Thousands of children are being detained at the US-Mexico border. The travel ban initiated by Trump last year has been ruled constitutional by the United States Supreme Court, barring entry to the US for nationals of certain countries. Emergency talks on the subject of migration were held in Brussels just last week, and the UK anxiously awaits the publication of Theresa May’s immigration plan, which was initially expected in the Autumn but has since been moved forward to the end of July because of its pressing nature. The modern world is gripped once again by an issue that has existed for as long as humans have inhabited the earth: immigration.
It is almost impossible to open a newspaper or turn on the television without seeing a headline reporting on an issue related to immigration. History shows us that there has always (with a select number of exceptions) been some level of animosity between the ‘native’ people and the newcomers, but the response to migrants has not always been as extreme as it is today. The increasingly reactionary and drastic actions of lawmakers, public figures, and media outlets can likely be traced to the growing power of the far right and severe polarization of most western societies. Racism and xenophobia obviously play a significant part in the behaviour of people toward migrants; this article will not attempt to claim otherwise. But the treatment of immigrants is a complex issue– it is important to consider intersectionality when examining issues of immigration. A closer look reveals that immigration is, and always has been, a feminist issue.
In 2000, Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo pioneered the idea that there was a connection between feminism and immigration, in a paper for American Academy of Political and Social Science. In the United States, there was a hiatus in immigration between the years 1930 and 1970, but during the 70s there was a large influx of migrant movement not just from Europe (as previous migrations had been), but from Asia and South America. Immigrants became ingrained in the fabric of America, settling not just in cities but in suburban areas where previous immigrant populations had been relatively low. The 70s were also an integral period for the feminist movement– the ‘second wave’ was just beginning, which focused not just on legal rights for women but also on social liberties. The simultaneous occurrence of two massive cultural shifts encouraged Hondagneu-Sotelo to consider how the two interacted. Her research showed that the feminist movement actually helped to revolutionize immigration data collection; before the 70s and 80s women were left completely out of studies tracking migration. Including women in this research revealed the gendered nature of immigration– case studies with Mexican immigration to the United States found that fathers and sons were often afforded more freedom in their positions when they arrived because they had more connections in the ‘public sphere.’ Mothers and daughters however, were not given permission or family resources to immigrate like their male counterparts. Recruitment programs also encouraged men to immigrate and take on labour jobs, which women were not permitted to fill.
Sotelo’s research, though nearly 20 years old, still has echos in today’s migrant situations. Though the occupational sex segregation has lessened, the vast majority of work visas in the United States and the UK are still given to men. In the United States, though women and children consist of 3⁄4 of the immigrant population, 70% of the visas they hold are family visas. This happens because work visas are issued to those in desirable fields, usually ones that are heavily male (such as STEM). These men then become the petitioners for their families. Not only does this practice enforce the public sphere/private sphere divide that feminists have fought so hard to abolish, but it also means that women in their home countries waiting to immigrate cannot work or they risk being seen as ‘independent’ and not in need of a petitioner. When they arrive in the US they are still classed as dependent- Vivek Wadhwa of Stanford Law School even went to far as to argue that ‘the women in Saudi Arabia have more rights than the spouses, the wives of H-1B visa workers.’This position of complete dependency not only limits women’s career options, but also places them in a position of extreme vulnerability to abuse by husbands with total financial power.
The problems with legal immigration are enough to demonstrate the strong and vital connection that feminist causes have to immigrant communities, but the issues surrounding undocumented female immigrants are perhaps even more dire. Usually, female citizens of a nation are accorded certain rights– they are protected under the law from assault and abuse, they can seek and will be provided with medical care in emergencies, and in the cases where they are permitted to work outside the home, they have protections from exploitation. Women who enter countries illegally (many of whom are fleeing abusive or unlivable situations in their home countries, or who were moved unwillingly as trafficking victims), have none of those rights. 1 in 4 women in the UK have experienced some kind of domestic violence, and migrant women experience it at an even higher rate than this. ‘Hostile’ governmental policies put in place to control undocumented immigration frighten women away from seeking help- in many cases to report abuse would be to risk deportation, not just for herself, but for her children also. Migrant women are trapped in marriages that often already have an unfair power balance (as discussed above), and government policy makes sure that they remain trapped. This same fear keeps them from using emergency services for themselves or their children, which can lead to severe untreated health problems and even death. It also leaves them open to exploitation by employers, specifically in domestic areas. 85% of undocumented domestic workers in the US said that they would rather handle the wages well below the legal minimum, the long hours, and the lack benefits than complain about their exploitation and risk their status being used against them.
Being a woman and being an immigrant does not necessarily always mean this level of oppression. For example, a white, middle class American like me faced almost none of the struggles documented in this article when I applied for my visa. But the plight of women in less privileged positions cannot be ignored. When I discussed this article with my friends and family, many of them were skeptical. How can immigration, an issue many associate purely with race and nationality also be a feminist cause? But closer examination reveals that it is perhaps one of the most important causes to female empowerment today. In addition to recognising the desperate need for immigration reform to end the unjust treatment of migrant women, it is also crucial recognise the need to look at issues like immigration from a multitude of perspectives. For example, immigration is more than just riddled with racial and gender inequality- it is also an issue that should be central to the LGBT cause (an entire article could be written about the homophobic spousal visa laws alone). No issue, especially one as big as immigration, is simple. And without a complete understanding of the problems, it is incredibly difficult to try to find the answers.
Take action to fight sexist immigration policies by contacting your local MP to tell them how important this issue is. To find your MP check here: https://www.parliament.uk/mps-lords-and-offices/mps/
You can also help by donating or volunteering for charities that work to help migrant women such as: http://www.refugeewomen.co.uk/