Migration to the United States Research Paper

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Despite the overwhelming presence of women in migration flows, and statistical data gathering on the migration of women as well as men, until recently the gender aspects of migration had been totally neglected and the pervasive assumption was that the international migrant is a young, economically motivated male. However, legal immigration to the United States—still very much the largest of all international flows—was dominated by women for most of the twentieth century. For the United States a crossover in sex differentials in migration occurred in 1930, after which women have annually outnumbered men (Houstoun et al. 1984) with the sole exception of a couple of years after the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) in 1986 that granted amnesty to illegals. As demographers, Houstoun et al. highlighted this glaring neglect for the discipline of sociology, just as Seller (1975) had highlighted it for the field of history. After these various calls, attention began to be paid to women and migration until the topic has now mushroomed and we are beginning to develop what Stacey and Thorne (1985, pp. 305–6) called a gendered understanding of all aspects of human culture—one that traces ‘the significance of gender organization and relations in all institutions and in shaping men’s as well as women’s lives’ that leads to a fuller understanding of the causes, processes, and consequences of migration.

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Such a gendered understanding should elucidate those aspects of the process of migration which were neglected by the exclusive focus on men. As Tilly (1989) underscored, bringing women into the humanities and the social sciences takes place in stages: first, by filling in the gaps in knowledge resulting from their absence; second, by transforming the conceptual and theoretical frameworks of their disciplines.

The study of immigration is by its very nature interdisciplinary. A natural division of labor has arisen whereby sociologists attend most to contemporary immigration flows (the Latin American and Asian), historians are concerned with past flows (the Southern and Eastern European), and anthropologists observe the impact of emigration and return on sending communities in underdeveloped nations. Within sociology, much research on women has filled in gaps and yielded new insights and directions, but until recently the field itself had undergone little transformation. Traditionally, sociology was neither totally male-defined, as history of literature, nor basically gender-sensitive, as anthropology. Stacey and Thorne (1985) judged that the feminist contributions to sociology were contained by the delimiting capacity of functionalism to explain male–female differences; of empiricism to treat gender as a variable, rather than as a central theoretical concept; of Marxist sociology to ghettoize it; and by the underdevelopment of feminist theory itself.

Striving to contribute to a gendered understanding of the social process of migration, this research paper has been organized according to these major issues. How is gender related to the decision to migrate? What are the patterns of labor market incorporation of women immigrants? What is the relationship of the public and the private?

1. The Decision To Migrate

1.1 Micro and Macro Linkages

The underlying assumption in studies of migration has been that of the male pauper—a single or married man who seeks to amass capital with which to return to his native country. The corollary assumption has been that it is men who typically make the decision to migrate and women follow to create or reunite a family, generating secondary movements (cf. Lee 1966, Houstoun et al. 1984).

In sociology, the traditional, individual micro approach was best developed by Lee’s (1966) theory that focused on the individual migrant’s decision to migrate—the ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors that hold or attract people, as well as the intervening obstacles (distance, physical barriers, immigration laws, cost), the influence of personal traits (stage in the life cycle, contact with earlier migrants), and the effect of transitions (marriage or retirement).

More recently, the structural, macro approach to the study of migration developed as the link between migration and world patterns of unequal development increasingly became evident as North America continued to attract the world’s poor and in Western Europe the periphery countries of Spain, Italy, Greece, and Turkey became suppliers of labor to the industrialized core countries of France, Germany, and Switzerland. The structural perspective argued that a system of economic migration had developed from the flow of labor between developed and underdeveloped nations due to the functions that this system of labor migration performed (cf. Castells 1975, Burawoy 1976, Portes 1978, Pedraza-Bailey 1985), providing host countries, such as the United States or France, with a dependable source of cheap labor, while also providing the countries of emigration, such as Mexico or Turkey, with a ‘safety valve’ for the discontent of their poor and lower-middle classes. Though this perspective largely ignored the gendered aspects of migration, some analysts, such as Fernandez-Kelly’s (1983) indepth study of the maquilladora industries in the US-Mexican border, emphasized its gender-specific nature. Most undocumented aliens working the fields of the US continued to be men, while most of those working in the export-manufacturing plants along the Mexican border were women.

The danger of the structural emphasis, however, lies in its tendency to lose sight of the individual migrants who do make decisions. The theoretical and empirical challenge now facing immigration research inheres in its capacity to capture both individuals as agents, and social structure as delimiting and enabling. Such a link between micro and macro levels of analysis has developed through studies of gender and family as well as on social networks. Massey et al. (1987), in Return to Aztlan, their analysis of Mexican migration to the US, showed that while international migration originates historically in transformations of social and economic structures in sending and receiving societies, once begun, migration comes to fuel itself. As migrants’ social networks grow and develop, families make migration part of their survival strategies and individual motivations, household strategies, and community structures are altered by migration, making further migration more likely. In Between Two Islands (1991), Grasmuck and Pessar’s analysis of contemporary migration from the Dominican Republic to New York City (the two islands), also emphasized that the household is the social unit which makes decisions as to whether migration will take place, who in the family will migrate, what resources will be allocated to the migration, what remittances will be sent back, whether or not family members will return back home, and whether the migration will be temporary or permanent. All of these decisions are guided by normatively prescribed kinship and gender roles as well as by the hierarchy of power within the household, decision-making that often betrays enormous interpersonal conflict (cf. Hondagneu-Sotelo 1994), but which also constitutes a family strategy to meet the challenges that accompany economic and political transformation in the Third World.

2. The Demographic Composition of the Migration Flow

Emigration is a process experienced differently by women and men; hence, it can be sex-selective and also forms sex imbalances, both in the old country and the new (Parr 1987). Examining international migration patterns shows that women have predominated among immigrants to Argentina, Israel, and the US, and constitute an increasing share of migrants in areas such as West Africa and the Persian Gulf states (Tyree and Donato 1986). Examining internal migration patterns shows that whereas in Africa and South Asia men predominate in migration to the cities and women remain in rural areas to farm the land, in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Philippines, most migrants to cities are women (e.g., Khoo et al. 1984, Lee 1989, Hojman 1989, Gugler 1989), contrasts that depend on the land tenure and agricultural production arrangements. Moreover, government policy can create imbalanced migration flows by legally restricting the migration of men or women (e.g., Wilkinson 1983).

Flows of migration that are dominated by men require that we consider ‘the woman’s side’ when the women themselves are left behind in the communities. For example, Brettell’s (1988) analysis of the longstanding male emigration from Portugal to Brazil and Spain in the late ninteenth and twentieth centuries showed the impact of the emigration on the matricentric characteristics of the way of life in this area. Households adjusted to the centuries of absence of men by becoming female-headed, often extended three-generation households, and, contrary to the Mediterranean pattern, patriuxorilocal, since grooms often moved in with the wife’s family. Moreover, the migration of men also affected the lives of women by promoting a delayed age at marriage and high rates of spinsterhood as well as illegitimacy, all of which bound the women more firmly to their families of origin.

Ultimately, the demographic composition of migration flows is important not only because its causes are various but also because it has consequences. In his comparative analysis of Italian and Jewish mobility in New York at the turn of the century, Kessner (1977) underscored that their patterns of social mobility depended on the varying composition of the migration flows. Newcomers that arrive as temporary migrants— as ‘birds of passage,’ in Piore’s (1979) phrase—work with the goal to return home, tolerating the most abysmal working conditions to accumulate capital for their investments back home. By contrast, permanent immigrants must make their future in the new land and cannot tolerate abysmal working conditions as temporary. Thus, they seek to attain social mobility in the new society, taking greater risks and making more long-term investments, such as setting up family businesses. The two types of migration are reflected in the demographic composition of the flows. Flows of temporary migrants, such as the Italian or the Mexican, are by and large non-family movements of men in the productive years who intend to make money and return home. By contrast, flows of permanent immigrants, such as the Jewish or Cuban, are characterized by the migration of families who intend to remake their lives and homes. It is quite common for flows of refugees—who leave their country in fear, seeking safety—to be initially dominated by women and children, as in the early years of both the Cuban and Indochinese exodus to the US, sex imbalance that, in the Cuban case, was thereafter reversed (Pedraza 1996). As refugees, women are particularly prone to victimization due to violence and indifference to their plight.

Diner (1983) studied a female-dominated flow of migration, that of Irish immigrant women in the nineteenth century. The Irish migration was ‘pushed’ by conditions that prevailed throughout much of Europe then—poverty, landlessness, and the social and economic dislocations that accompanied the transition from feudalism to capitalism (cf. Bodnar 1985), exacerbated by the Famine at mid-century. Coupled with the Irish system of single inheritance and single dowry, Ireland increasingly became the home of the unmarried and the late married. In Ireland, women no longer had realistic chances for marriage or employment; to attain either they had to turn their backs on the land of their birth. As the century wore on, the migration became basically a female mass movement. Hence, not just famine and poverty but what Jackson (1984, pp. 1007–8) called ‘the interlocking relationship of land-family-marriage’ caused the preponderance of women in the migration. As a consequence of land scarcity, both arranged marriages and the practice of dowries spread, and celibacy and late marriages rose. One escape from family and spinsterhood was for women to join a religious order; another was emigration. The usual kin chain migration became a female migratory chain.

3. The Incorporation of Women

3.1 Labor Force Participation

That immigration has a decided impact on the labor force participation of women is a central fact of immigration research. For example, in contrast to the very low rates of labor force participation of women in Cuba prior to the revolution, and Mexican and Puerto Rican women in the US, Cuban women immigrants in the United States have a very high rate of labor force participation (Perez 1988). Achieving the upward mobility of the Cuban family in the United States made women’s work necessary and broke with the traditional Cuban notion that a woman’s place is in the home, justifying the massive entrance of women into the labor force (Prieto 1987), employment that was not necessarily accompanied by a change in traditional values.

Numerous research studies have examined the labor market outcomes of immigrant women—the occupations and income they attained and the disadvantages reflected in different ‘payoffs’ to their characteristics. Most of these studies, however, suffered from the problem Stacey and Thorne identified as treating gender as a variable, rather than as a central theoretical principle.

3.2 Occupational Concentration

Like men, immigrant women became occupationally concentrated in particular types of occupations, by and large clustering in just a few of them. Typically, women work as domestic servants, sew for the garment industry, serve in small family businesses, or, most recently, work in highly skilled service occupations, such as nursing.

The major consequence of the predominantly female and single nature of the Irish migration in the nineteenth century was that the women overwhelmingly entered domestic service, an occupation in which there was a labor vacuum because other poor women did not want it since the expectation that they ‘live in’ interfered with their own family life. But they were able to amass impressive savings with which to bring other relatives over; to send remittances back home; to support their church; to secure an American marriage; and to finance the foundation for a small business or an education. Thus, Irish women experienced higher rates of social mobility than Irish men. Glenn’s (1986) study of three generations of Japanese Women in domestic service, Issei, Nisei, War Bride, depicted domestic service as one of the few occupations open to women of color in American history.

Yesterday’s immigrants, as well as today’s, became concentrated in the garment industry since it relied on a traditional skill that throughout much of the world defined womanhood; moreover, it relied on homework and subcontracting, allowing women to stay at home to care for their children. This advantage always led women to accept low wages and exploitative conditions (e.g., Howe 1976, Safa 1984, Sanchez-Korrol 1983, Lamphere 1987). In his study of the garment industry, Through the Eye of a Needle, Waldinger (1986) showed how New York became the leading center of the garment industry, its growth spurred by the arrival of an immigrant labor force—poor, industrious, and lacking in other skills—of Russian Jews and Italians. Since many of the Russian Jews had previously developed skills in the needle trades, garments quickly became the Jewish trade, though specialization was gendered as men worked on tailoring (coats and suits) while women worked on the lighter trade (dresses, undergarments, and children’s clothes). That same immigrant labor force is today Latin American and Asian.

Ethnic enterprise—the concentration of certain immigrant groups in small business—describes the immigrant experience of yesterday (Jews, Chinese, Italians, Greeks) as well as today (Koreans, Arabs, Chaldeans, Cubans) in the US. The unpaid family labor donated by women—wives, daughters, mothers, grandmothers—is a large part of what allows immigrants to amass profits and turn them into savings that are reinvested in the development and growth of family businesses. Thus, women’s contribution is the key to the success of these enterprises and to the achievement of the class position best described by the phrase la petite bourgeoisie.

Women immigrants also figure importantly as technicians, teachers, doctors, and nurses. Shin and Chang’s (1988) study of how Korean immigrant physicians are incorporated into the American medical profession found that women physicians were much more likely to immigrate to the US than men. Moreover, while all immigrant physicians were more likely to enter the peripheral specialties of American medicine, gender contributed significantly to that peripheralization.

4. The Public and the Private

Research on immigrant women has sought to chronicle both the private world of immigrant women and their families, as well as the contribution immigrant women made to the private sphere of other women’s families. Weinberg’s (1988) study of The World of Our Mothers (so deliberately a corrective to Howe’s (1976) The World of Our Fathers) on the Jewish immigrant experience in New York city at the turn of the century showed how the lives of Jewish immigrant women, centered on the domestic sphere, differed from the lives of men, defined by work and the synagogue. Moreover, immigrant women played a mediating role between the old world and the new. Immigration exposed daughters to the ways of a modern, secular world they were eager to accept. Mothers themselves clung to traditional, Orthodox ways. But within the family these women, who lived for and through others, played the role of mediators between fathers and daughters.

The labor that immigrant women donated as servants also contributed to the changing role of the housewife in America. Matthews (1987) pointed out that the cult of domesticity arose in the early to midnineteenth century among middle class and upper middle class women because the availability of domestic servants allowed time for the development of the arts of baking and needlework. While historically women had relied on other women as ‘help,’ and worked side by side with them on domestic chores, in the nineteenth century ‘domestic servants’ that required supervision replaced the ‘help’—a change that was facilitated by the increasing number of poor immigrant women coming to America. While in mid twentieth-century, American technology (dishwashers, microwaves, and the like) replaced the servants, at the century’s end, poor, immigrant women again began to serve as domestic servants as the dual career marriage now rendered it a necessity (cf. Repak 1994).

The deeply felt needs of immigrant women also found expression in their popular, religious tradition. In his analysis of the devotion Italian immigrants in New York poured onto The Madonna of 115th Street, Orsi (1985) underscored that while the Madonna came from Italy with the immigrants, and as such was a symbol to all Italians of nation, history, and tradition, above all she was a woman’s devotion as these women turned to the Madonna with petitions for help with the hardship and powerlessness of their lives. That private relation became public at the annual festa when both men and women participated as a com- munity that served to regenerate their national culture and to console them for the physical and spiritual trials of immigration.

5. Conclusion

In sum, gender plays a central role in the decision to migrate and the composition of the migration flows, composition which holds consequences for the subsequent form of immigrant incorporation. The experience of immigration also profoundly impacts the public and private lives of women—their labor force participation, their occupational concentration, their religiosity, their marital roles and satisfaction, and their autonomy and self-esteem. Hence, difficult as the experience of immigration was, it was often far more positive for women than for men, as it allowed women to break with traditional roles and patterns of dependence, join the labor force, and assert a newfound (if meager) freedom (cf. Foner 1978). Pessar (1984) studied Dominican women immigrants that had previously not worked in the Dominican Republic but went to work outside the home for the first time in the US. This change transformed the patriarchal roles in the household, heightened the women’s selfesteem, increased their income, as well as their capacity to participate as equals in household decision-making. However, employment did not provide women with a new status as working women that challenged or subordinated their primary identities as wives and mothers. Rather, it often reinforced these very identities, allowing women to redefine them in a more satisfying manner than prior to the migration.


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