Immigrant women are at the forefront of advocacy to fix our nation’s broken immigration system, and they also play an important role in our society and economy. All too often, however, media portrayals of immigrants feature a single Hispanic male without status. In reality, immigrant women in the United States—both documented and undocumented—comprise more than half of all U.S. immigrants, 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, however, is often dire. Undocumented immigrant women, for example, face the risk of deportation, and they are at risk of losing their American-born children while in detention or after being deported. Domestic workers face racial discrimination and abuse from their employers, and far too many women are trafficked into the country and exploited.
As our nation’s leaders begin drafting their immigration reform proposals, and on this International Women’s Day on which we collectively call for women’s advancement, here are the top 10 facts you must know about immigrant women.
1. The face of today’s U.S. immigrants is more female than male. In 2011 51.1 percent of all foreign-born individuals residing in the United States—and 55 percent of all people obtaining a green card—were women. That same year, women comprised 48 percent of all refugee arrivals, 49 percent of all people granted asylum, and 54 percent of all people who naturalized to become U.S. citizens.
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 largely shifted the United States 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 2011 there were 96 immigrant men arriving for every 100 immigrant women.
3. Family unity matters to immigrant women. According to a report by the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, 70 percent of immigrant women gain permanent residence in the United States through family-based visas as opposed to employment-based visas. That contrasts with 61 percent of men who gain status through family channels. Once here, they are more likely to share their household with a spouse and children than native-born women. Approximately 45 percent of undocumented immigrants and 34 percent of legal immigrants live in families comprised of couples and children, while only 21 percent of native-born Americans live in families.
4. Immigrant women—similar to most women—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.”
5. 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.
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. Immigrant women in particular face a burden when it comes to immigration enforcement: A recent CAP report by Joanna Dreby, assistant professor of sociology at Kent State University, finds that detentions and deportations often separate married couples, leaving single parents—and most often single mothers—struggling to cope with the burdens of supporting their families.
8. Immigrant women workers are vulnerable to abuse at work and at home. Immigrants comprise 46 percent of the domestic workforce and make up close to the entire population of domestic workers in major cities such as New York. One study by Domestic Workers United found that 33 percent of domestic workers in New York City had experienced some form of physical or verbal abuse, often because of their race or immigration status. Domestic abuse affects immigrant and American-born women alike, but immigrant women suffer from particular vulnerabilities—particularly, abusive partners who use the woman’s immigration status to keep them from leaving an abusive marriage or relationship.
9. Immigrant women face barriers to adequate health care. Immigrants who have resided in the United States for five years or less are barred from using federal Medicaid for the most basic and vital preventive health services such as prenatal care—even if their incomes qualify them for the program—unless their state chooses to eliminate this bar for eligible children and pregnant women. Thanks to this and an array of other factors, immigrant women are twice as likely as American-born women to lack health insurance.
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 who are forced into the sex trade, among other things. But studies find that barely any are being granted. In 2012, for example, only 674 T Visas were approved.
Despite the vulnerabilities and barriers immigrant women face, they continue to make important contributions to our society and our economy. Therefore, any common-sense solution to our broken immigration system must address their challenges and continue to value their contributions. Passing immigration reform that includes a road to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, promotes family unity, and provides stronger protections for immigrant workers would go a long way to help this group. As a nation of immigrants, we can do no less.
Ann Garcia is Immigration Policy Analyst and Samanta Franchim is an intern with the Immigration Team at the Center for American Progress.