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(WOMENSENEWS)- Thousands of activists are holding May Day demonstrations nationwide to highlight the rights and needs of the nation’s more than 30 million immigrants, who now account for 1-in-8 people living in the United States.

These events follow the Obama administration’s vague promises to ‘discuss’ how to reform the nation’s broken immigration system; a promise the President made during his campaign and one he reiterated in his speech this week to mark his first 100 days in office.

What hasn’t been discussed much is what immigrant women need; particularly those who are undocumented.

The answer: A legalization program that’s broad, fair and workable for both immigrants and immigration officials.

Granting undocumented women legal status is the most important ‘X Factor.’ In one fell swoop it would improve their wages, working conditions, health care and chances of affording a college education.
Well-Earned Rights

Undocumented immigrant women deserve all these hallmarks of citizenship. Many work in the informal economy in crucial yet profoundly unglamorous jobs such as cleaning toilets and hotel rooms, caring for children and the frail elderly, picking fruits and vegetables, manufacturing our clothing.

Minimum wage and workplace safety laws apply to workers regardless of their immigration status but these protections are largely ignored by unscrupulous employers and rarely enforced by federal and state Departments of Labor.

Employers, nonetheless, routinely use the leverage of the lack of legal immigration status to force such employees to accept miniscule wages and dangerous working conditions.

On top of widespread low wages and poor work conditions, many female immigrants also face sexual harassment at the hands of their employers. They suffer these multiple indignities in silence, terrified of deportation. As a result, they often make less money and work in some of the most hazardous conditions in meatpacking plants, private homes, sweatshops and hotels.

The Census Bureau recently released a fact sheet documenting the pay gap between native-born and immigrant workers, and the American Association of University Women also released an analysis of the earnings gap between men and women. According to the Census’ American Community Survey, immigrant workers’ wages lag behind the earnings of those born in the United States by more than 10 percent. Compared to their white male counterparts, Latina women make about 58 cents to the dollar.

Gender and immigrant status are two strikes against a female worker; a double whammy.

Education is a way for such women to gain ground.
College Door Closed

But for undocumented immigrant women, the chances of going to college and finding a way out of low-wage, low-mobility jobs are precluded by their lack of legal status.

Undocumented residents are prohibited across the board from receiving federal education assistance such as Pell Grants and subsidized federal student loans, and often can’t even get state education loans and tuition assistance.

Federal immigration law penalizes states that extend the less-expensive in-state tuition to undocumented students. As a result, most undocumented students at city and state universities pay significantly higher college tuition.

This difference is stark. Take Oregon, where the state legislature is currently considering a proposal to extend in-state tuition rates to undocumented student residents. That would mean–based on the most recent tuition numbers available–paying $6,435 versus $19,992 a year.

Only 10 states currently extend in-state tuition rates to their undocumented high school graduates. Here’s the honor roll: California, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Washington.
Let’s Make ‘Dream Act’ Real

The DREAM Act, a federal bill with bipartisan support recently re-introduced in Congress, would give temporary legal status to undocumented high school graduates and eventually allow them to legalize. It would also allow states to grant in-state tuition rates to undocumented students. An estimated 65,000 undocumented students graduate from the nation’s high schools annually. The DREAM Act deserves to be passed it would make an immediate difference for tens of thousands of young undocumented women annually.

Immigration status and gender essentially function as two strikes against immigrant women in the workplace.

A large-scale legalization program would shore up immigrant women’s wages, freedom from harassment and on-the-job safety.

Legalization will also improve undocumented women’s access to health care.

As it stands, many immigrants, even those with legal status, are barred from free or low-cost health care through Medicaid.

Current federal immigration policy lets states decide (or decline) to provide free or low-cost health care to their undocumented residents, including current and expecting mothers.

Some states, such as New York, have decided to extend prenatal and neonatal care to undocumented residents; a smart and humane decision that results in healthy mothers and babies.

All states should follow that lead, but for now it’s not the case. Legal status would mean that undocumented women are no longer left to the mercy of state legislatures and no longer denied appropriate nursing and doctoring.

Legalization is what undocumented immigrant women want. Today’s marches and rallies will help get us there.

Suman Raghunathan is a seasoned immigration and public policy analyst and activist with experience spanning the grassroots and advocacy worlds. She is based in New York City.