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Immigration Bill 'Disadvantages Women?'


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Later in the program, we are going to take a look at a sensitive topic. We are going to talk about infidelity. Sure, we talk about it when a politician or a celebrity gets caught, but what about friends, neighbors, ourselves? Hundreds of listeners have been sending in their stories. We'll hear some of them and new research about this topic. That's later in the program.

But first, we want to talk about another very emotional issue that's in the news; That's efforts to overhaul this country's immigration system. The Senate could vote as early as this week on a bill its members have been debating. This week, border security has been the major issue on the table. The Senate just approved an amendment that would double the number of patrol agents and expand drone and radar use. Today, though, we want to hear from a senator who has a different perspective.

Sen. Mazie Hirono is a Democrat from Hawaii. She says that the bill in its current form disadvantages women. And she, along with a group of other women senators that includes at least one Republican, has a proposal that she says would address that. She's with us now from the studios on Capitol Hill. Senator, thank you so much for joining us.

SEN. MAZIE HIRONO: Aloha, Michel. It's great to be on your program.

MARTIN: So first of all, tell us why you think the bill in its current form disadvantages women? For people who've been - perhaps have not been following this closely, this bill attempts to alter the priority for immigration from family ties, which has been the tradition, to one which tries to award points or advantage people based on education and skills. What's wrong with that?

HIRONO: Let me just mention, as you did, that our immigration laws, for the longest time, used family unity as a guiding principle. And this immigration bill gets us away from that and really focusing on allowing new immigrants to come in on a merit or point system that gives you more points for education attainment, such as Ph.D.s and work attainment, especially, in high skills jobs. And the reason that this disadvantages women is that we recognize that women in other countries do not have the kind of educational or career advancement opportunities that men do.

And this is why the group of us, 13 women in the Senate, got together and said, we should have another tier to add to the two-tier system that's in this bill, to allow more women to be able to immigrate to our country because they bring a whole, you know, different kind of focus and determination to succeed.

MARTIN: But what's wrong with advantaging people based on the skills that you, as a collective body of lawmakers, determine that the country needs? Even if it does disadvantage women, as you believe it does - but there are many women who have Ph.D.s now and advanced education. But let's just say that that is true, why is that wrong?

HIRONO: I think it's putting emphasis - too much emphasis on those kinds of factors. Seventy percent of the women who have immigrated to our country have done so under the family system. We're going to change that system. That means that probably far, far fewer women are going to be able to immigrate.

And who's to say that it's just the people with the high skills and the educational attainment who will add to the vibrancy and economic strength of our country. My own mother, for example, she brought us to this country so we could have a chance at a better life. She raised three

ren by herself. Under this kind of criteria, she would never have been able to come.

MARTIN: Well, I understand your point, though, but I'm still pressing the question of what's wrong with saying that, at this juncture in the nation's history, that there is a desire to have people with more education, more skills, and more specific kinds of skills. Why is that wrong?

HIRONO: Well, we're doing that, and in fact, the third tier does not do anything to the first two tiers, which will allow 60,000 people to come in every year, under the first two tiers that - especially, the first tier that does focus on education and work experience. So this is just adding to the numbers who can come in through the tier system and we still keep the overall limits on the number of people who can come under this three-tier - well, I hope will be three-tier system.

MARTIN: I still want to press the question, though, of why you feel it is necessary to offer additional opportunities for people with less education and - based on these particular categories. I understand that the third tier that you would wish to add would advantage women in predominately female professions, like teaching, early childhood education, nannies, for example. But there is an argument on the other side that one reason that people aren't - in this country, aren't encouraged to pursue these professions now - you know, native-born Americans - is that there is this kind of ready supply of workers in these jobs, which tend to be lower skilled.

And that there isn't the incentive for Americans to pursue this kind of employment because, you know, employers can continue to hire immigrants, they can continue to keep wages low, and that if this opportunity were not available, perhaps that these jobs would be better in this country, perhaps these would be more appealing jobs, perhaps the wages would rise. Have you thought about that perspective and what do you say about that?

HIRONO: There are a lot of impacts and effects that could occur because this is a huge immigration bill. However, to start off, when we're going to institutionalize the kind of unequal opportunities that women have in these other countries to even come to our country, I don't think that's a particularly good policy. And I'm saying that me and the 12 other women senators are saying, let's provide a fairer opportunity for women to immigrate to this country because what we're doing with this new system is we're certainly advantaging the men who are coming to this country.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with Sen. Mazie Hirono. She's a Democrat from Hawaii. We're talking about her proposed amendment to the Senate's immigration bill. She feels that the bill in its current form disadvantages women and she's proposing an amendment that she feels would alter that by reserving a certain number of visas for people in fields that tend to be dominated by women.

I note, though, that in the reporting on this bill, the Washington Post has been keeping a count of where people are supposed to be on this bill, and you are counted as a reliable "yes" vote on this bill. If the bill, in your view, is so bad, why are you considered a reliable "yes" vote on the bill?

HIRONO: I'm not saying that the bill is so bad, I just want to improve this bill. And this kind of disadvantage to women on the tier-point system was inadvertent. I know that. The Gang of Eight were not starting out with the idea that they would disadvantage women. This is an important bill and we need to enable 11 million people to come out of the shadows.

There are a lot of aspects to this bill. It's a thousand pages long. Everywhere from border control to tourist visas are covered in this bill. It's really important that we get this done in as fair and humane way as possible.

MARTIN: I understand that one of the people supporting the bill is Sen. Lisa Murkowski, from Alaska. And this bill has been - this issue in general seems to have been fairly polarized. It may not have started out that way, but, like so many other things being discussed in public policy right now, it's become that way. And this is one of those rare, if I may say, you know, issues in which there seems to be some bipartisan support. Why do you think that is?

HIRONO: Because I think that, starting with the women in the Senate, they want to be fair. And in fact, at some point this week - early this week, I'll be speaking with Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is one of the Gang of Eight, and I'm going to have a chat with him as to whether he can support this amendment, and, if so, what can we do to move it forward.

MARTIN: Again, though, I still want to press the question of why you feel it's in the best interest of the country right now to add this additional category. Can you just talk more about why you feel that is? Even if, as we've said, I mean, the intention of the bill is to shift the priority, to shift what has been the tradition in emphasizing family unity, to a more skills-based opportunity, and why you feel that this issue, which is gender-based, is in the best interest of the country.

HIRONO: The third tier is not gender-based, in that men can also apply for a visa under my amendment. It's really important for our country to reflect the diversity of people, and that goes for immigration policies. We know that women in other countries do not have the kind of education and work experience, and why should we institutionalize that kind of disadvantage? So we are saying that we need to provide those kinds of opportunities in a continuing way, while still maintaining the two-tier system that is proposed in this legislation.

MARTIN: That was Sen. Mazie Hirono. She represents Hawaii in the United States Senate. We caught up with her at the studios at the Capitol. Senator Hirono, thank you so much for speaking with us.

HIRONO: Thank you. Aloha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.