The Changing Face of Immigration

The number of women entering the U.S. has grown steadily in recent years, and they accounted for more than half the total in 2007. A recent roundtable sponsored by New America Media and Ms. Magazine revealed that getting here is just the start of the challenges faced by many female immigrants.

Groups of Mexican men trying to outrun border patrol agents and make it to the U.S. are common images offered by the media when news coverage turns to immigration.

The reality is different — and getting more so all the time.

Mexicans are not the only people who migrate to America. People from almost every country in the world migrate either legally or illegally on a daily basis. They come from North America, South and Central America, Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Australia.

And here’s a factor that the media often neglect to mention: The changing world economy, wars, famines, and other societal problems have created a new immigrant majority — women.

Word of the change came during a recent roundtable discussion hosted by San Francisco-based New America Media, the parent organization of, at the Feminist Majority Foundation/Ms. Magazine headquarters in Beverly Hills.

Participating in the discussions were Kathy Spillar, Executive Vice President of Ms. Magazine and FMF, who served as moderator; Angelica Salas of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA); Eun Sook Lee, Executive Director of the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium; Sara Sadhwani, Immigrant Rights Project Director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center; Adriana Tome, also of CHIRLA; and Sheila Salinas, student and CHIRLA member.

The group discussed newly released data from the U.S. Census showing that the number of women immigrating to the U.S. has doubled since 1990. The trend led to a sea-change in 2007, when the majority of these immigrants to the U.S. were women for the first time.

Sergio Bendixen, President of Bendixen & Associates was contracted by New America Media to conduct a poll of 1,100 immigrant women in 10 different languages, as well as several different ethnic backgrounds and socio-economic levels.

Bendixen concluded that “The study clearly indicates that women immigrants in the United States have not only become important contributors to the economic and social condition of their families in the United States, but that they also have become catalysts in their assimilation to the American culture and in the decision-making process about U.S. Citizenship.”

The poll showed that people from different countries migrate for different reasons, including repressive governments, poor living conditions, unemployment, and a desire for education. These immigrants often become productive members of American society.

Bendixen said the poll indicated that women new to America initially earned approximately $500 per month, on average. Earnings rise to approximately $1,500 per month after five years in the U.S., he said.

Those women who had been in the U.S. for 20 years or more supported the belief that many women who migrate to the U.S., along with their families, do become an integral part of American society.

Adriana Tome offers an example. An immigrant from Honduras, she migrated to the U.S. after her husband died. Leaving her children behind, she worked in agriculture and a variety of low-paying jobs to send money to her children. Being apart from her children was too much so she went back Honduras only to have to eventually return to the U.S. in order to be able to provide for her children.

Tome says that since returning to the U.S. she has taken English-language classes and has made a point of integrating into American society. She stressed the importance of learning English and finding organizations to assist new immigrants.

Another common myth is that new immigrants are uneducated, have no desire to learn English, and are only in the U.S. to make money so that they can send home to their families. While this may be true in some cases, the reality is that many immigrants who come to the United States are educated. Many hold advanced degrees and have held professional jobs in their countries.

Upon arriving in the U.S., these educated immigrants must often take low paying jobs in factories, agriculture, or working at childcare or housekeeping. They often must re-enroll in school to obtain a U.S. recognized degree in respective professions. This has helped push a trend of immigrant women taking on new responsibilities such as breadwinner for extended periods of time.

Unfortunately, these new responsibilities come with new problems. One being seen too often is domestic violence, with incidents sometimes occurring in households where women must assume the roles husbands played in their home countries,

Along with challenges such as economic concerns, overcoming language barriers, and obtaining healthcare, immigrant women must often overcome the communication hurdles at their children’s schools. The Nation Korean American Service & Education Consortium’s Lee told the recent roundtable that schools often send information home to parents in English or Spanish, but not in any other languages such as Korean.

Lee said that she is often asked to translate for teachers at parent conferences.

“I feel it’s an intrusion,” Lee says. “It’s not fair to the parents. I get to know more about their child’s grades and behavior than I have any business knowing. Some things I shouldn’t have to know and parents don’t want everybody knowing it. Often because I am translating, the teachers feel they can say anything to me about someone else’s child.”

Lee’s said that the situation is common because many schools do not provide sufficient translators during parent conferences. That leaves school officials to count on children or other parents, to translate.

Despite the many obstacles, there are resources for new immigrants, and panel members urged women to join community organizations and share knowledge of navigating the system.

Aba Ngissah is a writer for Carib Press

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