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The story of migration is no longer a man’s story. It is increasingly becoming a woman’s tale, according to “Women Immigrants: Stewards of the 21st Century,” a new poll by New America Media. Immigrant women are taking charge in keeping their families together. At a time when more than one-third of families in the United States are single-parent households, 90 percent of women immigrants interviewed report that their families are intact, according to NAM Executive Director Sandy Close.
The story of migration, as it has traditionally been told, has been a masculine epic. But in the latter part of the 20th century, as women began immigrating to America in ever-growing numbers, the migration story became increasing a woman’s tale as well. Women are now on the move, as much as men. But their narrative is different from that of their male predecessors -– they are migrating not as lone individuals but as members, even heads, of families, determined to keep family bonds intact even as they travel great distances and adapt to new cultures.
Until the last half of the 20th century, there was a great gender imbalance, with males predominating in the migrant stream. Today, this balance has shifted to the point that women actually comprise half or more of the immigrants entering this country. Equally dramatic, women now make up more than half of the migrant population worldwide.
What our poll finds is that women are an integral part of the epic global event of the 20th century, traveling alongside men in the great migration from village to city, from home country to America. This journey, in stages, has activated women. Uprooted from the village, resettled in the city, they were not about to let the male leave in the name of preserving family, only to fracture the family unit with his absence. In growing numbers, women decided to cross oceans and borders also, either to join the male once he had settled, or to move (and thereby preserve) the entire family as a unit.
The result has been a transformation in the nature of the migration narrative itself. Immigration, long viewed by Americans through the Horatio Alger lens of self-discovery and reinvention, as seen through the eyes of women immigrants is a communal endeavor, driven by an imperative to hold family structures together. When women come to America, they come as wives and as mothers.
Ma Joad may have said it best in the early chapters of “The Grapes of Wrath,” John Steinbeck’s fictional account of the great domestic migration from the devastated Dust Bowl states to the promise of California, when she announced that if ailing Grandpa Joad wasn’t joining the family on the move to California, then no one was going. The family traveled together.
Today’s migration, we know, increasingly occurs from city to city. The story that has not been told is the story of the woman immigrant in that stream. This poll is an effort to capture her narrative, and what becomes clear in the responses -– many to questions that seemed on their face to have nothing to do with family per se -– is that the gold thread giving meaning to her life is family stewardship.
As the poll demonstrates, it’s a goal at which she has been remarkably successful. Some 90 percent of women immigrants interviewed (30 percent of whom are undocumented) report their family units are intact –- their husbands live with them, and their children were either born here or have joined them in this country. The accomplishment has required women immigrants to overcome formidable barriers -– the language barrier (more than 60 percent of Latin American, Vietnamese, Korean, and Chinese immigrant women still say they have not mastered the English language), anti-immigrant discrimination, lack of health care, and low-paying jobs well below the status of professional jobs many of them held in home countries.
In meeting these challenges as they settle into America, many of these women are also radically altering their roles in their private lives. While few may have fit the image of submissive women in their home countries to begin with, almost one-third report having assumed head-of-household responsibilities now that they are here, and share equally with their husbands in making decisions from household finances to more intimate concerns like family planning.
Almost all reported success in increasing their income levels (some dramatically more than others, reflecting differences in education levels), which suggests skillful navigation of the public life and labor market in America.
These shifts in household politics mark another break from the past, when it was often men who migrated from the village and sent money back from the city, or from a foreign job. Today, as women have “left” the village, they have also brought the village with them. In their new city, they are the ones who are keeping the family intact –- acting as the public voice and face of the family, ensuring the health and education of the children and their entrance into the new society.
The most telling indicator of their role as family stewards is the fact that women say they are the main drivers in their families when it comes to seeking citizenship. It is women who are changing the meaning of migration from economic to civic; women who are the key figures in determining whether or not the new immigrant populations will find themselves (both literally and figuratively) “at home” in the American city in a lasting way. Underscoring the centrality of family as the motivation for making a permanent home in a new country, women immigrants named “securing family stability” as the primary motivator in their pursuit of citizenship.
A second reason, some said, is to vote in elections. In the 21st century, the face of the immigrant is that of a mother. The women polled for this survey reveal that they came to the United States not in search of “streets paved with gold” -- making money was surprisingly low on the list of priorities throughout the survey -– but because they saw the United States as a place to build better futures for their children, and to make permanent homes for their families.
At a moment when more than one-third of families in the United States are single parent headed households, 90 percent of them are raising their children in intact marriages. At a time of unprecedented economic and social turmoil in the larger society –- when both familial and economic stability seem more elusive and more intertwined than ever -– women immigrants clearly have much to teach and much to offer the country where they seek to make a family home.