The Changing Face of Immigration to America: The Story of the Woman Migrant as Today’s Newcomer

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. (New America Media)

(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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