Immigration Reform 2013: Domestic Workers' Plight Must Be Reversed

Due to the increase in deportations under the Obama administration and the national campaigns undertaken by professional, college and youth activists  in recent months, the issue of immigration reform is at the forefront of the political agenda. As the Obama administration embarks in a second term and the promise of immigration reform hangs heavy among Latino and Hispanic constituents, the issues affecting illegal immigrants are compounded in the plight of American domestic workers. With the passage of deferred action legislation in June 2012 to allow qualified youth to remain in the United States, the priorities of immigration reform seem firmly rooted in creating a path to citizenship for pre-professional millennials.

Although domestic work can be defined widely to include many forms of "intimate labor," I include housekeepers, maids, live-in nannies, and assisted living professionals in this article. They are the women, and occasionally, the men, who care for children and the increasingly elderly American population. Without them, as comedian Amy Poehler says, women nationwide would not be able to excel at their careers.

According to The Nation, domestic workers comprise a labor group that is underrepresented in the current debates about immigration in the United States due to their lower organizational capacity when compared to resourceful youth and more unionized agricultural workers. As a result, the latter two are now influencing the immigration and legalization debate. These problems are compounded first by the general invisibility of immigrant workers and second, by the nature of the type of labor that domestic workers do.

Immigrant domestic workers, like other undocumented laborers, are largely invisible in activism and debates today. Scholar William DeGenova has produced a large body of work on the issue of migrant illegality and invisibility in their everyday lives in the United States. The organizational presence of groups like agricultural workers is much more salient than that of domestic workers. The fact that nannies, housekeepers and maids are confined to the private space of the family means that their chances to participate in protests, lobbying  and other forms of immigration reform activism, are limited.

Domestic workers are enabling 21st century division of labor fantasies. By becoming invisible members of the middle-class American household, domestic workers enable career advancement for women, while receiving none of their own. While American women are bettering their opportunities in the labor force, their undocumented domestic workers reap few of the rewards of 21st century feminist labor advancements. A 2007 report from the Center For Urban Economic Development indicates that one of there are many difficult challenges facing undocumented domestic workers: they include verbal, physical and sexual abuse, low pay, lack of benefits, lack of enforceable contracts and working unpaid overtime during weekends and holidays. Providing a path to legalization for domestic workers would ensure that domestic workers have some security to contact the appropriate government authorities to address these abuses.

Domestic workers are widely the heads of transnational households and families that would benefit from legalization. In the anthology Global Woman, the authors write extensively about the ‘care deficit’ for the children of undocumented domestic workers. Women are forced to migrate illegally and work as domestics in order to support the education and futures of the families they have left behind. In filling the large care deficit present in America, they sacrifice raising their own children and being part of their own families. Immigration reform must take into account the position of many domestic workers as heads of transnational households and prioritize family reunification for mothers and their young children.

The problems with immigration reform affecting domestic workers in the United States are similar to the problems of domestic workers  in other regions of the West. Whether in the case of Filipina housekeepers in Hong Kong, Ethiopian nannies in Greece or Mexican and West Indian maids in the United States, the feminization of this form of labor will ensure that domestic workers continue to be important cornerstones of the global economy. With the coming of more bipartisan engagements of the immigration reform debate, we can ensure that domestic work becomes an increasingly professionalized, safe and profitable option.