MIAMI — Close your eyes and imagine what an immigrant looks like.
For many years, conventional wisdom would have painted a picture of a man with limited education or skills, living alone in the United States, working to send money back home to his family.
But recent research suggests that conventional wisdom is missing the mark.
Data suggest that half of U.S. immigrants are women, and they are facing radically different challenges than those which confronted their male counterparts of decades past. They are keeping their families intact and raising children while taking on the traditionally male role of provider. And against many odds, they are succeeding.
New America Media, a nonprofit coalition of ethnic media outlets around the country, funded the survey of 1,102 women immigrants from Latin America (including Haiti), Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
Sergio Bendixen of Bendixen and Associates conducted the study and presented the results at a roundtable discussion July 13 at Miami’s John S. and James L. Knight Foundation headquarters.
About 25 women’s and immigrant rights advocates attended, and discussed ways the results could help address the day-to-day problems immigrants face.
Breaking with the old immigration narrative of families split by distance, 90 percent of the women interviewed in the study said they lived with their husbands and children in the same household—at a time when a third of all U.S. households are led by single parents.
With the notable exception of Africans in the study, 100 percent of whom had some command of English, most respondents spoke little to no English, but had enrolled at least once in classes to learn.
In a surprising turn, the majority of the women who had worked in their home countries described their former positions as skilled or professional.
About 5 percent of Latinos, 26 percent of Africans and 50 percent of Asian Indian respondents said they had earned graduate degrees in their home countries, but still, their first U.S. jobs yielded an average monthly income of $500.
“This combats the negative stereotype of the male, criminal immigrant,” panelist Cheryl Little of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center said. Others agreed.
Respondents’ stateside jobs included positions such as hotel maids, waitresses, house cleaners and textile workers. The data indicates that women immigrants are willing to forego professional status for the well-being of their families. In fact, despite economic hardships, half of all respondents said their biggest challenge was not money; it was helping their children achieve success.
“This is hard data that will be useful in serving an undercounted, often misrepresented community,” said Gepsie Metellus, who also sat on the panel of experts.
Metellus is executive director of Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center, a resource and referral service center in Miami’s Little Haiti.
“These women are the deciders of family policy, in terms of finances, healthcare and being loud advocates for their children,” Metellus said.
Immigrant women’s new position of breadwinner has helped elevate their roles in their homes. Almost one third of those surveyed said they assumed head-of-household responsibilities or shared the decision-making with their husbands, and a great majority—73 percent of total respondents—said they had become more assertive, both at home and in public, since coming to America.
Marleine Bastien, founder of Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami (FANM), or Haitian Women of Miami, a long-standing Miami advocacy organization, confirmed this result.
“I am hearing less and less from women, ‘I have to ask my husband.’ There is a change in the level of confidence,” Bastien said.
Bastien mentioned a radio program to combat domestic violence which she organized in 1991.
“We had angry callers—women!—insisting that a man had the right to beat a woman, that a woman must submit. But recently, a group of community women organized their own anti-violence campaign, and brought along men to participate,’’ Bastien said. “They asked the men what they would do to stop this problem together.”
More than ever, she said, immigrant women are setting their own political agendas.
The disparities continue to be very serious. Some 40 percent of Latin American respondents had no health insurance, and high percentages of the rest were unaware of public health programs that would help insure their children.
Discrimination against immigrants is also on the rise, the women said. At 86 percent, Latin American respondents reported higher levels of discrimination than even Arabic respondents (43 percent). Latin American women have also experienced the greatest number of immigration raids on their communities, according to the study.
Immigration enforcement is now the fastest-growing area of incarceration, Little informed the group. She shared stories of women apprehended by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and separated from their children for months and sometimes years.
“These women fight like heck even when the cards are stacked against them, even in the face of deportation. They never stop fighting to keep their families together,” she said.
Several attendees called for greater trust between immigrant communities and law enforcement. Others focused on economics. With the economy still in a downturn, women, particularly immigrant women in low-skill positions, are losing their jobs at an alarming rate. Besides more job training, particularly computer training, several of the women called for broader education.
Immigrant women want to know their workers’ rights, said Alyce Gowdy Wright, who works with panelist Lida Rodriguez-Tasseff, co-founder of South Florida
Jobs with Justice, an organization that fights for workers’ rights and immigrants’ rights.
“They want to be educated on reproductive health, they want to learn how to engage with the decision-makers downtown. They want access,” Gowdy Wright said.
In spite of the obstacles, the poll showed immigrant women are an upwardly mobile group. After an initial few years of hardship, the majority of respondents from India, Africa and China now earn over $2,000 a month, and Latin American respondents earn over $1,000. They are also the major champions in their households for citizenship.
Panelists promised to arrange follow-up sessions to collaborate and mark progress on immigrant issues.
“We also need to listen,” added Bastien. “Let immigrant women tell us their stories.”