For years, immigrant women have made vital contributions to the U.S. economy, and they and their families have become deeply rooted in American society. The average immigrant woman has lived in the United States since 1996, and the average undocumented immigrant woman has lived in the country since 2005. Particularly during this Women’s History Month, these essential communities must not go unrecognized. Their contributions and experiences should be centered as policymakers craft solutions for a bold and equitable economic recovery in the months ahead.
All women—regardless of immigration status—have borne the brunt of the twin health and economic crises over the past year. While the following data analysis captures pre-pandemic workforce participation, it is important to note that women across the country have experienced disproportionate job loss since the early days of the pandemic. CAP analysis finds that women have lost a net of 5.4 million jobs during the recession, nearly 1 million more jobs lost than among men. Black, Hispanic, and Asian women, who have experienced higher unemployment rates than white women throughout this crisis, have been the hardest hit. In addition, the latest jobs data indicate severe disparities in economic recovery along gender and racial lines, with women of color—and particularly Black women—experiencing the lowest rate of job recovery. Now more than ever, relief and recovery policies must consider the needs of women—particularly immigrant women—and their families.
Top occupations and industries among working immigrant women
An estimated 12.3 million immigrant women, including 2.5 million undocumented women, are members of the workforce. Together, they comprise 16.3 percent of all employed women in the United States.
The top five industries for immigrant women in the workforce are health care and social assistance; accommodation and food services; educational services; retail trade; and manufacturing. This workforce includes women such as Teresa, a member of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Healthcare 1199NW in Washington state, who works as a hospital registrar. She checks in patients—many of whom have COVID-19—who are coming to see an emergency physician. She recognizes that her own experience as an immigrant from the Philippines has allowed her to connect and better serve patients and their families who also immigrated to the United States.
The occupations in which immigrant women are most likely to work closely mirror their top industries: office and administrative support staff; sales and related workers; building and grounds cleaning and maintenance staff; health care practitioners; and health care support staff. María Elena, who now works as a janitor at a university in Florida, was visiting family in the United States when Hurricane Mitch devastated her home country of Nicaragua in 1998. As a Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holder, María Elena has been able to live and work in the United States for more than 22 years. The students and faculty on campus rely on her to keep the buildings safe and sanitized—a role that is especially important in combating the spread of the coronavirus. As a union member of SEIU-32BJ, María Elena has advocated for better benefits and leave policies. She continues to share her story in hopes that all can recognize the contributions of TPS holders and the need for a pathway to citizenship.
Immigrant women’s workforce participation is essential for the livelihood and well-being of their families. One-third (33.6 percent) of immigrant mothers are the primary breadwinners for their families either as single working mothers or as married women who earn as much or more than their husbands. This number jumps to 36.3 percent for Latina immigrant mothers. More than half (56.4 percent) of immigrant mothers are primary or co-breadwinners, which includes breadwinning mothers and married mothers bringing home at least one-quarter of their family’s earnings.
Immigrant women on the front lines of the pandemic
Alongside their neighbors, immigrant women have kept the country safe and running as essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic. They make up 15 percent of all women working in critical infrastructure industries such as food and agriculture, health care and public health, education, and critical manufacturing. A prior CAP report finds that 3 in 4 undocumented immigrants in the workforce are essential workers; among those essential workers, 1.6 million are undocumented women. Not only do these individuals and their families face the health risks of working on the front lines of the pandemic, but they also lack access to health care and government relief and continue to face the threat of deportation.
In the health care industry, immigrant women fill a range of occupations, from hospital support staff to nurses and doctors. All are working to ensure their communities have necessary care and medical resources. Marlyn, a member of 199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East in Florida, immigrated from Jamaica more than 30 years ago and has been working as a nurse for 25 years. Throughout the pandemic, she has provided critical care to COVID-19 patients, often without the proper personal protective equipment (PPE). Marlyn herself contracted the virus and fortunately recovered with the help of her family. She continues to care for patients while advocating for proper PPE for her colleagues and all front-line workers. An estimated 2.7 million immigrant women work as health care providers or in health-related settings, including 740,000 health care practitioners and 277,000 health technologists and technicians.
Immigrant women also play a crucial role in maintaining food supply chains and keeping the country fed. An estimated 451,000 immigrant women—including 195,000 undocumented women—are cooks and food preparation workers. An estimated 128,000 immigrant women are agricultural workers, many of whom have continued this work with minimal access to workplace protections and PPE.
More than 358,000 immigrant women are preschool through secondary school teachers and special education teachers. As educators, these women are on the front lines of the nation’s classrooms working to keep themselves and their students safe, managing the challenges of virtual teaching, and continuing to shape the minds of future generations.
Individuals in the care industry are vital to the overall functioning of society and the economy by providing necessary services to the elderly, disabled people, and children, often enabling other members of a household to remain or reenter the workforce. In this analysis, members of the care industry are defined as those who are maids and housekeeping cleaners, child care workers, home health aides, and personal care aides. An estimated 1.9 million immigrant women, including 523,000 undocumented women, are part of the care workforce. This includes 504,000 immigrant women working as home health and personal care aides. One of these women is Suk, a 65-year-old Korean American home care provider in California and a member leader with SEIU Local 2015. During the pandemic, she has cared for four clients in their homes while purchasing her own PPE. In recent months, Suk has also directly experienced the increase in xenophobic attacks against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community in her own city of San Jose.
Immigrant women such as Teresa, María Elena, Marlyn, and Suk provide for their families and contribute to the U.S. economy despite facing significant hurdles. For undocumented women, those obstacles include the constant, daily threat of deportation. As immigrant women continue to make sacrifices to sustain the country during a time of crisis, it is crucial that Congress include a pathway to citizenship for undocumented essential workers and their families in future economic recovery legislation. A robust and equitable recovery must consider the contributions and address the needs of undocumented workers and their families.
Immigrant women, regardless of their documentation status, have long been the backbones of their families, their communities, and the country’s overall prosperity. As an integral part of U.S. society, they must be celebrated and properly rewarded.
At the Center for American Progress, Sofia Carratala is a research assistant for Immigration Policy; Nicole Prchal Svajlenka is an associate director for research on the Immigration Policy team; and Sarah Jane Glynn is a senior fellow.
*Author’s note: The findings presented in this column are based on CAP analysis of 2018 and 2019 1-year American Community Survey microdata, accessed via the University of Minnesota’s IPUMS USA database. The findings on immigrant women breadwinners are based on CAP and Jeff Chapman’s analysis of Sarah Flood and others, “Integrated Public Use Microdata Series, Current Population Survey: Version 7.0” (Minneapolis: Minnesota Population Center, 2020), available at https://doi.org/10.18128/D030.V7.0.
The authors would like to thank Maria Ponce and Josh Bernstein at SEIU for sharing testimonials from local SEIU union members. The testimonials only include individuals’ first names for anonymity purposes.