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Comprehensive Immigration Reform: The Cost of Doing Nothing Is Too High for Women and Children

Immigrant women and children have waited too long for comprehensive immigration reform that brings them out of the shadows, allows them to become full contributors to their communities and enables them to live without fear.
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Three months have passed since the Senate's historic and bipartisan passage of S.744, The Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act. Now it's the House of Representatives' turn to act. So far, the House has not made much progress towards passing a comprehensive bill that includes a pathway to citizenship, leaving millions of immigrant women, children and families in limbo. But that does not mean comprehensive immigration reform is dead.

On September 20, the efforts of a bipartisan group of Representatives (informally referred to as the "Gang of 7") to produce a comprehensive immigration bill came to a sudden halt. The group disbanded and many predicted immigration reform dead. However, on that same day, Representatives Grijalva (D-AZ) and Vela (D-TX) introduced the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America's Security and Prosperity (CIR ASAP) Act of 2013. This legislation, the first comprehensive immigration bill to be introduced by the U.S. House of Representatives since the Senate passed its bill in June, represents the type of smart, workable and forward-looking approach that is needed to put the undocumented on a path to citizenship, reunite families and protect women and children.

The reality, however, is that Rep. Grijalva's bill is almost identical to one he introduced in 2009, and will likely not advance in its current form. It instead serves as a placeholder, allowing conversations to continue in the House that will keep immigration reform alive. We are confident that these efforts to keep the process alive reflect the American public's support for reform and reminds us to look beyond politics and focus on the moral and human urgency of getting immigration reform done in House.

In addition to the Gang of 7's work on a bipartisan comprehensive bill, five immigration piecemeal bills have passed through their committees of jurisdiction but are yet scheduled to be introduced in the House. None of these bills offer the improved protections or pathways to citizenship that immigrant women and families need to remain together and continue contributing to their communities. Of particular concern is H.R. 2278, the Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement Act (SAFE Act), which represents an extreme enforcement-only approach and a radical step backwards in efforts to fix our broken immigration system.

This week, there have been indications that Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is spearheading a plan to introduce the Senate's bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill combined with the bipartisan Border Security Results Act of 2013 (introduced by Rep. McCaul (R-TX) from the House Homeland Security Committee. If such a bill materializes, we hope members of the House will regard it as an opportunity to come together and do what's right for millions of aspiring Americans, including women, children and families who have been waiting in the shadows for too long.

Where does this leave immigrant women and children?

Although it is unknown what shape immigration reform might take in the House, the Women's Refugee Commission (WRC) and our allies remain hopeful that these recent developments will jumpstart the process.

Immigrant women and children have waited too long for comprehensive immigration reform that brings them out of the shadows, allows them to become full contributors to their communities and enables them to live without fear.

Every day, hundreds of children are being separated from their parents, sometimes permanently, because of harsh enforcement policies and our draconian immigration laws. Flora, a mother of two U.S. citizen children, was detained and placed in deportation proceedings after a routine traffic stop. Despite Flora's sister being able and willing to care for Flora's children when she was detained, her children were placed in foster care. For two months, Flora was unable to locate her children as she was transferred from one detention facility to another.

In some ways, Flora was lucky, since did not lose custody of her children, as many detained parents do. But, like so many mixed status families, she faced a difficult decision. She could keep her family together -- meaning taking her children to her native Honduras where they had never lived -- or leave them in the United States where they could take advantage of the opportunities offered by American citizenship but be deprived of having a normal parental relationship during their formative years. Flora chose to keep her family together and now lives with her children in Honduras.

Families would no longer face these unthinkable choices and separation if we had reform that put them onto a path of earned citizenship. A path of earned citizenship, which starts with a provisional legal status for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, of which five million are women, will allow families to remain together, live without constant fear and continue contributing to our economy and communities.

Families are waiting for immigration reform that upholds our basic American values of due process and fairness. Fairness requires something as simple as making it possible for parents who are detained to meaningfully participate in the child custody proceedings of their children. Fairness would allow immigration judges to make case-by-case decisions when family unity is at stake, which our current law forbids in certain deportation cases.

The human cost of doing nothing is too high. The longer Congress takes to get immigration reform done, the longer children must live in fear from being separated from their parents, the more parents will be deported and permanently separated from their families, and the longer 5 million undocumented women remain in the shadows, vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

Consider these facts:

• Between 2010 and 2012, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued removals for over 200,000 parents of U.S. citizen children.
• There are currently more than 5,000 children in the U.S. child welfare system because a parent has been detained or deported. The vast majority of these children have loving parents who are capable of caring for their children.
• Every day the House delays a vote on reform with a path to citizenship, 1,100 people are deported, including the mothers and fathers of American citizen children.

Women members in the House of Representatives realize the extreme vulnerability immigrant families face under our current immigration system, and have come together with the support of WRC and its allies to lift up the voices of immigrant women and ensure that immigration reform includes equal rights and opportunity for women and girls. This historic partnership is just one example of why immigration reform is still alive.

We applaud efforts of a growing group of Representatives to pass immigration reform that's good for women and children. And we urge the House of Representatives to be courageous and work across the aisle to achieve true comprehensive immigration reform that ensures the well-being of our families and communities.

By Michelle and Joleen Rivera, Policy Analyst, Migrant Rights & Justice Program, Women's Refugee Commission