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Originally published Saturday, November 16, 2013 at 3:58 PM

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Guest: Why immigration is a major issue for women

Kirby Wilbur’s tweet describing protesters as “witches and hags” shows how little the GOP understands about immigration and women, according to guest columnists Pramila Jayapal and LeeAnn Hall.

Special to The Times

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TWO weeks ago, 33 women were arrested in Bellevue for refusing to leave the Washington state GOP headquarters until the state’s four Republican congressional representatives agreed to advance a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the U.S. House.

The participants were diverse immigrant and nonimmigrant women from unions, immigrant-rights and women’s organizations. Even the Seattle mayor’s wife, Peggy Lynch, participated.

The GOP’s response to the Bellevue protest? The former state Republican Party chair Kirby Wilbur tweeted, “[I] missed all the fun ... today as left wing witches and hags protested and got arrested. They look so old and ugly ...”

Current GOP state leadership immediately distanced themselves from Wilbur, but the four Washington GOP congressional members remained silent on the substance of the issue. Our GOP representatives’ inaction shows how little the party understands about the high stakes of immigration reform.

When the U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan immigration bill earlier this summer, the House GOP leadership refused to allow any bill to come to a vote. Last month, House Democrats, including U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Medina, introduced an almost identical version of the Senate bill. So far 186 Democrats and three courageous Republicans have signed on.

None of the four Republican congressional members from Washington has had the courage to sign on. None has provided substantive comments on the issue. And yet, each has a special responsibility to both women and immigrants in moving forward immigration reform.

U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, is the highest-ranking woman in the GOP leadership. U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, is chairwoman of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues. U.S. Reps. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, and Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, have large immigrant populations in their districts with economies that depend on immigrant labor. All four should be out front on the issue.

Most Americans do not realize that women and children are the face of immigration. They bear the disproportionate burden of a failed immigration system. Three-quarters of all immigrants to America are women and children. In our state, immigrant women and children make up 55 percent of Washington’s total immigrant population.

Immigrant women exemplify the best of the American spirit: courageous contributors who bring resilience, caring and competence to everything they do. And yet, policy to date has ignored the priorities of women. Currently, only 27 percent of all employment visas go to women because the industries populated by women are not prioritized for employment. Those who enter on a spouse’s visa are unable to work, regardless of qualifications, which plays a big part in a stunning 77 percent of dependent immigrant spouses experiencing domestic violence.

Given the dearth of other options, 70 percent of women who do get legal status obtain it through family sponsorship. The fact that there are currently 4.5 million people waiting in an overloaded family immigration system weighs disproportionately on women.

And while the majority of people deported are men, it is women who must pick up the pieces. In a June study, Human Impact Partners estimated that when a primary earner is deported, he or she leaves an estimated 83,000 partners, mostly women, behind to deal with lost wages and increased risk of poverty and hunger.

That is why women across the country have stepped up their demands for real reform in the face of Republican recalcitrance.

The Bellevue protest was one of nine women-led actions across the country in key Republican districts, coordinated by the We Belong Together campaign. In total, 500 women participated and almost 100 women were arrested, cited for blocking intersections or refusing to leave GOP offices until Republican representatives moved forward on immigration reform.

These protests came on the heels of a protest in Washington, D.C., where 105 women (including 25 undocumented women) were arrested for blocking the street in front of the House of Representatives. Both of us took part in that protest, the largest all-women act of civil disobedience in recent history.

Women’s organizations — including the National Organization for Women, MomsRising, 9 to 5, Planned Parenthood and the YWCA — have endorsed immigration reform, most for the first time this year. On Tuesday, longtime feminist icon Gloria Steinem will participate in a We Belong Together event in Washington, D.C., speaking on why immigration is one of the most pressing issues for women’s equality.

Women organizations understand that immigration reform is central to women’s equality. For all the hard-fought gains in the history of the women’s movement, immigrant and nonimmigrant women in America must still fight together to remove all the barriers that keep women from living up to their full potential.

Women’s voices are being heard in the field and in Congress. Earlier this year, U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, held the first-ever Senate hearing on women and immigration.

Fourteen Senate women sponsored an important bipartisan amendment to make a proposed merit-based system more fair to women. Instead of assigning points just for education or employment, the amendment would have also assigned points for family relationships and would have reserved a number of visas for fields where women held most of the jobs.

Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., were essential in pushing forward provisions around immigrant domestic-violence victims. The final bill, while still imperfect, had many excellent provisions covering immigrant women.

On the House side, U.S. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D.-Calif., formed a Women’s Working Group on Immigration Reform, whose members have been delivering speeches and sending colleagues letters about women and immigration.

Politically, both immigrants and women have shown their voting power. President Obama and recently re-elected New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie each won 55 percent of the women’s vote. Obama also won enormous majorities of immigrant voters, while Christie snagged 51 percent of the Latino vote, compared to his opponent’s 29 percent.

In the end, Republicans should understand that a vote against immigration reform is a vote against women. Sexist comments and inaction on immigration reform will simply lead to continued alienation of women and immigrants. It will also leave millions of women and families separated and living in the shadows.

It’s time for the House to get to work and stop stalling on passing a comprehensive immigration-reform bill that is fair to women and that keeps families together. America’s women and children can’t wait any longer.

Pramila Jayapal is co-chairwoman of the national campaign We Belong Together: Women for Common-Sense Immigration Reform. LeeAnn Hall is Executive Director of the Alliance for a Just Society.

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