Immigration Reform 2013: What About the Growing Number Of Female Immigrants?

Just as the words "agriculture" or "farming" still tend to conjure up images of men despite the fact that women largely make up the backbone of this industry worldwide  so too does immigration. As Pramila Jayapal pointed out recently in an article on the "sexclusionary" nature of immigration reform, the narrative around, and response to, the issue tends to be gender-blind. 

The reality is that women now make up well over half of the immigrant population, and there are currently more than 4 million undocumented women in the country. However, the different obstacles and circumstances immigrant men and women face are rarely taken into consideration when discussing the issues, or when drafting policy.  Within the broader narrative, when women are mentioned, it is typically in the context of victimhood, or producing the mythical "anchor babies."  However, the reality for women immigrants is far more layered and complex.

It is worth pointing out that while a majority of the women who come into the U.S. end up in the informal sector (more on this below), many of them are actually educated, and held professional jobs back at home. "New America Media found that only 13% of immigrant women work as professionals in the United States, even though 32% of them worked as such in their home country." This is very much linked to the fact that of the two most common avenues for obtaining a visa (employment- or family-based) women make up a majority of the latter category. This often puts them at a disadvantage for several reasons.

First, it usually takes years to obtain permission to work, or to solidify a permanent resident status that is separate from their husbands. This in effect greatly limits their autonomy and mobility, and in some cases, could force them to stay with an abusive partner. Secondly, if their family needs more than the financial support provided by the husband, women could find themselves entering the informal job market or the underground economy. Again, this curtails the kinds of work they can do, and opens them up to abuse or exploitation from employers, as these domains are typically excluded from federal labor protections

Furthermore, the kinds of jobs prioritized for employment visas are those often held by men. Meanwhile, the labor market has huge shortages in the professional domains dominated by women. For example, "experts estimate that those who need long-term care will more than double…by 2050." While the direct care workforce will likely be the fastest growing occupation over the next ten years, it is not the kind of industry most commonly considered for an employment visa. In fact, current immigration reform initiatives are including an attempt to make it easier for farm-workers to obtain citizenship, while domestic workers such as nannies, cooks and housekeepers are being overlooked.

Again, despite the fact that sheer numbers weigh on the side of women, the reality and policy on the ground aren't reflective of that.

On the other side of the coin is the argument that immigrant women are also not all domestic workers, but business owners and driving forces of naturalization. According to the Center for American Progress, immigrant women business owners "outpace their American-born counterparts." In 2010, immigrant women constituted 40% of all immigrant business owners, and are now more likely to own their own businesses than American-born women. In addition, the 2009 public opinion poll done by New America Media found that immigrant women are "overwhelmingly the drivers of naturalization in their families."    

All of this is ultimately to say that our conversation about immigration needs to reflect both hard numbers, as well as a more nuanced, gendered comprehension of the phenomena involved. We need to start by recognizing and valuing the work that women do, as well as the full breadth of it. This means understanding women’s unique vulnerabilities and circumstances, while not classifying them as perpetual victims who must be spoken for. In order to have a complete picture of immigration issues, immigrant women need to be a more prominent part of this conversation, and they need to be equal beneficiaries of any and all policy reform.