Women’s History Month is an opportunity to think about the long history of immigrant women in the United States. Immigrant women have made important contributions to arts, sciences, and politics in the United States for many years, from Chien-Shiung Wu, the only Chinese scientist to work on the Manhattan project¹, to Ilhan Omar, who fled Somalia with her family as a child and became one of the first two Muslim women in congress.²
Women have made up a significant part of the immigrant population for many years, now comprising slightly over half of the total US immigrant population.³ This is part of a broader trend of women migrating independently, often for work or education.⁴ Still, the majority of immigrant women who get green cards get them through family-based immigration.⁵
Family-based immigration is associated with both social and economic development.⁶ Once here, immigrant women plant roots and contribute to social stability—the average immigrant woman has lived in the US for 25 years, and the average undocumented woman has lived in the US for 16 years.⁷ Additionally, immigrant women are a significant portion of the invisible “care” economy.⁸
While family-based immigration is beneficial for the US economy and US immigrant communities, it leaves many immigrant women vulnerable.⁹ Their immigration status is dependent on a backlogged US immigration system, their relationship with a spouse or other family member, and a long wait for work authorization.¹⁰ A lack of independent income makes many immigrant women dependent on others materially as well as legally. This is especially problematic as immigrant women face disproportionate levels of domestic violence.¹¹
Immigrant women comprise 7% of the official US labor force.¹² Two-thirds earn what the American Immigration Council considers very low wages.¹³ However, official numbers only include documented immigrant women workers, and likely skew toward higher earning workers. Additionally, many undocumented women play important roles in the US labor force in an unofficial or “off the record” capacity that may exploit their legal and material precarity.¹⁴¹⁵
The US offers some legal protections that particularly benefit immigrant women. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) allows victims of abuse to file for a family-based visa based on their own.¹⁶ U Visas and T Visas provide victims of crime with immigration relief based on crimes including domestic violence, sexual assault, and sex trafficking.¹⁷¹⁸ However, U and T Visas place significant burdens on applicants, and VAWA only protects women (and men) related to US citizens or Lawful Permanent Residents (LPR)s.
Immigrant women make up a unique and important subgroup with its own issues that need to be considered by policymakers. Immigration and refugee law contains inadequate safeguards and a lack of specific provisions for women. For example, the US Refugee Act of 1980 doesn’t address gender, and advocates have been forced to argue for years that its protections extend to gender-based persecution. The omission of specific language has kept many women from qualifying as refugees.¹⁹²⁰ Instead, women asylum seekers are subject to political trends and the bias of individual judges.
Immigrant women have contributed greatly to American society and economy, despite disproportionate challenges and unfair treatment within the US immigration system. If you are interested in getting involved in pro bono legal assistance to such women, you can find opportunities through The Tahirih Justice Center, a national nonprofit that has served immigrant survivors fleeing gender-based violence since 1997.