The big unveil to the Trump White House's new immigration agenda this week played out roughly as one might have expected from a president who campaigned on nationalism and xenophobia. There were, of course, dog whistles over English proficiency for immigrants and heated spats between Trump aides and reporters over the true symbolism of the Statue of Liberty.
What is truly remarkable about the plan is how openly and unapologetically it tries to reshape America's racial demographics. Millions of people who have spent years on the waitlist to legally reunite with family members, predominantly from Asian and Latin American countries, would likely be shut out from the US under the proposal. And even more insidious are the ways the bill could screw over immigrant women.
The new Republican bill, dreamed up by Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia, takes a hacksaw to the family reunification system. Parents, grandparents, siblings and cousins could no longer use family ties to secure a visa. And if you're a single woman? Sorry. Only spouses and underage children make the cut.
Women will bear the brunt of this misguided policy: The majority of immigrant women gain legal status each year through family connections rather than employment opportunities, according to annual admissions data gathered by the Department of Homeland Security. This has been the trend since the 1960s, when green card holders were first allowed to sponsor extended family members and bring them to the US. Women are also far less often the primary visa-holder earned through employment, an issue that would only be amplified if family reunification opportunities are limited to give way to a "merit-based" system, as the Republican proposal outlines.
And the gender disparity is far more glaring when looking at the temporary employment authorization for high-skilled workers, who are favored by the Republican immigration proposal. Over the last decade, women have accounted for just 30 percent of the total employment-based visas for high-skilled or specialty jobs. Take a look at the industries that are awarded foreign labor and it is easy to see why men make up the other 70 percent of the share: Jobs for computer programmers, architects and engineers — all male-dominated fields — each ranked as the top occupations for the hugely competitive H-1b visa for high-skilled workers.
Female-driven industries are being shut out from legalization in ways that advocates say are arbitrary and destructive to the economy.
Even in the hierarchy of low-wage work, immigration policies have historically favored industries that were more accessible to men. The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 offered a track to legalization for millions of workers who were able to meet certain eligibility requirements and prove their work histories. But, as Howard University Law Professor Mariela Olivares writes, while the provisions helped elevate undocumented workers to legal status, they "implicitly skewed to benefit male immigrants and disfavor undocumented women."
Agricultural workers, for example, were put on a fast-track to legalization. But spaces typically occupied by women — domestic work and service industry jobs — were shut out from amnesty. Many immigrant women instead had to lean on spouses and family members to sponsor their visas.
Little has changed today as the architects behind the Senate bill move to shift immigration away from low-wage labor. Once again, female-driven industries are being shut out from legalization in ways that advocates say are arbitrary and destructive to the economy.
"Picking and choosing what jobs benefit the economy most devalues low-wage jobs," said Megan Horn Essaheb, assistant director of immigrant rights with the advocacy group Asian Americans Advancing Justice. "Immigrant women share a larger portion of service sector and take on roles that are not quantified in the economy."
The bill's architects and its supporters often say their populist agenda must cut back legal immigration to "historically normal levels." It's a refrain often repeated by the most polarizing members of Trump's inner circle and articulated at length by top White House aide Stephen Miller during a podcast last year with fellow chief strategist Steve Bannon.
"It's important to understand that, historically speaking, that immigration is supposed to be interrupted with periods of assimilation and integration," Miller said. "We should follow America's history, and the history of America is that an immigration-on period is followed by an immigration-off period."
Miller is right in saying that the foreign-born population has more than quadrupled since 1970, rising from 9.7 million then to 43.1 million in 2015, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Over the five decades prior, the number of immigrants actually shrank. But, crucially, global catastrophes from the Great Depression and World War II played a large role in stalling legal immigration for decades. Extreme xenophobia handled the rest. Just after the turn of the 20th century, virtually all Asian countries were banned from entering the US, except for Japan and the Philippines. Stringent quotas severely restricted the number of people allowed to emigrate from a single country, with a strong exception for Western Europe. The Emergency Quota Act of 1921 expressly allowed white immigrants to enter the US at much higher numbers compared to even Northern or Southern Europeans.
Damningly, during the same era that Republicans are now praising, women immigrating into America were trapped in a patriarchal system known as coverture. As Janet Calvo, a law professor at CUNY University, explains, "Under the doctrine of coverture, the husband had ownership rights over his wife and was legally entitled to control his wife's income, property and residence." Immigrant women were unable to petition for their own legal status. Their husbands had the power over whether they could naturalize.
It would be decades before Congress made the first steps to reverse these restrictive policies, starting with the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965. In fact, the whole notion of family reunification and chain migration emerged as a backlash to the decades of nationalist-driven ideals. But now Trump's inner cycle has said expressly that they hope to return to a dark era in our nation's history. Together with its travel ban attempts and domestic deportation policies, the Trump administration is on track to see us return there.
The administration has done little to try and veil the racial anxiety that's driving its agenda. But add on top of that the US's extremely gendered legacy of immigration laws, and it's clear: Immigrant women, and especially immigrant women of color, stand to lose out the most.