In recent years, the United States has experienced one of the largest waves of immigration in its history. The immigrant population has almost doubled since the 1990’s and the number of undocumented female immigrants has increased significantly. Immigrant women also make up more than half of new legal immigrants arriving to the United States.
While many immigrant women come to the United States in search of better opportunities, they are often vulnerable to poverty and discrimination and face many barriers in their day to day life, making it harder for them to achieve economic security and to advance in their careers.
Public policies are fundamental to integrating immigrant women into U.S. society. The U.S. Congress, however, has failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform to address the complex challenges our current immigration system creates. In the absence of reform at the national level, many states and localities have introduced and passed anti-immigrant legislation. This is particularly unfortunate for immigrant women, who besides sharing risks with their male counterparts also experience particular difficulties that are more common or unique to them.
IWPR recently released a study that identified some of the challenges Latina immigrants face, such as limited proficiency in English, disproportionate exposure to violence and harassment, and lower earnings and rates of educational attainment. Also, as caregivers, immigrant women are more affected than their male counterparts by the lack of affordable and reliable child care and reproductive health services.
IWPR’s research also found that constant fears of deportation and family separation have led many immigrant women to live in the shadows. Immigrant women may be working “under the table,” without having access to quality jobs and educational opportunities, mainly due to their immigration status. Resulting economic instability prevents immigrant women from contributing fully to our society—we lose valuable resources that could help our country move forward.
Advocacy and service organizations working on the ground with immigrants recognize that an overhaul of the current immigration system is needed. However, advocates and researchers also need to focus more on the concerns of immigrant women. In most policy discussions little or nothing is said about how certain policies (such as the DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors), 287(g) and Comprehensive Immigration Reform) would specifically affect women. IWPR’s study found that the limited attention women’s issues receive is an important gap within the immigration grassroots and advocacy movement. Out of 280 organizations interviewed for the IWPR study, only eight advocated with a specific focus on the rights and needs of immigrant women.
A better understanding of women’s challenges and circumstances would represent an important step forward in filling this gap. Many of the issues directly affecting women also affect men and children, so addressing these challenges would be beneficial to the entire immigrant community.
Claudia Williams is a research analyst at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.