Summary of a meeting with Nancy Foner, SUNY-Purchase; Donna Gabaccia, Univ. North Carolina; Min Zhou, UCLA; Dean Afaf Meleis, Univ. Pennsylvania; MarySue Heilemann, UCLA; Leslye Orloff, NOW LDEF; Marisa Demeo, Mexican-American LDEF; Sarah Gammage, Center for Environmental and Social Research for Sustainable Development; Joy Zarembka, Institute for Policy Studies - Break the Chain Campaign; Charity Wilson, AFL-CIO; Barbara Burton, GWU; Deborah Meyers, Migration Policy Institute; Wendy Young, Women's Commission for Refugee Women & Children; Marleine Bastien, Fanm Ayisyen; Karen Musalo, Hastings College of Law; Timothy Edgar, ACLU; the Honorable Noel Brennan, Board of Immigration Appeals; the Honorable Jeffrey Chase, NYC Immigration Court; Kristin Wells, House of Representatives Judiciary Committee

The Division of United States Studies and Migration Policy Institute conference brought together scholars, legislative policy-makers, judges, and activists to examine the social and legal challenges facing women immigrants in this country, and discuss steps for overcoming them. Five panels of distinguished speakers addressed and conversed with over 100 attendees.

A panel on the history of women immigrants in the U.S. and current demographics provided background for the day's discussion. Prof. Min Zhou of UCLA spoke about the trends in immigration demographics and, in what became a theme of the day, emphasized the extreme diversity of immigrants in this country: in countries of origin, predominantly in Asia and Latin America; socio-economic and educational backgrounds; and legal status. A growing proportion of immigrants to the U.S. are women, who more than in the past come to this country without their spouses and then face the triple burden of work, caring for their families in the U.S., and sending remittances to relatives in their home countries. They also confront the tension of being expected to keep the "old' culture alive in the family while integrating family members into unfamiliar school, health care, and social service systems, all of them in a new language and based on new sets of values.

Participants discussed a number of the challenges facing women immigrants in this country, including health concerns, domestic violence, housing shortages, and abusive/exploitative employment. In all of these areas the disadvantages of immigrant women are exacerbated by language barriers, cultural isolation, and, disproportionately, poverty. In many cases, the immigrants are afraid to seek help -- whether medical care, protection from an abusive spouse, public housing for their families, or freedom from enslavement by an abusive employer -- both because they lack accurate information about the services available to them, and because they fear sanctions or deportation at the hands of the INS. A woman abused by an immigrant spouse, e.g., may fear that reporting him will lead to deportation of the entire family; a woman abused by a citizen spouse may fear his withdrawal of sponsorship for her if she reports him. The participants emphasized that the problems lie in the system, not in the women themselves, and that the nation must develop new, culturally sensitive models for the provision of services.

Women refugees and asylees face some of the greatest hardships of any women immigrants. After fleeing from their countries to escape political, religious, or gender-based persecution, they are held indefinitely under harsh conditions. Many are warehoused in prisons such as Turner Gilford Knight, a maximum security facility where 200 Haitian women have been detained since December, 2001. Even if the women succeed in obtaining legal assistance, the body of law in this area has limitations which activist attorneys are overcoming only incrementally. Judges Jeffrey Chase and Noel Brennan summarized the systemic burdens on immigration judges in responding to pleas from such women, including overload (the Board of Immigration Appeals, made up of 19 judges, handles 32,000 cases a year) and the failure of other authorities to enforce court decisions.

In a final panel on making and interpreting law and policy, panelists discussed the implications of security-focused legislation since 9/11. New provisions, like the involvement of local law enforcement in immigration prosecution, are likely to "have a devastating impact" on women immigrants. Kristin Wells, Minority Counsel for the House of Representatives Immigration Subcommittee, and Timothy Edgar, Legislative Counsel at the ACLU, therefore emphasized the need for creative legislative policy-making – which will be all the more difficult to obtain at a time of anti-immigrant hostility.

Proceedings are available in pdf format on our U.S. Studies publication page, and will soon be available in hard copy at no cost.