♀ Female Immigrant Work Situation
This article was originally posted at http://www.nowfoundation.org/issues/economic/071108immigrationtestimony.html and has been included in NC Women United draft documents starting in 2008.
The immigration situation in the United State is complex. There are so many barriers to becoming a U.S. citizen that it is hard to decide where to begin. Many proposed solutions to undocumented immigrants have been punitive. This article looks at the scope of female immigrants (documented and undocumented) and what would improve their lives and the lives of their children.
The National Organization for Women believes that comprehensive immigration reform must include fair and non-discriminatory implementation of our immigration and enforcement policies, and that must include economic, legal and social justice for immigrant women.
Equality for immigrant women can only be attained when immigrant women can live free from discrimination, oppression and violence in all their forms. It is imperative that policies promoting comprehensive immigration reform also support fair and just policies that protect the rights of immigrant women.
There are 14.2 million foreign born women in the United States. Five and a half million are naturalized citizens, another five and a half million are documented and 3.2 million are undocumented. Women make up over 30% of the over 10 million undocumented immigrants in the United States today. Another 1.6 million are children under 18. And HALF of all undocumented immigrants originally came here with legitimate paperwork or visas and they have simply overstayed their time and are now undocumented, many lined up to renew their paperwork while they work at our colleges, in our businesses and pay taxes in our communities.
Each year, half of all immigrants entering the United States are female — women and girls. However, public policies regarding immigrants do not reflect the impact that being female has on immigrants’ lives in the United States. This applies to both documented and undocumented women.
The economic issues affecting undocumented immigrant women are basic: their work is not valued or counted. That is why NOW strongly supports the inclusion of provisions in any immigration reform legislation that would offer a path to residency and citizenship for the undocumented living in the United States. Undocumented women will benefit significantly economically, and be less subject to exploitation, if they can come out of hiding, apply for residency and seek employment in the general labor market, earn at least the federal minimum hourly wage and be eligible to contribute to and receive social security and unemployment benefits as other workers do.
The economic reality of immigrant women and children today is disheartening. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, 31% of family households headed by foreign-born women live in poverty today as compared to 27% of native born women-led households. 16% of all those who are foreign born live in poverty compared to 11.8% of the native born. One of the reasons for the higher number of foreign-born women in poverty is the fact that foreign-born women who are full time workers make less than their native born counterparts. For example, the median income for foreign-born women age 16 and over who are year-round, full time workers is $22,106 while the median income for native born women is $26,640.
Among the factors affecting low wages is the high percentage of immigrant women, both documented and undocumented, working in the service industry, primarily in domestic work. Forty-two percent of private household services are provided by immigrants under arrangements that are often informal, prone to abuse and exploitation. Domestic workers are the lowest paid of all major occupational groups tracked by the US Census. The true numbers are unknown for the most part due to the fact that many of these workers are not reported by employers, are not on anyone’s official payroll, and are paid “under the table.”
Protections for domestic workers must be included in any immigration reform legislation. Domestic workers, in particular undocumented immigrant women, are faced with extremely low wages, working 60-70 hours per week or more for as little as $200 per week. This is exploitation, sometimes amounting to servitude or even slavery, under the most hostile conditions.
And yet, domestic service, in particular for those living in private households, remains excluded from and unregulated by our country’s employment protections and labor laws. These women do not have the right to organize, strike or bargain for wages. The protections against sexual harassment in the workplace (through Title VII which applies to employers of 15 or more employees) are not available to domestic workers. They are similarly excluded from the Fair Labor Standards Act overtime provisions and from the Occupational Safety and Health Act. These omissions must be corrected through comprehensive immigration reform legislation. Domestic service is a category of work that must be addressed, not ignored and excluded from labor standards and protections afforded to other workers.
Recommendations for action:
Any “reform” legislation dealing with immigrants must be inclusive and contain provisions that address the specific needs and challenges specific to immigrant women and their children who work and live in the United States.
Fair, comprehensive immigration reform legislation must include:
• A legalization program that will allow undocumented immigrants living in the United States to apply for residency. This should be a process free of unreasonable fines, penalties, and without the need to leave a job and family and return to one’s native country for the purposes of being issued a re-entry visa. Temporary workers, including agricultural workers, should be issued worker’s permits that would count towards permanent residency. Those that want to work without becoming permanent residents should be allowed to apply for temporary work permits. “Guest workers” should have a path to citizenship and not be indentured to their employers or treated as second-class residents and sent home when their usefulness is over.
• Enforcement of existing federal labor laws for all workers, including domestic workers, most of whom are female. Domestic service is a category of work that must be addressed, not ignored and excluded from labor standards afforded to other workers. Immigrant workers must be protected from exploitation, servitude and hostile working conditions.
• Improvements in the family reunification program. The 1996 immigration provisions in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (welfare bill) raised sponsorship requirements to 125% of poverty level. These financial tests must be reformed to allow families to bring relatives to the U.S. who could help immigrant families with financial and care-giving obligations.
• Adequate health care for children — all children — including U.S. born children of the undocumented. Currently, children born in the U.S. to an undocumented parent or parents have the right to one year of Medicaid benefits, but under the current anti-immigrant atmosphere in the country, many of those in the undocumented community are fearful of reprisals, criminal penalties and deportation if they expose themselves through their U.S. born children and seek health care coverage
• Reproductive health care coverage must be provided to all immigrant women regardless of legal and economic status. This includes comprehensive sex and sexuality education, access to family planning, birth control and Emergency Contraception, and linguistically and culturally competent information about reproductive health.
• Adoption of the provision of the WISH Act which provides safe harbor and safety net benefits to immigrants victims of sexual and domestic violence.