Women Immigrants, Work, and Families

By Sullivan, Teresa A. | National Forum, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

Women Immigrants, Work, and Families


Sullivan, Teresa A., National Forum


About 10.3 million foreign-born women were counted in the 1990 census of the United States. Although they constituted 4 percent of the total population and 53 percent of immigrants, women immigrants and their issues have received little attention in the continuing national debate over immigration. Aside from the occasional attention paid to prominent immigrant women, such as Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini or the defecting daughters of foreign dictators, women immigrants rarely attract popular attention. The principal reason for this apparent neglect has been the assumption that women are "tied immigrants" --that is, they immigrate because of the opportunities offered to other, usually male, members of their families.

United States immigration policy implicitly incorporates the stereotype of the tied immigrant woman. When legislation has been addressed explicitly to female immigration, it usually assumes that their entry into the country is tied to the movements of men. For example, as part of the series of Chinese Exclusion Acts in the late nineteenth century, female Chinese were forbidden to immigrate to preclude the development of families by Chinese immigrant men. By contrast, the entry of war brides and fiancees after World War II was facilitated by specific legislation, even though some of the women immigrated from the then-proscribed Asian Triangle and would not otherwise have been allowed to enter the country. The family reunification provisions in the 1965 amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act were touted as humanitarian gestures to allow wives, sisters, and mothers to join their families already residing in the United States.

Our image of the woman immigrant needs updating for three reasons: changes in sending countries, changes in labor-market patterns, and changes in family patterns. Policymakers are again reconsidering immigration policy, and it is important not to exclude considerations of women as immigrants.

Changes in Sending Countries

Conventional demographic wisdom confirmed the view of women as secondary migrants. Ravenstein's Laws of Migration, taught in most undergraduate population courses, included the generalization that men usually immigrated over long distances but women immigrated over short distances. When the major immigration stream to the United States crossed the Atlantic Ocean, men dominated. Immigrant communities in the nineteenth century often had remarkably high ratios of men to women.

In the twentieth century, however, airplanes and rapid ships can cover long distances in a few days and with many fewer hazards. Moreover, distant Europe has been succeeded by neighboring Latin America as the major sending area to the United States, so that the distances that immigrants have to travel are often shorter. As recently as the 1950s, over two-thirds of immigrants came from Europe and the English-speaking countries of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, while fewer than 18 percent came from the Americas. By the decade of the 1980s, the Americas provided 47 percent of the immigrants, and Europe and the English-speaking countries only 13 percent.

Changes in transportation and in the sending countries made immigration easier both for women who accompanied family members and for women who migrated independently. Women immigrants entered the country in large numbers from Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. Women currently form the majority of the immigrant stream from Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and Colombia.

Two contiguous countries have sent over a quarter of our current immigrants. Mexico is the largest single sending country, accounting for over 24 percent of male immigrants and 19 percent of female immigrants. Canada is the third largest sending country for women, accounting for over 4 percent of both women and men. A third country, the Philippines, although not contiguous, has a long history of political and economic relationships with the United States and is the second largest sending country, accounting for over 4 percent of immigrant men and 5 percent of immigrant women.

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