Version classiqueVersion mobile
OpenEdition Books

Les femmes dans le monde du travail dans les Amériques

Gérard Gómez
Donna Kesselman

Les travailleuses et l’accès difficile aux droits

Under Siege: Mexican Immigrant Women in the United States

Melina Juárez


For decades the assumption was that men composed the majority of international immigrants to the United States, especially from Mexico. Then groundbreaking work in the 1980’s found that at least half of all international immigrants to the United States since the 1930’s have been females. Despite this, both immigration and immigrant legislation continue to be ill-adapted to the needs of immigrant women and their families. Immigrant women in the United States face an unwelcoming and inhospitable environment created by repressive anti-immigrant legislation at both the state and federal levels. Moreover, immigrant women make up an important section of the United States labor force. However, the jobs available to immigrant women usually offer low pay and often pose risks for their health and safety. The hostile environment created by anti-immigrant policies exacerbates the precocity of these jobs. This paper presents recent research that deals with these issues, focusing in particular on the consequences of this environment on immigrant women’s health.

Pendant des décennies, le postulat voulait que les hommes composent la majorité des immigrés présents aux États-Unis. Ce constat était d’autant plus appuyé s’agissant de ceux en provenance du Mexique. Dans les années 1980, des travaux de recherche pionniers ont permis de démontrer que depuis les années 1930 la moitié des immigrés présents sur le sol américain sont des femmes. Malgré cela, la législation concernant les immigrés et l’immigration en général continue d’être mal adaptée aux besoins des femmes immigrées et de leurs familles. Aux États-Unis, ces femmes font face à un environnement mal accueillant et inhospitalier à cause de lois répressives anti-immigrées, aussi bien au niveau des États qu’au niveau fédéral. Bien que ces femmes fassent partie intégrante de la population active américaine, les seuls emplois disponibles qui leur sont habituellement offerts rémunèrent peu et posent de nombreux risques pour leur santé et leur sécurité. L’environnement hostile créé par les politiques anti-immigrées exacerbe la précarité de ces emplois. Cet article a pour but de présenter des recherches récentes traitant de ces questions, en se concentrant en particulier sur les conséquences de cet environnement sur la santé de femmes immigrées aux États-Unis.

Durante décadas la suposición había sido que los hombres componen la mayoría de los inmigrantes internacionales a los Estados Unidos, especialmente de México. Luego trabajo pionero en la década de 1980 encontró que al menos la mitad de todos los inmigrantes internacionales a los Estados Unidos desde la década de 1930 han sido las mujeres. A pesar de esto, las leyes de inmigración y la legislación sobre inmigrantes siguen siendo mal adaptado a las necesidades de las mujeres inmigrantes y sus familias. Las mujeres inmigrantes en los Estados Unidos se enfrentan a un ambiente poco acogedor e inhóspito creado por la legislación anti-inmigrante represivo, tanto a nivel estatal y federal. Por otra parte, las mujeres inmigrantes constituyen una parte importante de la fuerza laboral de Estados Unidos. Sin embargo, los puestos de trabajo disponibles para las mujeres inmigrantes por lo general ofrecen salarios bajos y a menudo plantean riesgos para su salud y seguridad. El ambiente hostil creado por las políticas anti-inmigrantes exacerba la precariedad de estos puestos de trabajo. Este artículo presenta una investigación reciente que se ocupa de estos temas, centrándose en particular en las consecuencias de este entorno en la salud de las mujeres inmigrantes.

Texte intégral

1For decades the assumption had been that men composed the majority of international immigrants to the United States, especially from Mexico. Then groundbreaking work in the 1980s found that at least half of all international immigrants to the United States since the 1930s have been females (Houston et al. 1984). Despite this, immigration and immigrant legislation continue to be ill-adapted to the needs of immigrant women and their families. Immigrant women in the United States face an unwelcoming and inhospitable environment created by repressive anti-immigrant legislation at both the state and federal levels, making their lives and that of their families more difficult.

2Moreover, immigrant women make up a significant proportion of the US workforce. As of 2013, 54.6% of immigrant women were active labor force participants (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2014a). However, the jobs available to immigrant women usually offer low pay and often pose risks for their health and safety. The hostile environment created by anti-immigrant policies exacerbates the precocity of these jobs. This paper presents recent research that deals with these issues, focusing in particular on the consequences of this environment on immigrant women’s health.

3A quick overview of the trends of Mexican immigration to the United States and the repressive enforcement policies currently in place will be outlined first to place the discussion in a broader context. The focus will then be placed on the working conditions of immigrant women, with special attention given to Mexican immigrant women. What job opportunities are open to them? How does this work life effect their own and family’s health? How are anti-immigrant policies affecting their health? The following analysis exposes to what extent the living and working conditions of immigrant women have had serious consequences upon their health and safety.

Trends in Immigration to the United States

4Apart from sharing a common border and the economic interdependences cemented by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the United States and Mexico share a great deal of common history. The century-long border shifting of the American Southwest has created pockets of Mexican-American communities within United States territory. These historical communities have served as havens for migrants, especially during recent decades. Government policies have at times played a role in further strengthening networks and ties between communities in the United States and Mexico, among them the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement or Bracero Program instituted in 1942.

5The Bracero Program brought thousands of Mexican workers into the United States. Thousands of Mexican men were recruited and brought to work in American farms, orchards, and other important agricultural sectors as guest workers or braceros under the program (Garcia 1980). The workers stayed throughout the crop seasons and many remained after the end of the program despite contract stipulations requiring their return to Mexico (Garcia 1980). The years spent working in the United States allowed them to create far-reaching networks and communities that would assist newly arriving migrants in the decades to follow.

6During the 1980s, Mexican immigrant border crossings consistently averaged 170,000 per annum (Flores-Macias 2008). The reform years leading up to the implementation of NAFTA in 1994 witnessed a sharp increase in the number of Mexicans entering the United States (Flores-Macias 2008). The corresponding liberalization of the Mexican economy created severe push factors in Mexico, while the rapid economic expansion of the famous 1990s “American Job Machine” served an attractive pull factor encouraging many Mexicans to immigrate (Lozano & Lopez 2013). The number of Mexicans entering the United States jumped by 61% to 550,000 in the year 2000 compared to only 330,000 a decade earlier between 1990-1993, and continued to grow by 500,000 for each consecutive year after year 2000 (Flores-Macias 2008). The Pew Research Center found that 43% of immigrant women arrived during the period before 1980 through 1989, while 58% arrived between 1990 and 2007 (Gonzales 2008). The majority of this immigration was unauthorized, comprising 87% of total migration (Flores-Macias 2008). By 2011, there were approximately 33.5 million Hispanics of Mexican origin living in the United States, with about 35% of them foreign born (Brown & Patten 2013).

Policy Changes in the US

  • 1 February 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City.

7After the Bracero Program, US immigration laws were subject to a liberalization overhaul. The most influential legislation was passed in 1986 when the Reagan Administration introduced the Immigration and Reform Control Act (IRCA). IRCA was an amnesty legislation that offered legalization for hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants residing in the United States (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services 1986). However, beginning in the early 1990s, following the first World Trade Center attacks1, the issue of immigration began to shift from border enforcement to one of internal policing of immigrants within the domestic realm (Coleman & Kocher 2011). In the mid-1990s, widespread reforms were introduced that essentially codified emerging hostile public attitudes against immigrants receiving social benefits. Both the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) and the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), the latter whose main concern was welfare reform, were major legislations that strictly limited access to social services for immigrants and their families and allowed states to set their own guidelines for providing public benefits (Androff et al. 2011).

8Immigration policy began to make a radical shift from this period on. While immigration violations are part of civil law, the shift to tougher enforcement led to the criminalization of undocumented immigrants (Androff et al. 2011). Although the tougher enforcement of federal policies were officially aimed at dissuading employers from hiring the undocumented, it was the workers themselves who would ultimately endure the harshest consequences of enforcement. For instance, using fraudulent identification or someone else’s social security number to work could lead to undocumented immigrants being charged with identity theft or felony charges, resulting in imprisonment and deportation. After the September 11th attacks in New York City, immigration policies were swept under the cloak of National Defense (Krieken 2005). In 2003, immigration was reassigned as a responsibility of the newly created Department of Homeland Security (DHS) through two new enforcement agencies: Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), (Department of Homeland Security 2013).

Immigrants Under Siege

9The Bush years saw a dramatic increase in mass immigration raids conducted by ICE: meat packing factories and other processing plants were routinely raided by ICE agents in search of undocumented workers. Raids in Indiana, Nebraska, California, and other states netted thousands upon thousands of the undocumented (Morton & Gonzalez 2006; Dits 2007; Taxin 2007). The Obama Administration took a different, and some would argue, even more hardline approach to enforcing federal immigration laws.

10ICE under the Obama Administration began to focus heavily on deportation rather than returns as the Bush Administration had done. Caplan-Bricker explains the difference:

… under Bush, the majority of immigrants that the US sent home were simply “returned”. Nobody took their fingerprints or put a permanent mark on their immigration records. Instead, US authorities put them on buses and sent them back across the border. Between 2001 and 2008, there were over 8.3 million of these informal “returns” (Caplan-Brickner 2014: 4).

11Deportations, on the other hand, require official review by a judge or ICE agent, go on the individual’s permanent record, and prohibit them from re-entering for five years, with prison time for repeat violators (Thompson & Cohen 2014). During the final years of the Bush Administration, however, ICE had begun to take a more repressive approach to enforcement, conducting increased numbers of deportations (or removals). The Obama Administration consequently codified removals as the default process for those violating immigration laws.

12In 2013, five years into the Obama presidency, ICE conducted a total of 368,644 deportations (United States Department of Homeland Security 2013). Critics of ICE’s tactics have claimed that most of the individuals having been deported do not fit the removal criteria set forth by the Department of Homeland Security. The Immigration Policy Center has argued that:

… despite claims by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that it prioritizes the apprehension of terrorists, violent criminals, and gang members, the agency’s own deportation statistics do not bear this out. Rather, most of the individuals being swept up by ICE and dropped into the US deportation machine committed relatively minor, non-violent crimes or have no criminal histories at all (Immigration Policy Center 2014).

13The New York Times has similarly reported that most of the increases in deportations involved individuals who have only committed minor traffic violations (Thompson & Cohen 2014).

14Along with increasing the focus on deportations, the Obama Administration also continued and expanded the militarization of the US-Mexico border. The budget for border enforcement increased from $262,000 in 1990, to $1 million in 2000, to over $3.4 million for 2013 (Department of Homeland Security 2014). The increased budget has included/intensified new and highly militarized technology employed by border and ICE agents. Technology such as night vision gear, infrared surveillance equipment, military-grade weaponry, and most recently drones, have been used (Lozano & Lopez 2013).

15In addition to this resurgence in federal activity, some states have also increased their involvement by passing a record number of punitive immigration laws. There was a radical increase in proposed bills, especially for the six year period following 2005, increasing from only 300 to a record 1,607 in 2011 (Meyer, Segreto, Carter, & Morse 2011). These laws spanned the scope of immigrant surveillance and control, dealing with issues from access to education to issuance of driver’s licenses to more extreme laws such as Arizona’s SB 1070 and Alabama’s HB 56 that racially profile Latinos and deny services to undocumented immigrants (White et al. 2014). These laws also serve to reinforce social prejudices against Latino immigrants and codify beliefs regarding who should be entitled to social services and benefits (Androff et al. 2011).

16Despite increased enforcement of federal and state immigrant laws under the Obama Administration, there has been no dramatic reduction of the undocumented population as hoped for. Instead, such efforts have created what Lozano and Lopez have called a large “diversion effect” where immigrants are forced to seek new border crossings in increasingly extreme, violent, and unsafe environments, in which women are the prime targets. Lozano and Lopez describe the intense violence at the border that includes:

… gun violence, hijackings, assaults, and rapes, where rapists hang Mexican women’s undergarments on tree limbs as trophies […] migrant women are often encouraged to take birth control pills before crossing the border […] the stringent border enforcement policies of the past twenty years have led to an increase in migration costs, with the costs falling predominantly on immigrant women. (Lozano & Lopez 2013: 78)

17Given these conditions, it is no surprise that immigrant deaths at the border doubled between 1998 and 2005. While 9% of deaths in 1998 were female immigrants, by 2009, females made up 58% of the total immigrant deaths (Lozano & Lopez 2013).

18These tactics of tougher enforcement have also increased the length of stay of immigrants who cannot as easily cross the border back into the US when returning home. And apart from the intense violence, another consequence has been the increased financial burden for immigrants. Prices for smugglers or coyotes increase as border-crossing becomes more perilous. Women are more likely to use coyotes than men, meaning they not only face more severe violence and threats, but also incur a higher financial burden (Lozano & Lopez 2013).

19Such traumatic experiences are exacerbated by the consequential pressure and stress of living in fear of deportation. Krieger argues that a person’s experiences can be absorbed into the body and expressed through health issues (Krieger 2005). It has been found that immigrants, especially undocumented, suffer from higher levels of stress and anxiety than the rest of the population (Cavazos-Rehg, Zayas, & Spitznagel 2007). The rise of deportations and workplace enforcement of federal immigration policies generate fear and anxiety. For the individual, such unhealthy environments can lead to or aggravate already existing chronic illnesses and psychological health issues like depression and suicidal ideation (Hovey & Magaña 2003; Hacker et al. 2011; Moya, Ayon, & Gurrola 2013).

20As Androff et al. have found, the impact of workplace raids by immigration officials have caused significant stress and trauma for children of those deported and for families in communities affected by the raids (Androff et al. 2011). Furthermore, pressures on the family unit due to economic insecurity, absent parents due to long hours of work, and other related factors have been shown to negatively impact the psychological and social development of immigrant children (Androff et al. 2011). Additionally, mass deportations through workplaces raids send shockwaves through communities, causing parents to pull their children from school or go into hiding with their families for fear of being discovered by authorities. Approximately five thousand children were placed in foster care in 2012 due to deportations, further straining an already fragile foster care system (Valbrun 2012). There are also reports of children being left to fend for themselves after one or both parents were deported. In 2008, it was estimated that 73% of children of undocumented immigrants were US born citizens, leaving thousands vulnerable to such scenarios (Passel & Cohn 2009). As the population of Mexican immigrants continues to grow and despite their integration into US society, state-mandated repression is concurrently mounting.

Profile of the Mexican Immigrant Woman in the United States

21By 2005, the total population of Mexican immigrants in the US had reached 10,993,851, rising by almost two million people or twenty percent in only five years (Fry & Hakimzadeh 2006). According to the current 2012 Census there was a total of 17,669,613 Mexican immigrants of working age in the US (United States Census 2012). In 2007, six out of every ten Hispanic immigrant women were Mexican (Gonzalez 2008); by 2012, this figure jumped to seven out of ten (United States Census 2012; Migration Policy Institute 2012). Mexican immigrant women were less educated than other Hispanic immigrant women, with 59% of them having completed only high school education or less (Gonzales 2008). Immigrant Mexican women also had the highest fertility rates for all Hispanic immigrant women with a rate of 106 births per thousand women (Gonzales 2008).

22In 2012, 57.7% of Mexican immigrant women were in the labor force, compared to 46% in 2008 (United States Census 2012; Gonzalez 2008). However, poverty rates for Mexican immigrant families are significantly higher (28%) than the national average (16%) and other Hispanic groups (26%) (Brown & Patten 2013). Poverty is even more severe for undocumented families where families usually consist of four or more members; the poverty rate for undocumented Mexican families stands at approximately 43% (Androff et al. 2011). The Center for American Progress found that, “undocumented immigrant Mexican women face hourly wage disparity of 71 cents” (Kerby 2013).

23Moreover, as the number of female-headed households rises in Mexico and Central America, more women are acting as both providers and caretakers, forcing many to continue to immigrate to the US in search of improved economic opportunities (Lozano & Lopez 2013). As more Hispanic immigrant women began arriving in the US in the 1990s, they also began integrating into the labor force. The industries where most of these women are employed are also those where work is generally highly precarious, underpaid, and unsafe. Although there are no specific figures for Mexican immigrant women, the service industry has the highest number of Hispanic immigrant women workers. Most of these jobs are in the private sector, where unionization rates are extremely low (6.7% compared to the public sector at 35.3%) (United States Department of Labor 2014). Consequently, in the characteristic US contract-based social benefit system, this means that worker benefits and protections are severely lacking (United States Department of Labor 2013). According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “immigrant women are among the most vulnerable and exploited people in our society,” (Southern Poverty Law Center 2014)


24The agriculture industry is well known for its notorious precariousness and widespread abuses, as well as for being a major employer of immigrant and migrant labor. Of approximately 3 million immigrant and migrant agricultural laborers in the US, 22% are female (National Center for Farmworker Health, 2012). According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is a projected 3% decline in agricultural jobs by 2022, which will pose challenges for the Mexican immigrant community in the years to come (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2014b).

25The official average wage for farmworkers was $9.09 per hour; that is higher than the federal minimum wage ($7.25 in 2015) however, poverty wages and wage theft run rampant through the industry (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2014b; National Farm Worker Ministry 2014a). A report for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) found that, “weekly earnings of full-time farmworkers are 59 percent of those for all wage and salary workers. Poverty among farmworkers is more than double that of all wage and salary employees” (Kandel 2008: iv). The report also outlined three main factors influencing farmworker low wage patterns:

  • Unauthorized status limits employment opportunity in other industries

  • Labor contractors’ fees reduce farmworkers’ hourly wages

  • Exemption from federal minimum wage laws for certain farm sizes.

26Additionally, the recurring issue of farm worker misclassification as “independent contractors” greatly impacts low wages. Employers routinely misclassify workers in an attempt to circumvent federal payroll taxes and lower labor costs (Ruckelhaus 2013). Furthermore, undocumented status for farmworkers also increases risk of unfair labor practices and deportation (Kandel 2008).

27Farm labor is extremely strenuous and physically demanding. They perform tasks related to growing, harvesting, maintenance, and care of farms, orchards, nurseries, and other settings of agricultural production (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2014b). Workplace safety hazards abound, like pesticides and machinery that have made it one of the industries with the highest number of workplace fatalities (Hovey & Magaña 2003). Between 2003 and 2011, official statistics claim 5,816 farmworkers died due to work related injuries, with machine related injuries being the main causes (United States Department of Labor 2013).

28Because farm work is generally performed outside regardless of weather, many instances of farmworker deaths are due to heatstroke and other weather-related injuries and illnesses. Official reports of heat-related farmworker deaths, however, do not count migrant farmworkers, leading advocacy groups to call the 7,200 deaths for the period of 1999-2009 inaccurate (Durbin 2013). It is also difficult to ascertain the amount of deaths among unauthorized farmworkers given that they are less likely to report illness or seek medical treatment. In 2009, the death of a 17-year old pregnant teenager brought national spotlight to the conditions faced by many farmworkers. Maria Vasquez Jimenez died while pruning grapevines in Fresno, California. Vasquez had been working for more than nine hours in triple digit temperatures with no access to water or shade. The owner of the farm, the labor contractor, and farm supervisor were consequently charged with manslaughter (Associated Press 2009).

29As Maria’s story illustrates, women farmworkers are especially vulnerable in this industry. One major hazard faced by women farmworkers is the intense use of pesticides and chemicals in agricultural production. Seventy five percent of all pesticide use in the United States occurs in the agriculture industry (Calvert et al. 2008). Farmworkers are often directly in contact with pesticides. As the National Farm Worker Ministry reports, “farm workers can get sprayed while they’re picking crops, and they can also be made to re-enter the fields prematurely after the fields have been sprayed,” (NFWM 2014b). A report sponsored by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that female farmworkers suffered from acute pesticide poisoning at twice the rate as their male counterparts (Calvert et al. 2008).

30Exposure to pesticides significantly affects women’s fertility with reduced fecundity among female farmworkers, with no observable similar impact on males (Harley et al. 2008). Furthermore, pesticide exposure not only impacts the woman’s health, but that of her children as well. It has been found that exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) (found in pesticides) can affect thyroid functioning in pregnant women. Maternal thyroid hormones play a role in the neurodevelopment of the fetus during pregnancy, making exposure to PCBs of great consequence for pregnant and women farmworkers in general (Chevrier et al. 2008). Pesticides and herbicide exposure during pregnancy can also lead to fetal abnormalities, such as gastroschisis and limb deficiencies (Lin et al. 2011).

31Moreover, the physical demands on a worker’s body results in high levels of musculoskeletal pain or discomfort. The National Agricultural Workers Survey found that most of those suffering from these types of injuries are unable to work normally for days or even weeks; however, nearly half of those in these situations only missed less than a day of work (United States Department of Labor 2010). The US Department of Labor estimates that about 5% of these farmworkers are permanently impaired due to their injuries (United States Department of Labor 2013).

32These biological risks, combined with other hazards that female farmworkers face carry both physical and psychosocial consequences. Approximately seven out of ten female farmworkers believe they have been victims of discrimination at their workplace, while three-quarters agree that sexual harassment is a major issue (Southern Poverty Law Center 2014). The abuse and harassment suffered by many female farm workers is often kept secret for fear of retaliation from their bosses or supervisors who wield enormous power over these workers. As supervisors wield the power to hire and fire, women often face the dilemma of bearing harassment, and in some cases even sexual assault, in order to continue working to feed their families (Khokha 2013). Apart from the overt physical consequences of such abuse, sexism and gender-based discrimination can also have psychological impacts on women workers. Those who have suffered or are suffering from sexual harassment can develop physical symptoms such as headaches, insomnia, and nausea, as well as psychological symptoms like depression, lower self-esteem, feelings of alienation, and anxiety (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health 2013). Discrimination and harassment of immigrant Mexican women are not confined to farm labor, however. Women working in production and other industries also face the same threats, with undocumented women being the most vulnerable here as well (Sorrentino 2013).


33Immigrant women are a central component of the homecare workforce. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, approximately 28% of homecare workers are foreign born, 60% of whom are immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean (Institute for Women’s Policy Research 2012). Employment growth homecare is expected to grow by 48% by 2022, equaling approximately half a million new positions (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2014c).

34Similar to farm labor positions, these jobs are underpaid and offer few opportunities for advancement or skills development. The median wage for homecare aides was $10.01 in 2012 (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2014c). These workers tend to serve mainly the elderly and disabled. They help clients with basic needs such as standing, sitting, administering medication, and checking vital signs. Personal care aides also provide companionship along with the basic tasks of homecare duties. The very nature of the employment (working with disabled, the elderly, and the sick) engenders specific and serious health and safety hazards for homecare workers (Henrici 2013).

35Musculoskeletal disorders and injuries are common for having to lift, carry, and move clients can lead to serious muscle, joint, nerve, and ligament damage. These types of injuries can have lasting effects such as chronic pain, stiffness, swelling, and can lead to severe back injuries (NIOSH 2012a). Homecare workers are also exposed to potential violent environments endangering their personal safety. Working in a client’s private home leaves homecare workers vulnerable to possible abuse ranging from, “verbal abuse, to stalking or threats of assault, to homicide” (NIOSH 2012b).

Maintenance and Service Industry

36There were over 1.4 million maids and housekeepers in the service industry in 2012; and with a projected industry growth of 13% by 2022 this sector will continue to be a major employer for immigrant women who make up nearly 45% of its workforce (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2014d; National Women’s Law Center 2014). These women assume tasks ranging from vacuuming, scrubbing bathrooms, taking out and clearing trash, changing linens and towels, and making beds (NIOSH 2012c). Despite the physically demanding and wide range of tasks assigned to hotel cleaners, the median national wage for these workers stood at $9.41 per hour or $19,570 per year (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2014d).

37A 2010 study on safety and injury rates for hotel staff found that Hispanic housekeepers had double the rates of on-the-job injuries than other racial groups (Buchanan et al. 2010). The study also notes that hotel employees had the highest injury rate than any other type of job in the service industry. It is important to note that this study took place in a unionized workplace, considering that unionized workplaces often have higher safety standards and enforcement of those standards (Raza 2014), the real rates in the industry are certainly higher.

38Similar to farmworkers, housekeepers and maids are constantly exposed to noxious chemicals found in cleaning supplies. Respiratory and dermatological diseases are the most common effects of constant exposure to irritants such as latex, detergents, and bleaching agents found in cleaning products (Charles, Loomis, & Demissie 2009). Musculoskeletal injuries are also common due to the prolonged periods of fast-paced walking, bending, and lifting (National Women’s Law Center 2014). Sixty three percent of hotel cleaners reported having lower back pain on a monthly basis, while 47% reported feeling severe general body pain (Krause, Scherzer, & Rugulies 2005). These workers also face high risks for infectious diseases due to exposure to feces, urine, and other biological agents (NIOSH 2012c).

39Working conditions such as these are not confined to homecare, service, or farm labor. The vulnerability of immigration status coupled with continued gender biases in the workplace compound the precarious conditions and low wages experienced by immigrant women in many other industries. However, while this analysis has attempted to focus on Mexican immigrant women, specific data for this cohort is not readily available.

Impacts of the Great Recession

40The recent economic downturn of 2008 had a significant impact on immigration and Latinos in the workforce. For the first time in decades the flow of undocumented workers into the US stabilized after 2008 (Massey 2012). Although immigrant participation in the workforce did not decline, it also did not contribute to the growth of the overall Hispanic workforce like in previous years (Kochhar 2008). Figures from the Pew Research Center also found that for the first time since 2003, the unemployment rate for immigrants (7.5%) surpassed that of native-born Latinos (Kochhar 2008). By January 2009, Mexican and Central American immigrants had an unemployment rate of 13.1%, compared to 7.8% for the general population (Migration Policy Institute 2009; Bureau of Labor Statistics 2014e).

41Hispanic women overall, were hard hit by the recession. The 2006 unemployment rate for Latina women stood at 6.2%; by the first quarter of 2008 it had risen to 7%. Latina women also lost 60,000 jobs in manufacturing; 56,000 in eating, drinking, and lodging services; and 45,000 in social services between 2007 and 2008 (Kochhar 2008). Massey summed up the impact of the recession:

42This economic shock comes on top of earlier declines in earnings, deteriorating health, stagnating education, growing residential segregation, and rising poverty rates. The pervasive illegality and marginality among Latinos that has evolved in recent decades presently constitutes the single largest and most potent barrier to their socioeconomic mobility and full integration within the United States. With sizeable fractions of Latinos lying outside the protections of the law, their position in America has never been more precarious (Massey 2012).

43Despite these harsh economic conditions, Mexican immigrants did not return to Mexico. Research from the RAND Corporation found a dramatic drop in returns from 117,120 in 2006 to 79,959 by 2009 (Rendall, Brownell, & Kups 2011). There could be various explanations for this, including the rise of mixed status families and the tougher immigration enforcement environment preventing return. Regardless of the individual’s reasons for not returning to Mexico, the economic downturn is but another source of stress and pressure to be added to an immigrant’s life.

Impact on Health

44These working conditions and economic uncertainty coupled with the repressive enforcement tactics of federal agencies combine to form a climate of fear and anxiety for immigrant women and their families. While it is important to understand and try to address this double-faceted challenge, as well as the resulting physical and psychological effects of such working and living conditions, it is of utmost necessity to understand potential implications for future generations. Various theories of embodiment, historical trauma, and epidemiology have suggested that the lived experiences of individuals are likely to have biological consequences for their children (Krieger 2005; Shonkoff, Boyce & McEwen 2009; Walters et al. 2011).

45Shonkoff, Boyce, and McEwen believe that harmful childhood experiences can affect adult health and well-being, known as “scarring” (Shonkoff, Boyce & McEwen 2009). This is especially important for immigrants and their children. Immigrant life pressures on the family structure have been shown to negatively impact cognitive and social development and functioning of children (Androff et al. 2011). Poor living conditions during childhood have also been linked to adult health issues such as obesity, alcoholism, and cardiovascular disease (Shonkoff et al. 2009).

46Research on Native American populations indicates that traumatic experiences can have biological consequences passed down through generations (Walters et al. 2011). This suggests that traumas during border crossings, sexual assaults at a workplace, or other traumatic events experienced by immigrants can be biologically imprinted and contribute health disorders for that individual’s offspring. These theories of embodiment and historical trauma take on particular significance given today’s context of healthcare reform.

47Although documented immigrants will greatly benefit from the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), the undocumented remain the largest group that is formally excluded from ACA directives (Wallace, Torres, Sadegh-Nobari, Pourat, & Brown 2012). A report from the University of California, Los Angeles Center for Health Policy notes that:

… the ACA explicitly excludes undocumented immigrants from purchasing health insurance coverage through the health exchanges. In addition, undocumented immigrants continue to be ineligible for most public forms of health insurance coverage and would not benefit from any Medicaid expansions carried out by the states. (Wallace et al. 2012)

48Forty-three percent of non-citizens in 2012 were uninsured, including 27% of non-citizen children (DeNavas-Walt, Proctor, & Smith 2013). Southern states had the highest rates of uninsured Hispanics than any other region in the United States, the highest percentage (45%) in Tennessee, followed by North Carolina (44%), and Georgia (43%) (Kaiser Family Foundation 2014). They are part of the 24 states refusing to expand Medicaid under the ACA, leaving thousands of potentially qualified individuals and families uninsured, including many immigrant children and women (White House 2014).

49This at the least severely limits and most often denies access to preventative care for undocumented immigrants and their families. Preventative care could be key to forestalling or mitigating the effects of embodied traumas passed down from parent to child.


50Given the situation of immigrant women in the United States, the existence of a dually ineffective and repressive immigration regime becomes very much a feminist issue. Immigrant women in the United States face singular attacks to their health, safety, and socioeconomic livelihoods. Not only are immigrant women, and Mexican immigrant women in particular, as discussed in this paper, subjected to the physical and psychological trials of migration, but are also often victims of further trauma and stress once integrating the American labor market. Policymakers must approach this issue in a holistic fashion, considering the multifaceted impacts of immigration on American society and economy. A comprehensive approach would take into consideration the various pressures faced by immigrants and their families, pressures such as those outlined in this paper.

51The current deportation regime, hinged upon the criminalization of immigrants, markedly impacts not only the undocumented individual, but the entire family and community of that individual. To the contrary, granting legalization to the undocumented workforce currently residing in the United States would decisively improve the economic and social well-being of immigrants and workplaces. Moreover, legalizing the undocumented could potentially provide benefits to the United States economy. In 2006, five hundred economists (including Noble laureates) signed an open letter to President Bush stating that, “while a small percentage of native-born Americans may be harmed by immigration, vastly more Americans benefit from the contributions that immigrants make to our economy, including lower consumer prices” (Goodman 2014). The Congressional Budget Office further stated that: “over the past two decades, most efforts to estimate the fiscal impact of immigration in the United States have concluded that, in aggregate and over the long term, tax revenues of all types generated by immigrants — both legal and unauthorized — exceed the cost of the services they use” (Congressional Budget Office 2007).

52The ability to legally work in the United States would not only reduce the stress and anxiety of job insecurity and fear of deportation, but also allow for job advancement, pursuit of skill development, and the acquisition of workplace benefits such as health insurance and retirement benefits. And finally, legalization would curtail the abusive practices of pitting undocumented workers against a well-paid workforce with benefits as a means of undermining labor market standards.


ANDROFF David, AYON Cecilia, BECERRA David et al., 2011, “US Immigration Policy and Immigrant Children’s Well-Being: The Impact of Policy Shifts”, Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, vol. 38, n° 1, p. 77- 98.

Associated Press, 2009, “3 Charged in pregnant worker’s death: Calif. teen collapsed from heat stroke after working in sweltering vineyard”, Accessed from:

BROWN Anna, PATTEN Eileen, 2013, “Hispanics of Mexican Origin in the United States, 2011”, Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project. Retrieved from:

BUCHANAN Susan, VOSSENAS Pamela, KRAUSE Niklas et al., 2010, “Occupational injury disparities in the US hotel industry”, American Journal of Industrial Medicine, vol. 53, n° 2, p. 116-25.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014a, “Labor Force Characteristics of Foreign-born Workers Summary”, United States Department of Labor, Economic News Release, Accessed from:

Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014b, “Agricultural Workers”, United States Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 ed., Accessed from:

Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014c, “Home Health Aides”, United States Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 ed., Accessed from:

Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014d, “Maids and Housekeeping Cleaners”, United States Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 ed., Accessed from:

Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014e, “Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey”, United States Department of Labor, Accessed from:

CALVERT Geoffrey, KARNIK Jennifer, MEHLER Louise et al., 2008, “Acute pesticide poisoning among agricultural workers in the United States, 1998-2005”, American Journal of Industrial Medicine, vol. 51, n° 12, p. 883-898.

CAPLAN-BRICKER Nora, 2014, “Who’s the Real Deporter-In-Chief: Bush or Obama”, Accessed from:

CAVAZOS-REHG Patricia, ZAYAS Luis, SPITZNAGEL Edward, 2007, “Legal Status, Emotional Well-Being and Subjective Health Status of Latino Immigrants”, Journal of the National Medical Association, vol. 99, n° 10, p. 1126-1131.

CHARLES Luenda, LOOMIS Dana, DEMISSIE Zewditu, 2009, “Occupational Hazards Experienced by Cleaning Workers and Janitors: A Review of the Epidemiologic Literature”, Work, vol. 34, n° 1, p. 105-16.

CHEVRIER Jonathan, ESKENAZI Brenda, HOLLAND Nina et al., “Effects of Exposure to Polychlorinated Biphenyls and Organochlorine Pesticides on Thyroid Function During Pregnancy”, American Journal of Epidemiology, vol. 168, n° 3, p. 298-310.

COLEMAN Mathew, KOCHER Austin, 2011, “Detention, Deportation, Devolution and Immigrant Incapacitation in the US, Post 9/11”, The Geographical Journal, vol. 177, n° 3, p. 228-237.

Congressional Budget Office, 2007, “The Impact of Unauthorized Immigrants on the Budgets of State and Local Governments”, Publication Number 2500, Accessed from:

DENAVAS-WALT Carmen, PROCTOR Bernadette, SMITH Jessica, 2013, “Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2012”, United States Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, United States Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, p. 60-245, Accessed from:

Department of Homeland Security, 2013, “Post-9/11”, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, Accessed from:

Department of Homeland Security, 2014, “United States Border Patrol: Enacted Border Patrol Program Budget by Fiscal Year”, States and Summaries, Accessed from:

DITS Joseph, 2007, “36 Arrests in Janco Immigration Raid: agents remove 35 Mexican nationals, 1 Salvadoran”, South Bend Tribune.

DURBIN Michael, 2013, “One Heat Related Death Is Too Many”, Farm Worker Advocacy Network, Accessed from:

FLORES-MACIAS Gustavo, 2009, “NAFTA’s unfulfilled immigration expectations”, Journal of Social Justice, vol. 20, p. 435-41.

FRY Richard, HAKIMZADEH Shirin, 2006, “A Statistical Portrait of the Foreign-Born Population at Mid-Decade”, Accessed from:

GARCIA Juan, 1980, Operation Wetback: The Mass Deportation of Mexican Undocumented Workers in 1954, Westport CT, Greenwood Press.

GONZALES Felisa, 2008, “Hispanic Women in the United States, 2007: Fact Sheet”, Accessed from:

GOODMAN HA, 2014, “Illegal Immigrants Benefit the US Economy”, The Hill, Accessed:

HACKER Karen, CHU Jocelyn, LEUNG Carolyn et al., 2011, “The Impact of Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Immigrant Health: Perceptions of immigrants in Everrett, Massachusetts, USA”, Journal of Social Science and Medicine, vol. 73, p. 586-594.

HARLEY Kim, MARKS Amy, BRADMAN Asa et al., 2008, “DDT exposure, work in agriculture, and time to pregnancy among farmworkers in California”, Journal of Occupational Environmental Medicine, vol. 50, n° 12, p. 1335-1342.

HENRICI Jane, 2013, “Improving Career Opportunities for Immigrant Women In-Home Care Workers”, Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Accessed from:

HOUSTOUN Marion, KRAMER Roger, BARRETT Joan Mackin, 1984, “Female Predominance in Immigration to the United States Since 1930: A First Look”, International Migration Review, vol. 18, n° 4, p. 908-963.

HOVEY Joseph, MAGAÑA Cristina, 2003, “Suicide Risk Factors Among Mexican Migrant Farmworker Women in the Midwest United States”, Archives of Suicide Research, vol. 7, p. 107-121.

Immigration Policy Center, 2014, “Misplaced Priorities Most Immigrants Deported by ICE in 2013 Were a Threat to No One”, Accessed from:

Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 2012, “Calculations of data from the Current Population Survey Outgoing Rotation Groups for 2010 and 2011 based on Center for Economic and Policy Research CPS ORG Uniform Extracts”, version 1.7, Washington, DC.

Kaiser Family Foundation, 2014, “Uninsured Rates for the Nonelderly by Race/Ethnicity”, State Health Facts, Accessed from:

KANDEL William, 2008, “Profile of Hired Farmworkers, A 2008 Update”, United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Report 60, Accessed from:

KERBY Sophia, 2013, “How Pay Inequity Hurts Women of Color”, Center for American Progress, Accessed from:

KHOKHA Sasha, 2013, “Silenced By Status, Farm Workers Face Rape, Sexual Abuse”, National Public Radio, Accessed from: US.

KOCHHAR Rakesh, 2008, “Latino Labor Report, 2008: Construction Reverses Job Growth for Latinos”, Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project, Accessed from:

KRAUSE Niklas, SCHERZER Teresa, RUGULIES Reiner, 2005, “Physical Workload, Work Intensification, and Prevalence of Pain in Low Wage Workers: Results From a Participatory Research Project with Hotel Room Cleaners in Las Vegas”, American Journal of Industrial Medicine, vol. 48, n° 5, p. 326-37.

KRIEKEN Peter, 2005, “Terrorism and the Changing Paradigm of Migratory Movements”, Crossing Over: Comparing Recent Migration in the United States and Europe, ed. Holger Henke, New York: Lexington Books, p. 47-76.

KRIEGER Nancy, 2005, “Embodiment: A conceptual glossary for epidemiology”, Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, vol. 59, p. 350-355.

LIN Shao, KIELB Christine, HERDT-LOSAVIO Michelle et al., 2011, “Maternal Occupational Exposure to Pesticides and the Risk of Musculoskeletal Birth Defects: A Preliminary Analysis”, Birth Defects Research Part A: Clinical Molecular Teratology, vol. 91, n° 5, p. 351.

LOZANO Fernando, LOPEZ Mary, 2013, “Border Enforcement and Selection of Mexican Immigrants in the United States”, Feminist Economics, vol. 19, n° 1, p. 76-110.

MASSEY Douglas, 2012, “Immigration and the Great Recession” Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality, Accessed from:

MEYER Brooke, SEGRETO Joy, CARTER April et al., 2011, “2011 Immigration-Related Laws and Resolutions in the States (Jan. 1–Dec. 7, 2011)” Immigrant Policy Project, National Conference of State Legislatures, Accessed from:

Migration Policy Institute, 2009, “Top 10 of 2009 - Issue #1: The Recession’s Impact on Immigrants”, Accessed from:

Migration Policy Institute, 2012, “United States: Demographics and Social”, Accessed from:

MORTON Joseph, GONZALEZ Cindy, 2006, “Swift tried to forestall plant raids but a judge gave a green light to the largest-ever crackdown”, Omaha World-Herald.

MOYA Salas Lorraine, AYON Cecilia, GURROLA Maria, 2013, “Estamos Traumados: The Effect of Anti-Immigrant sentiment and policies on the mental health of Mexican immigrant families”, Journal of Community Psychology, vol. 41, n° 8, p. 1005-1020.

National Center for Farm Worker Health, 2012, “Facts About Farmworkers”, Accessed from:

National Farm Worker Ministry, 2014a, “Low Wages”, Accessed from:

National Farm Worker Ministry, 2014b, “Health and Safety”, Accessed from:

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), 2012a, “How to Prevent Musculoskeletal Disorders”, Accessed from:

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), 2012b, “How to Prevent Violence on the Job”, Accessed from:

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), 2012c, “Safety and Health Among Hotel Cleaners”, Accessed from:

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), 2013, “Women’s Safety and Health Issues at Work”, Accessed from:

National Women’s Law Center, 2014, “Accommodating Pregnancy On the Job: The Stakes for Women of Color and Immigrant Women”, Accessed from:

RAZA Danyaal, 2014, “Right to Work and Health: What the Most Recent Attack on Organized Labor Will Mean for American Workers’ Health and Safety”, Kennedy School Review, 2014 Issue, Accessed:

RENDALL Michael, BROWNELL Peter, KUPS Sarah, 2011, “Declining Return Migration From the United States to Mexico in the Late-2000s Recession: A Research Note”, Demography, vol. 48, n° 3, p. 1049.

SHONKOFF Jack, BOYCE Thomas, MCEWEN Bruce, 2009, “Neuroscience, Molecular Biology, and the Childhood Roots of Health Disparities: Building a new framework for health promotion and disease prevention”, Journal of the American Medical Association, vol. 301, n° 21, p. 2252-2259.

SORRENTINO Joseph, 2013, “Fear in the Fields: For Sexual Harassers, Undocumented Farmworkers Make ‘the Perfect Victims’”, In These Times, vol. 37, n° 3, p. 26.

Southern Poverty Law Center. (2014). Immigrant Women. Accessed:

PASSEL Jeffrey, COHN D’Vera, 2009, “A Portrait of Unauthorized Immigrants in the United States”, Pew Hispanic Center, Accessed from:

TAXIN Amy, 2007, “Raids spark plan-ahead drive; Lawyers and advocacy orgs teach illegal immigrants to prepare for deportations and know their rights”, The OC Register.

THOMPSON Ginger, COHEN Sarah, 2014, “More Deportations Follow Minor Crimes, Records Show”, The New York Times, Accessed from:

United States Census, 2012, “American Community Survey: 1 year Estimates”.

United States Citizen & Immigration Services, 1986, “Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA)”, Accessed from:

United States Department of Labor, 2010, “National Agricultural Workers Survey: Table 13. Table 13. Musculoskeletal Pain or Discomfort: 1999-2010”, Accessed from:

United States Deparment of Labor, 2013, “Agricultural Operations”, Accessed from:

United States Department of Labor, 2014, “Union Members Summary”, Economic News Release, Accessed from:

WALLACE Steven, TORRES Jacqueline, SADEGH-NOBARI Tabashir et al., 2012, “Undocumented Immigrants and Health Care Reform”, UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, Accessed from:

WALTERS Karina, MOHAMMED Selina, EVANS-CAMPBELL Teresa et al., 2011, “Bodies Don’t Just Tell Stories, They Tell Histories: Embodiment of Historical Trauma among American Indians and Alaska Natives”, Du Bois Review, vol. 8, no 1, p. 179-189.

White House, 2014, “24 States Are Refusing to Expand Medicaid”, Accessed from:

WHITE Kari, YEAGER Valerie, MENACHEMI Nir et al., 2014, “Impact of Alabama’s Immigration Law on Access to Health Care Among Latina Immigrants and Children: Implications for National Reform”, American Journal of Public Health, vol. 104, n° 3, p. 397-405.

VALBRUN Marjorie, 2012, “Immigrant Children Face Uncertain Futures, Foster Care”, American Wire, Maynard Media Center on Structural Inequality, Accessed from:


1 February 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City.

© Presses universitaires de Provence, 2016

Conditions d’utilisation :