Steve’s 91-year-old mother recently spent time in a hospital near our home in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. The nurses who cared for her included Leah from Kenya and Jo-Anne from South Africa. The social workers who processed her discharge were Grace from Cameroon and Patricia from Trinidad. If you withdrew all the foreign-born women from that hospital, its infrastructure would collapse overnight.
This is no surprise to us. The women who have cared for Steve’s mother over the last few years are all from Jamaica. The group that ministers to Cokie’s 94-year-old mother is from the Philippines. We even refer to them in the family as Team Jamaica and Team Philippines.
Our mothers are fed and bathed, caressed, cajoled and consoled, by the strong hands of foreign-born women. And that says something significant about the changing nature of immigration in contemporary America. We are living through a historic shift that has been called the “feminization of immigration.” In every year since 1993, women have accounted for a majority of the legal newcomers to this country, and today just about half of all foreign-born Americans are female.
Moreover, these women are not just passive dependents following their male relatives. Increasingly, they are independent figures, migrating on their own for economic and social reasons. As sociologist Susan C. Pearce has written, “Immigrant women today are more likely than in the past to be single, to have few children, and to join the labor force.”
Critics of immigration often focus on the rare examples of violent newcomers — criminals, gang members, terrorists — to smear everyone who comes to this country with a dark skin and a strange accent. As one woman, protesting the construction of a mosque in Tennessee, shouted, “We are at war with these people.”
No. We are not.
The foreign-born nurses and caregivers far outnumber the plotters and gangsters but get far less publicity. They just do their work, behind the scenes, patient by patient, and we’re a far richer nation because they are here.
It’s a cliche that immigrants “do jobs that Americans won’t do.” The usual examples are male-dominated trades like construction and landscaping, but that misses an important point. Yes, many foreigner-born workers cut our lawns, but they also care for our parents. In the next 20 years, the over-65 population will exceed 70 million, almost one in five Americans, and immigrant caregivers will be more needed than ever.
The migration of younger, independent women is not just about income, it’s also about identity. The process of leaving home can free women from traditional social structures that dictate where they live, what they earn, and who they marry.
As Pearce wrote in a paper for the Immigration Policy Council: “Although changing gender roles have opened up new educational, professional and personal opportunities for women in many parts of the world, immigrant women often find the United States to be especially liberating in this regard when compared to their home countries.”
For his recent book on immigration, “From Every End of This Earth,” Steve interviewed Anya Plana, who was recruited in the Philippines to teach school in Texas. Back home, she said, “My identity was tied to my family name. Here I was free to have my own circle of friends, I could choose to be influenced by people or not.”
Immigrant women also have a major impact on the countries they leave behind. Remittances play a critical role in many developing countries, reaching $420 billion worldwide last year, according to the World Bank. Demographer Nancy V. Yinger has found that women stay more closely connected to relatives back home and therefore “tend to remit a larger portion of their earnings” than men do.
One woman who cares for Cokie’s mother helped build a house for her family in the Philippines. Alice Ingabire, a woman from Rwanda profiled in Steve’s book, did the same thing. From the day she arrived in America for college, and started cleaning professors’ homes to earn money, she sent half of her paycheck to her mother and sisters.
Immigrant women transmit ideas and attitudes as well as cash, in the form of “social remittances.” And these imports of information, says Yinger, “can lead to new gender norms” in traditional cultures that boost women’s health and economic status, and “promote human rights and gender equality.”
That’s all to the good. But right now we are most grateful to the hands, and hearts, of the immigrant women who make our mothers’ lives better. Every day.
Steve Roberts’ new book, “From Every End of This Earth” (HarperCollins), was published this fall. Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com.