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Welcoming the “Stranger”

by The Washington Office of Public Policy


Contact: Office of Public Policy GBGM-Women's Division 100 Maryland Avenue, NE Room 530 Washington, DC 20002 (202)488-5660 Fax:(202) 488-5681
Office of Public Policy
GBGM-Women's Division
100 Maryland Avenue, NE Room 530
Washington, DC 20002
Fax:(202) 488-5681

September 2005

Note: Click here to view this action alert in PDF format

The history of the United States is a history of migration.  Except for Native American Indians, who numbered over five million at the time that colonial European settlers first arrived, everyone in the United States is either an immigrant, or the descendent of immigrants or forced migrants.” -BRIDGE: Building a Race and Immigration Dialogue in the Global Economy
(National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights)

According to the 2000 Census, 11% of the total U.S. population, or 30 million, is made up of immigrants.1  Women accounted for over half of the 9.1 million legal immigrants to the United States during the 1990’s and female immigration is expected to increase over time.2 Many immigrant women arrive in the United States to seek a better life for themselves and their families.  They face challenges that differ from those faced by immigrant men.  These include challenges to “physical safety and potential victimization; barriers in access to health benefits, housing, social services, and education; limited legal protections; exploitative employment situations; and multiple family and work responsibilities.”3 Unfortunately, there are not many laws to protect immigrant women from these challenges.

Economic opportunity is one of the major driving forces behind immigration to the U.S.  “Female economic migrants are an increasing presence…where demand is not for men to pick lettuce or process poultry, but for women to pick up the scraps of a collapsed manufacturing sector, or to serve in the vast underground economy of domestic service.”4 “Women make up 44% of the nation’s low-wage immigrant work force, and worldwide more and more women are migrating for work.”5  According to the Urban Institute Immigration Studies Program, immigrants make up 20% of the nation’s low-wage labor force, or 8.6 million.  In 2002, two million immigrant workers earned less than the minimum wage and immigrant women earn substantially lower wages than immigrant men or native women.6

Immigrants, both documented [persons allowed to work in the U.S. legally] and undocumented [persons not allowed to work in the U.S.], add about $10 billion each year to the U.S. economy.  In 1997, immigrant households paid an estimated $133 billion in direct taxes to federal, state and local governments.7  Although immigrants pay their share of taxes they are limited in the services they can access.  Current laws prevent a large number of documented immigrants from securing assistance and work support services available to other low-income families.  These include TANF-funded services such as job training, child care and literacy programs.8  Also, legal (documented) immigrants, including pregnant women and children who arrived in the U.S. after August 22, 1996 are barred for five years from accessing Medicaid and SCHIP (State Children’s Health Insurance Program) benefits.  Female children under the age of eighteen have the highest poverty rate of all groups and because of this programs such as SCHIP are crucial. “TANF and SCHIP benefits are particularly important for families headed by single parents, young workers, minority workers and workers with less than a high school degree.”9

There is very little protection for the large number of women who work in domestic service.  “Although all documented and undocumented workers are protected by U.S. labor laws, it is not uncommon to hear reports of domestic workers being paid 50 cents or a dollar an hour or, in some cases not at all.  Many women are forced into dawn-to-midnight work schedules, six to seven days a week.  They are often told they may not make friends, use the phone, or leave the house unescorted.”10  In addition, 15,500 to 17,500 foreigners are trafficked into the U.S. each year.  Many of the women who are trafficked into the U.S. are forced to work in sweatshops or as domestic servants.11 

In 1994 Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) of 1994 which protected undocumented immigrant victims of domestic violence by allowing them to safely flee from their abusers and have the opportunity to prosecute them.  The Act was updated and reauthorized in 2000 when Congress passed VAWA 2000 which extended immigration relief to immigrant victims of sexual assault, human trafficking and other violent crimes.  According to the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women, “VAWA allows immigrant victims to obtain immigration relief without their abusers’ cooperation or knowledge.”12  On October 1, 2005 VAWA 2000 will expire.  Currently there is a bill in the House of Representatives to reauthorize VAWA (bill H.R. 2876).  This bill has been referred to the House subcommittee on Select Education.

Women’s Division – General Board of Global Ministries
100 Maryland Avenue, NE Suite 530 – Washington, DC 20002
Tel. (202) 488-5660 * Fax (202) 488-5681

Immigrants have been risking their lives to come to the United States to build better futures for themselves and their families. One issue which has had extensive media coverage and government attention is border crossings between Mexico and the United States.  Since the late 1990’s the government started an aggressive policy to stop border crossings by increasing Border Patrol agents in Texas, California and other urban areas along the U.S.-Mexico border.  This has resulted in smugglers taking immigrants through the harsh Arizona desert to get into the U.S.  This year alone there have been 207 border-crossing deaths where summer temperatures reach 115 degrees.13  In one incident 79 people were found in a Phoenix alley cramped into a commercial horse trailer where they had been staying for several days in 100 degrees whether.  There were 11 children, including a 4 month old baby, among them.14      

The lack of comprehensive immigration laws allow for such incidents to continue.  In May of 2005 the Real ID Act of 2005 was passed by Congress and signed into law.  The Real ID Act establishes national standards for driver licenses and mandates “that applicants for licenses are legal U.S. residents within three years, a process expected to cost $500 million.  Licenses and IDs from states that do not follow these guidelines could not be used for federal purposes, such as boarding airplanes.”15 Currently there are two different immigration reform bills in the Senate which are receiving a lot of attention.  One is the Comprehensive Enforcement and Immigration Reform Act (S.1438) introduced by Senators John Cornyn (TX) and Jon Kyl (AZ) and the other is the Secure America and Orderly Immigration (SAOIA) Act (S. 1033 and H.R. 2330) introduced by Senators John McCain (AZ) and Ted Kennedy (MA) and Representatives Jim Kolbe (AZ), Jeff Flake (AZ) and Luis Gutierrez (IL).

The Comprehensive Enforcement and Immigration Reform Act creates a Deferred Mandatory Departure (DMD) program which gives work and travel authorization for up to 5 years for illegal immigrants who have entered the country as of July 20, 2005.  Workers who receive work authorization under the DMD program must leave the country within 5 years.  The bill also creates a “W” worker visa program.  Under this program, immigrants wanting to come to the U.S. to work may apply for a worker visa which would be valid for 2 years, after which the worker must return home for 1 year before coming the U.S. again.  The worker may apply to come again up to three times.  After the visas have expired the worker must return home.  The worker is not allowed to take any steps to become a permanent resident of the U.S.  This bill also includes provisions for other enforcements such as labor law and border enforcements.16

The Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act (SAOIA) would allow illegal immigrants who are in the U.S. as of May 12, 2005 to obtain a six year visa (the H5B) that would allow the visa holder to work legally.  The visa holder is allowed to take steps to become a permanent resident of the U.S.  Immigrants who are not currently in the U.S but would like to come to work may apply for a new temporary H-5A visa under the SAOIA Act.  This visa would be valid for 3 years and can be renewed once for a total of 6 years, after which the worker must return home or have a green card application pending.  This bill also includes several provisions about labor law, immigration law enforcement and border control.17

Immigrant rights groups such as the National Council of La Raza are pleased to see steps taken towards immigration reform.  They state, “While the current U.S. immigration system appears fair, reasonable, and highly regulated on paper, the current system is broken and in need of reform.  Under the current system, people are dying at the border, families endure long separations, people are forced to live an underground existence…We cannot continue to apply short-term solutions to our immigration problems; rather, we need comprehensive solutions that target the root causes of the problems.”  Comprehensive immigration reform will also allow us to address the many challenges immigrant women are facing today.


  • Read the Book of Resolutions 2004 #118 Opposition to the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Resolution Act (pg. 340-341), #119 Refugees, Immigrants, and Visitors to the United States of America (pg. 341-343), #265 Immigrants and Refugees: To Love the Sojourner (pg. 677-686), #266 Immigrants in the United States: Ministries of Hospitality, Advocacy, and Justice (pg. 686-688).
  • Urgent!  Write or call your Senators and Representatives and ask them to support the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.  The bill number for the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2005 in the Senate is S.1197 and in the House of Representatives is H.R.2876.
  • Learn more about the Break The Chains Campaign to Repeal the Employer Sanctions Provision of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA).  For more information contact elmira Nazombe or Carol Barton of the Women’s Division at (212) 870-3732.

1 National Immigration Law Center.  Facts About Immigrants.  July 2004. www.nilc.org

2 Jachimowicz Maia and Deborah W. Meyers (Migration Policy Institute).  Women Immigrants in the United States.  Executive Summary, pg. 1.  September 9, 2002. 

3 Ibid.

4 Bernstein, Nina.  Invisible to Most, Immigrant Women Line Up for Day Labor.  The New York Times.  08/15/05.

5 Ibid

6 The Urban Institute Immigration Studies Program.  Immigrant Families and Workers: Facts and Perspectives. Brief No. 4. A Profile of the Low-wage Immigrant Workforce. November 2003.

7 The National Immigration Forum. http://immigrationforum.org/DesktopDefault.aspx?tabid=179

8 Gammage, Sarah. Women Immigrants in the United States. Women Immigrants in the U.S. Labor Market: Second-Rate Jobs in the First World. pg. 86. September 9, 2002.

9 Ibid.

10 Zarembka, Joy Mutanu.  Women Immigrants in the United States.  Maid to Order. pg. 96. September 9, 2002.

11 In Brief:  The Newsletter of Legal Momentum.  June 2005.  www.legalmomentum.org

12 National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women.  Press Release.  Violence Against Women Act 2005.

13 Wagner, Dennis.  Illegals dying at record rate in Arizona desert.  USA Today. August 19-21, 2005

14 Press Release.  Statement of Senator John McCain Before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary about Comprehensive Immigration Reform.  U.S. Senator John McCain’s office.  July 26, 2005.

15 Migration News.  Congress: Real ID, Guest Workers. http://migration.ucdavis.edu/mn

16Short Side by Side Comparison of Current Immigration Reform Bills. August 2005. 16Ibid.

Immigrant Victims of Hurricane Katrina

Among the many victims that were displaced by Hurricane Katrina were thousands of immigrants left with missing family members, belongings and jobs.  Some of the victims are guest workers who have come to the U.S. for temporary employment at the casino resorts along the Gulf Coast.  About 950 Jamaicans were employed in those casinos through a nine-month guest worker program.  Now they are left with unanswered questions about who will pay for their remaining contracts and how they will return back to Jamaica.1  According to the Mexican government there are about 145,000 Mexicans living in the Gulf Region.  The Mexican government has set up mobile Consulates to help hurricane victims locate missing family members, inform family members back home that they are safe, and to find shelter.  The Honduran government has stated that at least 40,000 Hondurans could have been affected by Hurricane Katrina.  Many Hondurans were granted temporary legal status by the U.S. government in 1998 because they were fleeing the devastating destruction caused by Hurricane Mitch.2 

Many undocumented immigrants have also been affected by the hurricane.  Many relief groups have had problems reaching undocumented immigrants because they are too afraid to seek aid.  According to a report in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer tens of thousands of illegal immigrants live in the hardest-hit areas and many have either opted to stay in the destroyed areas with little or no food, water or shelter or have chosen to seek help only from local churches or Spanish-speaking communities to avoid deportation.3      


1 Urbina, Ian.  Foreign Workers Are Caught in a Double Trap. The New York Times. 09/06/05.

2 Avila Oscar and Hugh Dellios.  Immigrants told to seek help, whatever their legal status.  The Chicago Tribune.  09/08/05.

3 Castillo Eduardo (Associated Press Writer).  Illegal immigrants afraid to get storm aid.  Seattle Post-Intelligencer.  09/09/05.

The following sections on immigrant women in the U.S and the Bridge Fact Sheet are from the Education Resource guide “BRIDGE: Building a Race and Immigration Dialogue in the Global Economy” by Eunice Hyunhye Cho, Francisco Arguelles Paz y Puente, Miriam Ching Yoon Louie, and Sasha of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.  To purchase a copy of this book you may contact the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights at (510) 465-1984.

immigrant women's leadership
Backgrounder: The State of Immigrant Women in the U.S.

Immigrant women in the U.S. are not a homogeneous group; they come from diverse situations and regions throughout the world, but are linked through the process of migration. Over the past forty years, the number of women migrants have increased dramatically, reflecting the growing number of migrants worldwide and the changing conditions of migration. For example, in 1960, there were 35 million women in migration. By the year 2000, the number of women migrants increased to over 85 million. Women now constitute over half of all new immigrants coming to the U.S. each year.

Over the last twenty-five years, globalization has also contributed to changes that have significantly increased women's burden of both paid and unpaid labor. As real wages decline, more women are forced into the paid labor force, usually without any reduction in their share of household and family responsibilities. Women have increasingly become a large part of migration, and women migrants often work in the “3-D's” dirty, dangerous, and demeaning jobs segregated by gender.

Once in the U.S., immigrant women face particular obstacles as workers due to immigration status, language, and/or citizenship, in addition to factors of discrimi­nation based on gender and/or race. Immigrant women often lack adequate health care-both for economic reasons, as well as for fear of losing immigration status or being deported for accessing health programs. Almost one out of every five immigrant women live in poverty, and immigrant women, on average, earn less than their U.S.-born counterparts.

Anti-immigrant groups have taken particular aim at immigrant women and their children, portraying them as the cause for overpopulation, poverty, and even envi­ronmental degradation. These arguments color public policy debates that concern women, especially around issues such as access to health and social services.

Women play a central role in organizing efforts for immigrant rights in the U.S. Their contributions, however, are often under-appreciated and unrecognized, and at times, our own organizations can replicate sexism, racism, and other forms of oppression…

p. 216  BRIDGE: Building a Race and Immigration Dialogue in the Global Economy      (www.nnirr.org)

BRIDGE Fact Sheet
Where Have Immigrants Come From?

1900     13.6% of the U.S. population was born outside the U.S.

   86.0% of all immigrants were from Europe

   11.4% of all immigrants were from Northern America (including Mexico)

   2.6% of all immigrants were from other areas

1900: Top Ten Sending Countries: Germany, Ireland, Great Britain, Canada, Sweden, Italy, Poland, Russia, Poland, Norway, Austria.

1960    6.9% of the U.S. population was born outside the U.S.

  75% of all immigrants were from Europe

            9.8% of all immigrants were from Northern America (including Mexico)

            9.4% of all immigrants were from Latin America

  5.1% of all immigrants were from Asia

  0.7% of all immigrants were from other areas

1960: Top Ten Sending Countries: Italy, Germany, Canada, United Kingdom, Poland, Soviet Union, Mexico, Ireland, Austria and Hungary.

1980    6.2% of the U.S. population was born outside the U.S.

  39.0% of all immigrants were from Europe

  6.5% of all immigrants were from North America

  33.1% of all immigrants were from Latin America

  19.3% of all immigrants were from Asia

  2.1 % of all immigrants were from other areas

1980: Top Ten Sending Countries: Mexico, Germany, Canada, Italy, United Kingdom, Cuba, Philippines, Poland, Soviet Union, Korea.

2000    10.4% of the U.S. population was born outside the U.S.

   15.3% of all immigrants were from Europe

   2.5% of all immigrants were from Northern America

  51.0% of all immigrants were from Latin America

  25.5% of all immigrants were from Asia

   5.7% of all immigrants were from other areas

2000: Top Ten Sending Countries: Mexico, China, Philippines, India, Cuba, Vietnam, El Salvador, Korea, Dominican Republic, Canada.

p. 252 BRIDGE: Building a Race and Immigration Dialogue in the Global Economy


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Date posted: Sep 30, 2005