WASHINGTON — Sen. Mazie K. Hirono (D-Hawaii) on Monday chaired a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on how immigration reform should address the needs of women and families this afternoon.

As an immigrant who came to this country with her family as a small child, Hirono made the case for reforms that offer basic protections to immigrants, cut backlogs and make the family immigration system stronger.

Mazie Hirono as a newly arrived immigrant in 1955.

“I know first-hand that immigration is a women’s issue and a family issue,” Hirono said in her opening statement. “It’s from my own experience as an immigrant that I believe immigration reform should make the family immigration system stronger, not weaker.  And we should not ignore the challenges immigrant women face.”

As a newly sworn-in senator, Hirono took the rare opportunity of chairing the full committee hearing. The hearing came as a bipartisan group of her Senate colleagues work to draft immigration reform legislation.

“I thank Sen. Hirono for chairing this important hearing today and focusing on how our current system tears families apart,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who chaired the committee’s first immigration hearing in February. “I know her unique personal experience will contribute greatly to the debate next month as we consider comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate Judiciary Committee.”

At this week’s hearing, expert witnesses gave testimony describing the backlogs that affect millions of immigrants, how the immigration system can be exploited by employers to abuse domestic workers, and how extending basic benefits to immigrants can help save the country money.

“Unfortunately, the U.S. family immigration system is broken, outdated and failing to facilitate the full purpose of our family immigration policies,” testified Mee Moua, president and executive director of the Asian American Justice Center. “Our current system, which has not been updated in over two decades, works against families by separating mother from daughter, sister from brother and wife from husband. As of November 2012, nearly 4.3 million close family members were waiting in the family visa backlogs.”

The fight to make the family immigration system stronger is a personal one for Hirono. When her mother first brought her to America, she could only bring two children – the future senator and her older brother. Hirono’s younger brother had stay behind in Japan, and only later was her mother able to bring him to Hawaii so the family could be together again.

Earlier in the day, Hirono spoke passionately about her own story at a rally hosted by the National Coalition for Immigrant Women’s Rights.

“Immigration reform should make the family immigration system stronger, not weaker. We cannot stand by and let a broken system keep families separated,” she said.

Hirono’s Opening Statement

Good afternoon, everyone. I am pleased to call to order this hearing of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary. This hearing is titled “How Comprehensive Immigration Reform Should Address the Needs of Women and Families.” It will be an opportunity to learn about how immigration impacts women and families, as we begin to consider the ways in which we will reform our immigration laws.

I’d like to welcome each of the witnesses, and Ranking Member (Charles) Grassley (R-Iowa), Sen. (Jeff) Sessions (R-Ala.), and Sen. (Al) Franken (D-Minn.) for joining us today.

I would like to thank Chairman Leahy and Ranking Member Grassley, and their staffs, for making this hearing possible.

The debate on immigration reform has often focused on the needs of the business community. Despite the fact that immigrant women are about as likely to have a bachelor’s degree as immigrant men, and women make up 51% of migrants in the U.S., employment-based visas go to men over women 3 to 1. As a result, women are far more likely to immigrate to this country under the family-based system.

But this often means that they are here as dependent spouses without the ability to work legally.

As we look to reform our immigration laws, we must consider how women and families will be affected. Historically, women have been treated as unequal in our immigration system, with citizenship tied to their husbands. In fact, 100 years ago, if a U.S. citizen woman married a non-citizen, she could lose her citizenship.

I know first-hand that immigration is a women’s issue and a family issue.

My mother brought my brother and me to this country when I was a young girl to escape a terrible marriage at the hands of my father.

He was an alcoholic and compulsive gambler. I did not get to know him much. Instead of watching our family continue to suffer, my mother made the courageous decision to seek a better life for us.

She plotted and planned in secret, and when I was nearly 8 years old … we literally escaped to this place called Hawaii and this country called America.

It’s from my own experience as an immigrant that I believe immigration reform should make the family immigration system stronger, not weaker.

And we should not ignore the challenges immigrant women face.

The purpose of this hearing is to look at these challenges, and how we should correct these problems in the debate on comprehensive immigration reform.

We will hear about immigrant women in the workplace, and the problems of exploitation that they often suffer. We will hear about the importance of family immigration to our communities and our economy.  And we will hear about how comprehensive immigration reform should address the integration of undocumented women and children to fully participate in society. I look forward to a great discussion.

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