The Changing Face of Immigration to America

The Story of the Woman Migrant as Today’s Newcomer

New America Media, Commentary, Angela Kelley Posted: Jul 14, 2009

Traducción al español

Editor's Note: When Congress begins debating immigration reform -- likely to happen later this year -- it should look into who today's immigrants are and how they adapt to American culture and see their future in their adopted land, writes NAM contributor Angela Kelley.

WASHINGTON – Recent statements by President Barack Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi indicate a strong likelihood that congressional debate on immigration will begin later this year. Concern about immigrants’ integration into U.S. culture is a longstanding tension from past debates that will undoubtedly resurface. Fears that immigrants in modern day America are different and lack commitment to assimilate are pervasive and permeate much of the discussion both inside and outside the Beltway.

Yet, often missing from the debate is an understanding of who today’s immigrants are and how they adapt to American culture and see their future in this new homeland.

New public opinion research by New America Media (NAM), a consortium of more than 2,500 ethnic media outlets nationwide, provides valuable insights into today’s newcomers and their transformation to new Americans.

The U.S. Census data show that more than half of immigrants to the United States are women. And research by the Pew Hispanic Center finds that most immigrants live in families with children.

NAM interviewed over 1,000 immigrant women from Latin American, Asian, Arab and African countries, asking in-depth question about their daily lives, their roles in their families, and how their roles have changed since immigrating to the United States. They interviewed both women who arrived relatively recently (less than 10 years) and those who have lived here longer than 20 years. When asked why they chose to come to America in the first place, the women’s answers were perhaps not surprising. The majority responded that they came to the United States to join family members already here — 90 percent of respondents live with their husbands and children — or to make a better life for their children.

What some might find surprising is the power of American culture and its influence on the newcomer women. For example, 73 percent of immigrant women consider themselves more assertive in America than they had been in their home countries, and 33 percent of women immigrants consider themselves the head of their household, up from 18 percent in their home countries. Fifty-seven percent of these women also report that many of their responsibilities in the United States are handled by men in their home countries: 82 percent indicated that they share family financial decisions with their husbands or handle them by themselves, and 91 percent indicated a similarly proactive role in family planning.

These findings suggest that American culture, which permits women relative independence and influence in their life direction and that of their families—certainly in comparison to many countries where today’s immigrants come from — reaches and transforms America’s female newcomers.

The research also provides insights into immigrant women’s economic roles. A majority of immigrant women from China, Korea, the Philippines, India, Africa and Arab countries describe their last job in their home country as “professional.” The research found however that a substantial percentage of them do not initially find comparable employment in the United States and instead end up in low skill positions in hotels and restaurants, or as domestic and textile workers. Why would these women leave positions as nurses to become nannies? The answer lies in their motivation for coming to America in the first place — they sacrifice their own status for their families’ future. The good news is that they climb quickly back up the economic ladder. Almost all reported success in increasing their income levels—some dramatically more than others, reflecting differences in education levels. This suggests that immigrant women are successfully managing themselves in America’s demanding workplaces.

Women will have an enormous impact on their integration process because they drive their families’ transformation from newcomer to new American. This is perhaps best understood in their powerful motivation to engage in America’s civic life. Over 90 percent of women arriving from Latin America, Vietnam and Arab countries want their families to become citizens. They cite “securing family stability” as the number one reason for pursuing citizenship, followed by wanting to participate in the electoral process.

These findings suggest that as policymakers consider a new course on immigration and immigrant integration, their strongest allies may be the fiercely focused women motivated by their love of family to make America their home.

Angela Kelley, the daughter of immigrant parents, is vice president for Immigration Policy and Advocacy for the Center for American Progress, a think-tank based in Washington, D.C. and the former director of the Immigration Policy Center—the research arm of the American Immigration Law Foundation.

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User Comments

Jsmith on Jul 16, 2009 at 05:13:29 said:

Good article. Well written and interesting, but I have a question.

You report, "more than half of immigrants to the United States are women" and "90 percent of respondents live with their husbands and children". It seems to me that the math doesn't add up here, or I am not understanding something. It seems to me that if a woman and her kids join her husband -- all immigrants -- then over half of the immigrants, statistically, can't be women.

Perhaps these women marrying Americans? Unfortunately, with no explanation I must resort to guesswork which gets us nowhere.

Ed on Jul 14, 2009 at 15:07:36 said:

Rather then trying to make Immigrant assimilate, perhaps US government needs to consider adding the words 'Acculturate' or 'Integrate' to their dictionaries.

Immigrants do not need to assimilate to contribute to the American economy. Expecting them to fully assimilate is slavery and not effectively getting the most out of the who concept of immigrants. America needs fresh new ideas for the economy.

Immigrants interests have never been properly represented. Their love for America will be decided on how America treats them.

Assimilated immigrants are still treated as second class citizens and yes they are paid much lower than white Americans.

Aaron on Jul 14, 2009 at 12:55:06 said:

I don't think the author is trying to suggest whom we should allow to immigrate to the US on an individual basis. Most people who immigrate to this country either join family members or come through a job (I'm not talking about refugees/asylees and others who come due to extreme circumstances in their home countries) - gender plays no role in that process at all, and I highly doubt it will come to play a role.
But I think this article gives important context for the broader debate on immigration. There's a lot of xenophobia towards certain classes of immigrants - they're often perceived as taking our jobs, refusing to learn English, refusing to assimilate, ungrateful to all America gives them, etc... My favorite is when people say "but my parents/grandparents came here legally - why can't everyone else just wait in line like they did?" The fact is, the rules have changed - that may be a lot longer than it was 40 years ago, and may not exist at all for a huge number of people who want to come to the US. My father was an immigrant, and he only waited a year for his visa. Now, he'd probably have to wait more like 10 or 15 years. That's a long time to wait if you're being persecuted in your home country, or your country doesn't have any jobs or food...
The point is, in addition to seeing a change in how we implement our immigration laws, we're also seeing a change in who is coming into this country. I don't think this article is saying that we should admit more women because they're women - I think the article is using women to illustrate the misperceptions about immigrants. And if we're going to have a debate about modifying our immigration system, we owe it to ourselves and potential immigrants to understand as well as possible the trends in who is immigrating to this country.

Helen on Jul 14, 2009 at 09:01:46 said:

Thank you for allowing me to comment.

I read with great interest of the story, \\\"Woman migrant as a newcomer\\\" and I highly commend the articles on your website.
The facts are very interesting.
I am an immgrant woman( a single mother) from the South Pacific - Fiji Islands and I moved to the USA in Feb of 2008 with my 19 year old daughter.

Are there any success stories, statistics, progress or any information at all of
Pacific Islanders namely Fijians, Indo-Fijians, Tongans & Samoans in your database?

CONGRATULATIONS!!!Keep up the great & excellent work at New
America Media.

Halibut on Jul 14, 2009 at 08:10:46 said:

This article exemplifies the problem with immigration reform. Is the author suggesting that we should consider someone's gender when considering them a good candidate for immigration? Are we to consider the immigrant's wishes and motivations when consdiering them as a good candidate for immigration? Fact is, when considering who should or should not be allowed to immigrate, we should consider what is best for the U.S. and it citizens. Whether or not an individual is motivated, regardless of gender, should play a minimum role in the decision.




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