My mother’s birthday falls around Thanksgiving. This year, she turns 64. Which means it was 42 years ago, at the young age of 21, that my mother immigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan to continue her studies and pursue her dream of becoming a doctor. With English as her second language, she struggled through graduate studies and medical school while working and raising my sister and me. When times got tough, I remember hearing her say to herself, “I can’t quit.” She would repeat a Chinese saying: “The people with the will to succeed, eventually will,” a version of “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Today, my mom is an oncologist, with countless stories about families she has seen through the hardest moments of their lives as they battle cancer. Through her care, she has touched thousands of lives and restored hundreds years of life to Americans who thought they were facing the end. And she raised two loving daughters, who both graduated from college and are steadily working to make the world a better place in their own ways. She was able to do all of this because of an immigration system that had plenty of channels for my mom and millions like her to immigrate to the U.S. legally. But that system has changed drastically.
If she were attempting to come to the U.S. under the current immigration system, my mom would face deep biases against women, particularly low-income women. Family immigration is more difficult than ever, with long waits of often more than a decade. Employment sponsorships are disproportionately granted to men. More than 70% of special visa holders who entered the country in 2011 were men (source: U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics). If she were in a field where women dominate, such as caregiving for example, she would have little to no opportunity to immigrate legally. If my mom found a way to come anyway, and stayed without documentation, she would have no option to legalize her status, and would be forced to work under precarious circumstances, while living in constant fear of being suddenly taken away from my sister and me.
That is why this year, I’m particularly thankful for Senator Mazie Hirono. Born in Japan, she immigrated with her mother as a child to Hawaii. The middle daughter, with a single mother escaping an abusive husband, Senator Hirono knows all too well both the contributions immigrant women make to society and the economy, and the challenges they face in realizing the full potential of what it means to be an American. Senator Hirono, as the first Asian American woman Senator, and the first Senator born in Japan, made it her mission to elevate the experiences of immigrant women in this year’s immigration reform debate. She helped to organize the first Judiciary Committee hearing on women and immigration reform, and she championed immigrant family caregivers, domestic workers and women like my mother, insisting that we not only move forward on immigration reform, but that it treat women fairly.
Whether as doctors like my mother, elected officials like Senator Hirono or domestic workers enabling millions of parents to participate in the workforce, immigrant women are the unsung heroes in so many aspects of today’s American story. This Thanksgiving I hold these women, the millions of immigrant women who make this nation great, in my heart. And I hope that, a year from now, we can all be thankful for immigration reform, with a road to citizenship and real opportunity for women, finally becoming law.
Ai-jen Poo is a long-time advocate for low-income women and serves as the Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Co-Director of Caring Across Generations.
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