By Cassie Hammerly
Hundreds of women immigrate to the United States every year in search of a better life for themselves and their families. Upon arrival in the Unites States, they must ask themselves, “Where will I work? How best can I feed my family? Where will I live?” If they are one of the 51.1 percent of women immigrates leaving their country because of (but not limited to) political persecution and/or domestic violence, work options for employment are usually bleak. More often than not, they will find themselves working in a field or on a farm, or as a caregiver. This presents a conflict for women who also have children. Many financially-solvent families struggle to pay for childcare. Access to affordable childcare for immigrant women is nearly impossible, as the average pay for undocumented immigrant women is 71 cents for every dollar undocumented immigrant men are paid. Even nationalized immigrant women make 75 cents (compared to native-born women’s 77 cents) for every dollar nationalized immigrant men make.
Immigrant women remain one of the most at-risk populations in the United States. In addition to minimal wages and a lack of childcare, maintaining a residence presents its own challenges. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) offers some housing assistance for legal immigrants who have lived in the United States for five years. This does not address the housing need of women who are undocumented or have been living in the United States less than five years. Also, individuals eligible for TANF must meet specific financial criteria. Once the financial criteria for TANF have been exceeded, assistance is no longer available. This potentially discourages immigrant women from seeking further education and attempts to increase their income, because additional income may mean that housing assistance is no longer available. This increase in wages usually does not fully cover the assistance TANF was providing.
Existing in poverty takes a toll on family structure. Many immigrates who have lived in the United States for more than five years are still not able to receive health care. Immigrant women are twice as likely as American-born women to lack adequate health care for themselves and their children. Transitional motherhood involves women leaving their children in their native country to be raised by relatives, so that they may travel to other countries in search of employment. In other cases, women work with their children alongside them, because they cannot afford the cost of childcare. Of the 31.1 million children in the United States living in poverty, 9.6 million of them are children of immigrants. These children are living in up to 200 percent below the federal poverty threshold. Children attending public schools in poor districts have a higher drop-out rate, and are more likely to have to work to take care of the family. These 9.6 million children have the potential to become viable economic contributors to society in their adult years. But if they are dropping out of high school early and seeking employment, their future likely does not hold the possibility of a college education.
One major point of social contention with educating the children of undocumented immigrants is the potential strain it places on the public school system. Children of undocumented immigrants in the school system receive a tax-free education. Part of the solution to this issue is making it easier for undocumented immigrant women to become nationalized. Immigration laws do not treat men and women the same. Immigration laws presume that women are dependents, and that men are the primary breadwinners. As a result, women rely on men to petition for them through the family-based immigration process. Because men are viewed as the head of household, the family reunification process makes it easier and faster for them to attain legal status. Women seeking a visa through political asylum often struggle with providing proof of persecution, if they were politically persecuted. In cases where women are allowed to enter the US without documentation due to domestic violence, women must provide proof that they lived with their abuser. This can prove difficult if such documents are in the name of the main breadwinner.
However, where discrimination exists, there also lies the opportunity for advocacy. Women comprise more than half of U.S immigration and organizations such as the National Immigrant Women’s Advocacy Project (NIWAP), which provide outlets for women through education and policy advocacy. Immigrant women need the opportunity to receive an education and still maintain their housing assistance. Nationalizing the large number of immigrant women carries with it the economic potential for women to increase their income and become contributing taxpayers. In many instances, levels of child poverty directly reflects the level of education of the parent. Educating immigrant women has the potential not only for these women to access better paying jobs, but also the chance for their children to stay in school and increase the potential that these children will be successful later on. Confronting the unique challenges that undocumented women in the US face hinges on society considering the potential benefits of educating immigrant women has for the economy, as well as for future generations.