How Immigration Reform Could Help Improve Women’s Economic Security


After a 82-15 vote, the Senate is poised to debate a major overhaul of the nation’s immigration system Tuesday. As immigration reform takes center stage, discussion about border security or DREAMers tends to dominate. Yet one ignored aspect of immigration reform is that a pathway to permanent residency or citizenship for immigrant women could help improve women’s economic security in the United States in the long term.

Immigrant women in the United States, sometimes undocumented or on temporary visas, are filling some of the fastest-growing and lowest-paying jobs, particularly in the care sector. Often immigrant women are brought to the United States to toil in private homes—on visas that tie them to their employer. As the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) noted in a paper earlier this year:

Immigrants on temporary work visas are subject to unethical employers who do not need to provide fair wages and good working conditions to retain immigrant employees. In some instances, workers who lack the freedom to change jobs experience violence, abuse, and even trafficking at the hands of employers.

Even though IWPR’s study focuses on in-home elder care workers, the themes their study discuss apply to many immigrant women workers in the United States.

RH Reality Check recently spoke with Fatima Cortessi, a 22-year-old woman who came to Washington, D.C., two years ago from her native Paraguay. Her contract with her husband-and-wife employers promised her $1,000 per month to clean, cook for, and care for the couple’s children. The couple had secured Cortessi a temporary business (B-1) visa.

But they wouldn’t always pay her. When she asked to be paid, Cortessi says she would receive $100 or $150 at a time. Cortessi says she worked from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. feeding the children and sending them to school, caring for the family dog, and cleaning the house. At 2 p.m. the children would come home from school and she’d care for them, cook for the family, and clean up after everyone. She’d be in bed by 9:30 or 10 p.m. every night, and she worked every weekend.

 She says she slept in the couple’s basement on a sofa, which she shared with the family dog.

After over a year of this employment situation, the couple said they couldn’t afford to pay her, so Cortessi began working for other families in the neighborhood. She began working for one local woman who spoke with RH Reality Check on the condition that she be referred to only as Jones. Jones noticed that Cortessi seemed unwell and learned about the mistreatment she experienced working for her former employers. “They can’t do this to you,” Jones said.

She told Cortessi about a local immigrant rights organization called Casa de Maryland, where attorney Sheena Wadhawan helped Cortessi sue for back wages. Wadhawan said Cortessi was owed upwards of $30,000, but she ultimately settled for $10,000 and focused on moving forward with her life.

We rarely think of immigration reform as being a solution to the economic disparities for women—which are unrelenting, as the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) pointed out in a study published last week. Released in time for the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act—legislation signed by President John F. Kennedy to combat wage discrimination—NWLC’s study notes that women’s wages continue to be fall below men’s in part because two-thirds of all minimum wage and tipped jobs are held by women, including many jobs in the care sector.

Immigration probably was not on President Kennedy’s radar when he signed the Equal Pay Act in 1963; the number of immigrants in the United States was far lower then than it is today. Yet today, immigrants are essential to understanding most demographic statistics in the United States. And if the growing number of home care workers who are underpaid and vulnerable to the whims of their employers cannot be granted legal status that enables their security, women’s collective economic status cannot improve.

The Center for American Progress noted earlier this year that a pathway to citizenship—not just legal status, but citizenship—can improve women’s incomes. Specifically they found that “citizenship [has been] associated with a statistically significant boost in the incomes of immigrants—an average of 16 percent (17.1 percent for women and 14.5 percent for men) in 2011.”

IWPR recommends that the United States increase the number of visas available to care workers as well as visas that allow for job mobility. This policy recommendation is also critical given the growing population of aging Americans and the increased demand for caregivers.It remains to be seen whether the forthcoming debate in Congress will tackle an increase in visas for home care workers—visas that could ensure women like Cortessi are paid fair wages and work in better conditions.

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