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Poll: Female Immigrants Confront Barriers, Become More Assertive

By  Aliah D. Wright  7/9/2009
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Female immigrants found incredible obstacles after coming to the United States but noted they were more empowered here than they’d been in their home countries. So says a recent poll conducted by Bendixen & Associates and released by New America Media.

The poll reveals that many female immigrants (79 percent of them from Latin American countries, 73 percent from Vietnam, 70 percent from Korea and 63 percent from China) said that in addition to speaking little or no English, they were discriminated against, lacked health care coverage and were paid less—far less than what they earned professionally in their home countries.

Angela Kelley, vice president for immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, told New America Media: “As a nation, we don't have a policy of integration, but if immigrants are becoming professionals and getting better jobs, it's only because they are improving their language capabilities.”

Sixty-four percent of those polled said they spoke “little or no English.”

Attaining Assertiveness

“The poll establishes that in the latter part of the 20th century women immigrated to America in ever-growing numbers and are now on the move as much as men, but often [they] face vastly different circumstances and challenges," Sandy Close, executive director of New America Media, said in a statement. “Women 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,” Close said. “This journey has activated women."

Many female immigrants saw dramatic shifts in their roles once they began living here, according to the poll report, Women Immigrants: Stewards of the 21st Century Family. Almost a third reported they are now the heads of their households, sharing equally with their spouses in planning families and in financial concerns. What’s more, the poll revealed that immigrating to the United States had empowered women. They said they were now more assertive within and outside of their households than they had been in their home countries.

“Women immigrants reveal that they came to America not in search of streets paved with gold—making money was surprisingly low on their list of priorities—but because they saw the U.S. as a place to build better futures for their children and to make permanent homes for their families,” Close said. “At a time when more than one-third of U.S. families are single-parent households, 90 percent of women immigrants are raising children in intact marriages.”

Other findings:

           Many female immigrants lack health insurance coverage (40 percent from Latin America). Most were unaware of public health programs that would allow their children to receive medical assistance, the release states.

           Most of the female immigrants who are African (67 percent), Chinese (49 percent), Korean (73 percent), Asian Indian (65 percent) and Filipinos (60 percent) classified their last job in their home countries as "professional." However, the study showed, most of them haven’t been able to find comparable employment in the United States. Many were willing to feed their families by working in the U.S. as waitresses, textile workers, factory technicians and domestic servants.

           More Latin American women (82 percent) found discrimination to be a major problem for their families, compared to 17 percent for women from African and Arab countries and 13 percent for those from China, the poll found. However, 90 percent of the Latin American women did want to become American citizens.

           When asked to name the biggest challenge they faced as female immigrants in America, half cited helping their children achieve success and maintaining family cohesion rather than economic hardships.


“I found it striking that the data from this historic poll parallels my mother's own experience in bringing me and my brothers to the United States from Japan in the mid-1950s—her desire to build better futures for us; her early low-paying, no benefits jobs; her determination to keep the family together as head-of-household,” Rep. Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii, a member of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus’ (CAPAC) executive board, stated in the release. “This survey shows a real need for key decision-makers—on all levels of government and in the private sector—to support public policy that improves the quality of life for these women and their families.”

More than 1,100 women from Latin America, Vietnam, China, Korea, India, Africa, the Philippines and Arab countries were polled. The poll had a margin of error of 3 percentage points. It was funded in part by grants to New America Media and the Atlantic Philanthropies, Carnegie Corp., Ford Foundation and the Evelyn & Walter Haas Jr. Fund and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Despite working initially for very low wages, immigrant women report that their current salaries are more than double what they earned in their first job in the United States. “The majority of immigrant women from Korea, India, Africa and China currently earn more than $2,000 per month, an impressive salary increase, especially given the host of obstacles they overcame in order to achieve it,” the study states.

Aliah D. Wright is an online editor/manager for SHRM. Reach her via e-mail or tweet with her @1SHRMScribe.

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