Women's Groups Differ Over Immigration Strategy

Monday, April 24, 2006

Immigration activists are weighing in with different strategies on how to push for legislation that would improve the lives of the 4 million unauthorized immigrant women estimated to be living in the U.S.

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A Larger Divide

Joanne Lin

Differences among women's groups over the timing of the bill reflect a larger divide within the immigrant rights community over whether to seize the moment and push for a compromise or whether to just call the whole thing off and wait until a new Congress is elected to office.

"There's a tension in the movement about whether you go for what you can get or whether you say, 'You know what, not like this'," said Andrea Lee, co-director for development and administration at Mujeres Unidas y Activas, a Latina immigrant rights organization in San Francisco. "Those are questions that people who care about immigrant rights are still trying to answer."

But all agree that immigration is a woman's issue, even if it isn't always portrayed that way in dominant print and broadcast media.

"The stereotypical face of an immigrant is probably a young man probably sending money home" to relatives, said Ingrid Tischer, a spokesperson for ERA, a legal women's rights group in San Francisco. "The demographics are changing," she said.

Indeed, the 5.4 million undocumented male immigrants comprise less than half--or 49 percent--of all undocumented immigrants, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

There are another 4 million undocumented female immigrants, or 35 percent of the population, according to Pew. And there are about 1.8 million undocumented child immigrants of both genders, about 16 percent. In addition, there are another 3 million children who are U.S. citizens that are part of families headed by an unauthorized-migrant parent.

Unique Barriers

Undocumented women, however, face unique barriers.

Less likely than their male counterparts to work outside the home, women often have less financial independence than men and are often saddled with raising children, some of whom are U.S. citizens because they were born here. Many live in poverty and lack full access to public and government support services that provide aid in the areas of health care, housing, child care, reproductive health and economic development programs.

This lack of equal access to services is especially problematic for immigrant women who suffer sexual harassment, assault and domestic violence, Lin said.

Women also face difficult emotional terrain when migrating to foreign countries, said Yifat Susskind, a spokesperson for MADRE, an international women's rights organization in New York City.

Whether or not they work outside the home, women in most cultures--especially in Latin America, birthplace to a majority of immigrants in the United States--are responsible for food preparation, child care, health care, education and other aspects of life in their communities. They often lose those roles--and part of their identity--when they move to the United States, Susskind said.

"Women in a different way than men face a kind of unraveling of who they imagine themselves to be," Susskind said. "That kind of loss of identity can be just very, very destabilizing for people."

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women's eNews.

For more information:

Mujeres Unidas y Activas:

Pew Hispanic Center:

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