Spotlight on Immigrant Women
The Employment and Earnings of Immigrant Women
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Approximately 21 million female immigrants live in the United States, making up just over 13 percent of the nation’s female population. Immigrant women come from all over the world, with the largest shares from Mexico (25.6 percent), the Philippines (5.3 percent), China (4.7 percent), and India (4.6 percent). In their multiple roles as students, professionals and other workers, spouses, parents, and caregivers, immigrant women make important contributions to local communities, the economy, and society.
- Immigrant women are less likely than U.S.-born women to be in the labor force (56.2 percent compared with 59.0 percent). While many immigrant women are thriving in the workforce, others encounter challenges that hinder their workforce participation or limit their access to higher quality employment. These challenges include the same barriers all women face—such as the undervaluation of work performed predominantly by women and the lack of a work-family infrastructure—and often additional challenges as well, such as limited English proficiency and, for those who are undocumented, lack of access to legal status (Hess, Henrici, and Williams 2011; Hess and Henrici 2013).
- Median annual earnings for immigrant women working full-time, year-round in 2013 were $32,000, which was much less than the earnings for U.S.-born women ($39,000). Among the ten largest sending countries for female immigrants—Mexico, the Philippines, China, India, Vietnam, Korea, El Salvador, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Canada—immigrant women’s earnings varied considerably. Women from India had the highest earnings at $65,000—well above the median earnings for all women of $38,000—and women from Mexico had the lowest earnings at $22,000. These differences likely stem, in part, from differences in levels of education; immigrant women from India typically have more years of higher education.
- Immigrant women overall are less likely than U.S.-born women to work in managerial or professional occupations (32.7 percent compared with 41.1 percent).
- Immigrant women are disproportionately represented in service occupations. One in three (32.5 percent) immigrant women work in these occupations, compared with 19.9 percent of U.S.-born women. Immigrant women are also nearly twice as likely as U.S.-born women to work in production, transportation, and material moving occupations (9.9 percent compared with 5.0 percent). They are less likely than U.S.-born women to work in office and administrative support occupations (13.3 percent of employed immigrant women work in these occupations compared with 21.5 percent of employed U.S.-born women) and in professional and related occupations (21.8 percent compared with 27.0 percent).
IWPR calculations based on 2013 American Community Survey microdata.
Poverty and Opportunity Among Immigrant Women
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Immigrant women in the United States are a diverse group with varied levels of education and access to resources and supports.1
- More than one in four immigrant women in the United States (27.9 percent) holds a bachelor’s or advanced degree, compared with 30.0 percent of U.S.-born women. Among the ten largest sending countries for female immigrants—Mexico, the Philippines, China, India, Vietnam, Korea, El Salvador, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Canada—immigrant women from India (71.8 percent), the Philippines (51.4 percent), and Korea (46.1 percent) are the most likely to have a bachelor’s degree or higher (IWPR 2015a). Some immigrant women who have college degrees, however, find that their qualifications are not recognized in this country and can find only low-skilled, low-paying jobs (Redstone Akresh 2006).
- While a substantial share of immigrant women hold bachelor’s degrees, three in ten (29.6 percent) have less than a high school diploma. Among the ten largest sending countries, women from Mexico and El Salvador are the most likely to have less than a high school diploma (57.3 and 52.7 percent, respectively). Immigrant women from the Philippines and Canada are the least likely to lack a high school diploma (8.6 and 9.4 percent).
- Immigrant women are more likely than U.S.-born women to live in poverty (19.7 percent compared with 14.7 percent). Among the ten largest sending countries, immigrant women from the Dominican Republic (30.3 percent), Mexico (30.0 percent), Cuba (22.6 percent), and El Salvador (20.8 percent) have the highest poverty rates. Immigrant women from India (5.7 percent), the Philippines (6.9 percent), and Canada (11.1 percent) have the lowest poverty rates.
- Immigrant women are significantly less likely to have health insurance coverage than U.S.-born women (66.3 percent of immigrant women aged 18–64 compared with 84.6 percent of U.S.-born women of the same age range). Immigrants face multiple barriers in accessing basic health coverage, including a federal law that bans many immigrants from means-tested benefit programs such as Medicaid in their first five years of legal status (Broder and Blazer 2011; National Immigration Law Center 2014).2 In Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), states may waive the five-year waiting period for children and pregnant women who are lawfully residing in the United States. As of January 2015, 27 states and the District of Columbia covered otherwise eligible immigrant children to some extent under this option, and 22 states and the District of Columbia covered otherwise eligible pregnant women (Kaiser Family Foundation 2015b). The Affordable Care Act also permits immigrants who are ineligible for Medicaid due to the five-year ban to buy private insurance through the insurance exchanges and receive subsidies (Hasstedt 2013).
- The percentage of immigrant women from the top ten sending countries who have health insurance varies widely. Mexican and Salvadoran immigrant women are the least likely to have coverage (only 44.0 percent and 51.5 percent, respectively). Canadian and Indian women are the most likely to have coverage (89.6 percent and 88.1 percent have health insurance, respectively).
Data on poverty rates, educational attainment, and health insurance are based on IWPR analysis of 2013 American Community Survey microdata.
1 Immigrant women are those born outside the United States who were not U.S. citizens at birth. As Singer, Wilson, and DeRenzis (2009) observe, this includes legal permanent residents, naturalized citizens, refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants who temporarily stay in the United States. It also includes some undocumented immigrants, although this population may be undercounted by Census survey data. The term U.S.-born refers to individuals born in the United States or abroad to American parents.
2 Refugees and certain other humanitarian immigrants are not subject to this bar (Broder and Blazer 2011). There are also other exceptions to these restrictions; for example, in SNAP, the five-year waiting period is waived for children who are legal permanent residents or have certain other lawful immigration statuses (U.S. Department of Agriculture 2014).Under federal law, undocumented immigrants are generally ineligible for all public benefits, with a few exceptions (National Immigration Law Center 2014).