The everyday portrayal of today’s immigrants generally features a single Hispanic male who is here illegally. In fact, immigrant women in the United States (documented and undocumented combined) comprise more than half of all immigrants and play a significant economic and integrative role in our society and economy. These women start businesses at higher rates than American-born women and are often the ones that push hardest in their families to become American citizens.
The flipside of this industriousness and drive is oftentimes dire. Undocumented immigrant women, for example, face the risk of deportation and they could lose their American-born children while in detention or after being deported. Domestic workers face racial discrimination and abuse from their employers, while far too many women are trafficked into the country and exploited.
We as a nation need to understand what immigrant women in our nation face everyday. So for International Women’s Day we present a list of the top 10 facts about immigrant women that you need to know.
1. The face of today’s immigration is more female than male. In 2010, 55 percent of all people obtaining a green card were women. Of these women 60 percent were already married, while the other 40 percent were single, widowed, or divorced. Women comprised 47 percent of all refugee arrivals and 53 percent of all people who naturalized to become a citizen.
2. This trend is decades in the making. Until the 1960s immigrant men outnumbered immigrant women. But after the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which shifted the United States largely to a system of family-based admissions, more women began to arrive. By the 1970s the number of female immigrants caught up and surpassed their male counterparts. In 2010 there were 96 immigrant men arriving for every 100 immigrant women.
3. Immigrants live in families at a greater rate than native-born Americans. Among undocumented immigrants living in the United States today, 45 percent live in families comprised of couples and children. The percentage of legal immigrants living in families is 34 percent, but only 21 percent for native-born Americans.
4. Immigrant women embrace citizenship and encourage integration. According to 2009 public opinion research by New America Media, immigrant women from a broad range of countries are overwhelmingly the drivers of naturalization in their families, with 58 percent of respondents stating that they felt the strongest in their family about becoming an American citizen. Overall, 84 percent of the women surveyed want to become citizens, with a whopping 90 percent of female immigrants from Latin American and Arab nations indicating their desire to naturalize.
5. Immigrant women (like most) make enormous sacrifices for their families. New America Media found that only 13 percent of immigrant women work as professionals in the United States, even though 32 percent of them worked as such in their home country. The study concludes, “Women may well be putting devotion to the wellbeing of their families ahead of personal pride in choosing the journey to America.”
6. Immigrant female business owners outpace their American-born counterparts. In 2010, immigrant women comprised 40 percent of all immigrant business owners and 20 percent of women business owners in general. These women are now more likely to own their own business than American-born women (9 percent to 6.5 percent, respectively.)
But not all the news is rosy
7. Immigration enforcement is taking its toll on immigrant families. Rising deportations of undocumented immigrants are separating children from their parents. A 2011 report from the Applied Research Center found that more than 5,000 children living in foster care had parents who had been detained or deported from the United States. They estimate that another 15,000 children will end up in foster care in the next five years because of immigration enforcement.
8. Immigrant women workers are vulnerable to abuse at work. Immigrant women make up close to the entire population of domestic workers in major cities such as New York, with one study by Domestic Workers United finding that 33 percent of domestic workers in New York City experienced some form of physical or verbal abuse, often because of their race or immigration status.
9. They are also vulnerable to abuse at home. Domestic abuse affects immigrant and American-born women alike, but immigrant women suffer from particular vulnerabilities, particularly from abusive partners who use the woman’s immigration status to keep them from leaving an abusive marriage or relationship.
10. Human trafficking is another form of abuse endured by immigrant women and children. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that each year 50,000 people are trafficked into our nation. U.S. officials can grant up to 5,000 so-called “T” Visas to help free immigrant women forced into, among other things, the sex trade, but studies find that barely any are being granted. In 2010, for example, only 447 T Visas were approved.
We as a nation have an obligation to protect women in our country no matter where they come from—something important to reflect upon this International Women’s Day. But we also have reason to celebrate the important contributions of immigrant women to our society and our economy. As a nation of immigrants, we can do no less.
Angela Maria Kelley is Vice President for Immigration Policy and Advocacy at the Center for American Progress. Philip E. Wolgin is Immigration Policy Analyst at the Center.