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In Debate, U.S. Presidential Candidates Talk Women, Immigration

Both presidential candidates appealed to female voters, as well as diverging on immigration policy. (AP Photo)

October 17, 2012

As the November 6 United States presidential election draws closer, women and immigration emerged as two key issues under discussion by both candidates. President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney diverged on matters of immigration policy at the October 16 town hall debate, as Obama highlighted his policies for undocumented youth and Romney touted plans to expand visas for skilled immigrants. Women’s participation in the workforce and their roles in the economy were also on display at the debate and in evidence during the secretary of state’s trip to Peru this week.

In response to a question on immigration, Romney defended his plans to improve the legal immigration system by awarding green cards to U.S. university graduates and simplifying the bureaucratic process for legal immigrants. He voiced support for a pathway to residency for young undocumented immigrants, citing military service as a method for earning U.S. residency. But he also discussed plans to crack down on undocumented immigration, saying he opposes amnesty. He said he would implement an employment verification system to ensure employers hire only legal immigrants, and that he would not allow drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants. Asked about his support of Arizona’s strict immigration law, he said he only defended the portion that includes employment verification. When questioned about his statements that undocumented immigrants should “self-deport,” he said: “Self-deportation says let people make their own choice…we're not going to round up 12 million people, undocumented illegals, and take them out of the nation. Instead let people make their own choice.” Finally, Romney criticized Obama for pledging to pass comprehensive immigration reform during his first year in office but failing to do so.

On immigration, Obama touted efforts to “streamline the legal immigration system, to reduce the backlog, make it easier, simpler and cheaper for people who are waiting in line,” noting that immigrants contribute to economic growth. He also explained that his administration increased border patrol enforcement. He discussed his initiatives to provide opportunities for undocumented youth while targeting violent criminals for deportation. “We're going to go after folks who are here illegally, we should do it smartly and go after folks who are criminals, gang bangers, people who are hurting the community, not after students,” he said. He noted that Romney said he would veto the DREAM Act, legislation that failed to pass Congress in 2010 that would give young undocumented immigrants a path to residency. (Obama’s new policy, enacted in August, stems from this bill and allows youth to apply for temporary work permits.) He also criticized Romney’s support of Arizona’s immigration law as “a model for the nation” and of “self-deportation.” He defended efforts to pass immigration reform and faulted Republicans with falling short when it comes to backing immigration legislation.

Both candidates also made a play for the female vote. In the United States, women earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by men, and the gap is even larger for Hispanic women; Latinas earn only 55 cents for every dollar earned by white male workers. In addition, unemployment among Latina women remains higher than that of all female workers and of Hispanic men. Asked about ensuring equal salaries for women, Obama explained the first bill he signed was the Lily Ledbetter Act to extend the statute of limitations for women to file equal pay lawsuits. Romney noted that, at the time he was governor of Massachusetts, his administration had more women in leadership positions than any other governor in the United States.

Obama’s most senior female official also spoke about women this week. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Peru on October 15 to discuss women as drivers of economic growth and social inclusion. Clinton met with President Ollanta Humala, highlighting the importance of health and education to social development efforts. The following day, Clinton participated in a conference focusing on the role of women in social inclusion, joining Humala and UN Women Executive Director and former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet. She highlighted advancement in women’s participation in the economy in both the United States and Peru, announcing a new plan to provide an initial $500,000 for Peruvian women’s social inclusion projects. Clinton also mentioned a number of multilateral initiatives, including the Women’s Entrepreneurship in the Americas program launched during April’s Summit of the Americas, which provides mentoring, workshops, and grants to women entrepreneurs with pilot programs in Peru and El Salvador.

In other news on women in the hemisphere:

  • Salary inequities between men and women in Latin America persist despite a decrease in the wage gap from 25 to 17 percent between 1992 and 2007, a new Inter-American Development report shows. Currently, in Latin America women occupy only 33 percent of high-paid jobs such as engineering and law.
  • Marking the one-year anniversary of becoming head of Peru’s new Ministry of Development and Social Inclusion, Minister Carolina Trivelli spoke to La República about recent accomplishments and ongoing challenges. She noted that social programs presently cover 70 percent of eligible Peruvians and expressed her hope to reach more people.
  • New statistics from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics show that between 2000 and 2010, female-run households in Brazil increased from 22 percent to 37 percent. In over 62 percent of homes, women contribute wages to the household. Such changes account for the “change in values relative to women’s role in society and factors like the massive entry in the labor market and rise in education levels, combined with a reduction in fertility rates.”