Immigrant Women Changing America ... and Themselves


New America Media this week released a historic poll on women immigrants to America that shows how the face of immigration is changing. A majority of immigrants are now women, mothers and workers, stewards of their households. This is the major finding of the poll conducted by Bendixen & Associates and released at a forum discussion and news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on Thursday.

During the presentation of the poll results, Sergio Bendixen defined it as "looking into the souls of millions of people in an attempt to understand what motivates them and the challenges they face." The poll has considered their demographics, reasons to migrate and their will to overcome obstacles to keep their family together.

The result shows that women immigrants' main challenges are helping their children succeed and keeping their families together. The obstacles are formidable. 79% of Latin Americans, 73% of Vietnamese, 70% of Korean and 63% of Chinese acknowledged speaking little or no English. They also confront anti-immigrant discrimination, lack of health care and low-paying employment.

Bendixen said that this is something that shakes the perception that immigration is always about economics and dollars. In fact, many of the women start out in low-paying jobs even though they may have held professional positions in their home countries. In the United States they might work as a hotel maid, waitress, house cleaner and textile worker.
These results indicate that women may be putting devotion to the well-being of their families ahead of personal job status and pride in choosing to emigrate.

"Immigrants change America and America changes immigrants," said Angela Kelley, Vice President for Immigration Policy at the Center for American Progress. "Their biggest challenge is how to make their children succeed. … And this is why this poll is so important. What it shows is the common ground between immigrants and the American society."

Migration is a process to try and keep the family together. Kelley said rarely do all the members of a family leave at the same time. “I’ve never met a family who came intact." And that is their “greatest point of shame: they had to leave their children behind,” said Kelley.

Asked about their income during the first year of working in the United States, 67 percent reported salaries under the poverty line. "This is just another sacrifice women make when they come to America," Bendixen said.

Another hurdle is discrimination. 82% of Latin American women said that discrimination is "a major problem." During the panel discussion, moderator and Executive Vice President of the National Organization for Women Olga Vives emphasized that the poll shows "it's not just a perception, there's real hostility."

Panelists agreed that both the kind of jobs Latinos have, the exposure they have at them and news media coverage of immigration are key to this issue of discrimination and hostility.

For Kelley, media coverage frames immigrants as criminals and is driven by “cable news networks on the right.” She also emphasized the uptick in hate groups during the last few years, having "immigrants in their eyeballs."

Though the poll results showed that discrimination rates is less of a problem for Asian immigrants than for Latinos, Karen Narasaki, President and Executive Director of the Asian American Justice Center said the results "might have underestimated the issue," if women polled within this community gave different responses to the questions. "When we ask them if they have been discriminated, they say no, but if we ask if they have been treated differently at work, for example, then the response is different," Narasaki added.

Language is the other big issue. A total of 64 percent of those polled said they spoke "little or no English." “As a nation, we don't have a policy of integration, but if immigrants are becoming professionals and getting better jobs, it's only because they are improving their language capabilities," Kelley said.

Narasaki pointed out that it is not only difficult to learn a second language as an adult, but that most of these classes are oversubscribed, with some two-year waiting lists. According to the study, 63% of Latin American and 68% of Chinese women have attended English-language classes.

But when immigrants cannot go beyond basic language skills, it becomes an obstacle. According to the poll, 40% of immigrant women from Latin America and significant percentages from other regions do not have health insurance. Most are unaware of public health programs that could help their children receive medical assistance.

The aspirations of immigrant women are remarkably similar as 90 percent of Vietnamese, Arab, and Latin American women all said they want to become U.S. citizens. However, there are disparities in legal status among the ethnic groups. Asians, for example, naturalize faster because immigration laws allow them to bring in more relatives. Only 46 percent of Latino women polled are U.S. citizens. The increased cost to obtain citizenship has made the prospect of becoming an American more even difficult, especially in a recession.

"This reminds us that immigration is an economic issue. You cannot have 7 million workers in the shadows," Kelley said. Most times, naturalization process is delayed because of the costs of applying for it.

Among other findings the poll showed that their roles change within their households. The overwhelming majority—Latin American (81%), Chinese (71%), Vietnamese (68%), African (66%) and Arabic (53%)—said they had become more assertive at home and in public after coming to the United States.

"We cannot assume that they are submissive back in their countries. They come from smaller towns where you are very close to your family, they want to make sure everyone is okay. And when they get here, they also want to make sure they have a better living. Sometimes they face domestic violence, but that also happens here in the United States," said Silvia Henriquez, Executive Director for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health.

Kelley also concluded that one of the important things about the survey is that immigrants share the same traditional values as the rest of Americans. “It’s not necessarily known,” said Kelley. She felt that the survey was very important for this very reason -- to help Americans understand that immigrants share the same values and commitment to building families.

"Families are the safety net of Americans in times of recession," said Sandy Close, Executive Director of New America Media. "It's not just about jobs, houses or meals. It's about the family."

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