions and provisional citizenship threaten to reduce this fundamental American value to an empty slogan. We know that we are all better off when all of our communities are healthy and strong and all of our children can thrive.

New Americans move here seeking the freedom and opportunity often denied to them in other countries. America is supposed to be the welcoming land of the free, and our immigration process should honor this ideal. Unfortunately, the pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants within the recently released immigration reform proposal includes spending a minimum of ten years in provisional, second-class status. Given this reality, we will need to identify ways to address as many of the challenges of provisional citizenship as possible. For starters:

  • States can support immigrant families directly. Current federal law bars states from using federal dollars to assist most legal immigrants until they have been in the United States for at least five years. State governments, who see the consequences of these federal limitations, have often stepped in to fill the gaps for immigrant families. About half the states in the country spend their own state dollars to cover at least some of the immigrants who are ineligible for federally funded services. Several states or counties provide health coverage to children and/or pregnant women, regardless of their immigration status. By expanding the number of counties and states that address limited access to services for immigrant families, we could support more immigrant families to meet their basic needs.
  • Ensure labor protections for all workers, regardless of citizenship status. Immigrant workers, especially the undocumented and short-term guest workers, face enormous obstacles in their efforts to enforce workplace rights. Both the state and federal government can play their part to ensure equal rights for all workers by passing legislation that supports workers’ rights, including preventing wage theft, supporting the right to organize, and protecting undocumented workers from on-the-job discrimination. Through policies that would minimize opportunities for abuse by unscrupulous employers and others, we would expand the ability of immigrants to provide for their families.

The debate about immigration policy is a critical test of our values as a country. Provisional citizenship proposals bring into question how we recognize and support families in all their formations, how we promote opportunity for all families, and how we protect individuals and families from discrimination. As we celebrate Mama’s Day this year, we can honor the work that immigrant mamas do for their families and their communities by living up to our best American values.

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