Immigrant Women's Lives

By Christine Riddiough

On March 8, we celebrate International Women’s Day (IWD) – a holiday that originated in the United States and was later codified by the Socialist International in 1914. IWD reminds us that the struggle for women’s rights and liberation is an international struggle. This year on IWD we should remind ourselves of the role played by immigrant women in the U.S. These women, our ancestors, came seeking a better life. They got jobs as maids and nannies, in factories and on farms. Too often, they were disdained by the immigrants who had preceded them. The same is all too true today.

Last fall I attended a webinar that featured DSA Honorary Chair Gloria Steinem. The webinar was sponsored by We Belong Together, “an initiative of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, with the participation of women’s organizations, immigrant rights groups, children, and families across the country.” Steinem noted that “Historically, globally, it is women who have been on the road. If you look at refugees, migrants, those who are affected by conflict and need to find work and move for a better life, the majority have been women. Immigration is a women’s issue, and we need to change consciousness to help people understand this truth.”

Not long after the webinar, I received an email from the Ellis Island foundation asking me to “celebrate my family’s arrival to America.” Yet many people who will respond to that email do not want to celebrate any new arrivals to the US, rather they demonize them. The images of immigrants today are generally like these:

  • Terrorists from the Middle East      who are coming to America to kill people
  • Men climbing across barbed wire to      sneak into the US from Mexico and steal jobs from hardworking Americans
  • Men coming to the United States to      sell drugs

Almost all portray men coming to do nefarious things. Groups like FAIR work hard to promote those negative images of immigrants.

But who are the real immigrants? According to We Belong Together, more than half of the immigrants to the United States are women. Almost two-thirds of them work outside their homes – often in the homes of others. Children make up another quarter (approximately) of immigrants. Here are some of their stories from the We Belong Together website:

  • María came to the U.S. 10 years      ago on a six-month visa as a companion for a woman with a disability who      needed live-in care. Upon arrival, she was told she was not allowed to      leave the house, she was given only a cot on which to sleep, and received      no pay for months.
  • Susan is a National Guard captain      and student body president of JFK University. The daughter of a Japanese      dad and an American mom, she fell in love and built a home with an      immigrant woman. However, when her partner Zaina’s student visa runs out      she is unlikely to get an employment visa.
  • Yasmin is a law student and human      trafficking survivor from Bangladesh. Yasmin was trafficked to the U.S. by      her father, a white American with a Ph.D. Many of Yasmin’s relatives (many      of whom were children) were held against their will, raped, and beaten.
  • Adriana is a domestic      violence survivor who was afraid to call the police when her husband      abused her, because of her immigration status and her husband’s threats to      report her to immigration officials. He eventually did report her, and      Adriana was detained for four months. 

These are the real immigrants coming to the U.S. today. Yet too often the immigration reforms that are proposed do not address many of the issues these women face. We need to support policies that will support and strengthen women immigrants. Of course, some of the current proposals do benefit women immigrants, but that’s not true of all of them.

The proposal put forward by the White House, for example, has four main elements: 

  • Continuing to strengthen border security
  • Streamlining legal immigration
  • Earned citizenship
  • Cracking down on employers hiring undocumented workers

Perhaps the most significant of these is streamlining legal immigration. The White House proposal includes programs to keep families together. This has the potential to prevent the separation of parents and children as well as allowing same-sex couples to seek a visa based on their relationship. Also, the focus on humanitarian concerns includes victims of domestic violence as a protected group. At the same time, programs to streamline immigration often focus on entrepreneurs, investors or those with advanced science, technology, engineering or mathematics diplomas. Such a focus will often leave out many women immigrants.

The proposal to crack down on employers includes a provision to protect all workers’ right to organize. While that might protect the rights of many women now working in slave-shop conditions, how would it affect many immigrant women who are domestic workers?

Because so many women immigrants do domestic labor, proposals that link eligibility for citizenship to proof of work leave out many women. Without the work that these women perform, other work would simply not get done. So proposals for immigration reform must include a path to citizenship or legalization that recognizes the contributions of women’s work and women workers.

A fair immigration policy would protect women on the job. Only one quarter of all employment visas are given to women as principal holders. Yet women workers perform necessary work from housekeeping to childcare, as well as high tech jobs. Sexual harassment on the job and exploitive working conditions place an additional burden on women workers.

Breakthrough also focuses on women and immigration issues as part of their mission to make violence and discrimination against women and girls unacceptable. They, like We Belong Together, highlight the impossible choices women face, such as whether to stay with an abusive partner or risk deportation.

Many survivors of violence – be it domestic abuse or on the job – are also forced to stay silent in dangerous situations because they are dependent on the sponsorship of an abusive spouse or employer. In many cases these women fear deportation if they go to support organizations, local police or immigration agents. Ineffective immigration laws allow human traffickers to exploit women.

This International Women’s Day, let’s celebrate the immigrant heritage that many of us share by honoring today’s immigrant women – by supporting fair and just immigration reform. Such reform must protect families and working people and ensure that women are included fully in any reform. In a nation that values liberty and justice for all, we cannot continue to put into practice laws that harm families and punish aspiring Americans.

We Belong Together is a campaign to mobilize women in support of common-sense immigration reform that will keep families together and empower women. Immigration reform is rarely thought of as a women’s issue, but in fact it is central to the fight for women’s equality. Millions of immigrant women who are part of the fabric of our communities, workplaces, and schools are blocked from achieving their full potential because of a broken immigration system. They perform essential jobs, like taking care of our children and our aging parents, and are central to family and community well-being. More information can be found at:


Christine R. Riddiough serves as a vice chair of DSA.



Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership.