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  • Aditya Biswas


There are more than 23 million female immigrants in the United States today, they play an important role in the country, both societally and economically. Statistics show that the female immigrants, from various ethnic parts of the world, outnumber their male counterparts. However, these immigrant women have long faced inequalities and were subjected to exploitation. This paper will attempt to analyse the various forms of inequalities faced by female immigrants in the U.S.

Basic conceptual links

Tilly suggests that underlining the many and varied types of inequality discovered and defined by historians, sociologists and anthropologists lay in two influential mechanisms that in his opinion are central—exploitation and opportunity hoarding. (Tilly, 1998). These processes form the grassroots of the inequalities faced by the immigrants while adjusting to and trying to fit into a new society. This systematic account of the American stratification system faced by the female immigrants relies heavily on the framework elaborated in Durable Inequality to get at the mechanisms that have sustained racial, gender and class inequalities in the U.S (Massey, 2007). The gender factor also plays an important role in the prolonged discrimination faced by women immigrants, conforming to Tilly’s idea that those differential inequalities are organized around binary or hierarchically bounded categories such as male/female.

Historic links

During the 18th century when U.S. was a flourishing nation, economically; with the promise of job prosperity, many people from a variety of ethnicities began to migrate to the U.S. The unvarying predominance of female immigrants over the past century appears unique, as in the UN data reports on sex ratio of immigrants from over 19 countries, only U.S. consistently reported annual entries of more female immigrants than male (Houstoun,1984,909-910).

Historically, immigration laws have recognized the value of immigrant women's contributions as domestic workers. But even then, the female domestic workers have been excluded from legalization and a pathway to citizenship because they could not provide proof of work. For a long time, the United States has been seen as a land of chance, a place where prospective immigrants can seek wealth and upward mobility. Yet, US natives have expressed concern both in the past and today that immigration lowers salaries, and that new immigrants struggle to assimilate into US society. Immigration history in the U.S. has been shaped by substantial changes in the immigration policy which was almost always in a negative light with respect to the immigrants. Women immigrants, in addition, have faced gender inequality as in the U.S. during the 1900s, regardless of a women’s skill, it was assumed that women cannot be self-sufficient without a man with even their citizenship deriving from their husbands.

Many more women than men come to the United States through the family-based immigration system. This put them at a disadvantage as they had to wait years due to immigration processing backlogs to obtain permission to work or solidify their permanent resident status, apart from their husband.

In addition to these, affidavits from female relatives for citizenship were not accepted. All these phenomena of inequality fall within the ideas of Tilly with regards categorical inequality, whereas the female immigrants, in reality, face exploitation and cannot identify themselves as an individual without the help of their male representatives.

Role of stratification

Stratification within the society plays a very prominent role in the long history of inequality faced by immigrant women in the United States. Migration and stratification are intimately and irrevocably linked, sharing a core focus on to what Weber insightfully called “life chances”. “Stratification is about differential life chances – who gets what and why, and migration is about improving life chances – getting more of the good things in life” (Jasso,2011). As seen historically, racial identification was a symbol of social status, and an important factor in the maintenance of group differentiation, being which was proven to affect all racial groups within the society in a similar fashion with different implications (Bashi). Similarly, the migrant status of women automatically differentiated them into a particular racial identity, based on their ethnicity. This differentiation is one of the main causes due to which they face inequalities and are discriminated. Banking on 20 years of national survey data, Colour lines, Country Lines found that disparities in wealth among immigrants are large and growing, including disparities among immigrants of the same race and ethnicity (Hao). This research similarly shows the disparities the migrant women face due to stratification present in the society and helps establish the negative links present between migration and stratification of the society.

Role of gender

Gender also conditions migratory practices and policies within a labour-importing country like the U.S. These societies have experienced the continuous growth of deskilled, female-intensive industries, particularly in service, healthcare, microelectronics, and apparel manufacturing (Pessar,2005,3). In the United States, gender and race work together to render Latin American and Caribbean female immigrants more employable in these labour-intensive industries rather than their male counterparts. This outcome rests on patriarchal and racist assumptions that women can afford to work for less, do not mind dead-end jobs, and are more suited physiologically to certain kinds of detailed and routine work (Espiritu 1997). These forms of inequalities deep rooted in the society can be explained as job segregation by sex from a variety of perspectives. On analysis, scholars were of the view that it was a divide and conquer strategy adopted by employers wary of a unified migrant working class, while others argued that creation of female job stereotype was characterized by low pay and that status is a necessary cornerstone in this patriarchal-capitalist system deeply enrooted in the society. A third approach was women’s failure to utilize their human capital to its potential, that led to sexual division of labour (Cobble, 1991,216). Immigrants, especially women, have faced these preconceived stereotypes that underestimate the likely contributions of these category of workers and stereotypes their capabilities which in turn has led them to being discriminated in job allocation and job rewards (Tilly, 1998). Due to this prolonged period of inequality and stereotyping faced by female immigrants, this categorically defined group has been associated to certain occupational niches in firms or labour markets. Statistics shows labour force participation of immigrant women aged 16 and older was 56.6 percent in 2018, while this categoric group is disproportionately represented in service occupations as one in three (32.5 %) immigrant female works in these occupations compared to 19.9 percent of U.S born women. They are less likely than U.S born women to work in office and administrative support occupations (13.3 %) and in professional and related occupations (21.8%) (American Immigration Council, 2020). The largest numbers of immigrant women workers were maids and housekeepers in 2015 and most of the immigrants worked in light industries. These empirical evidence helps to substantiate the claim of formation of occupational niches which have been stereotyped with immigrant females.

Gender discrimination in jobs

Women immigrants of the United States face inequality as they typically fill economically essential yet poorly paid jobs, in fact 42 percent of immigrant women were concentrated in low-wage occupations (American Immigration Council, 2020). The undocumented immigrant women living in America are perhaps the most underpaid workers due to double wage disparity which is a consequence of gender-based and immigration status-based discrimination. As a result of this double disparity statistics show that immigrant female earns just 75 cents to a man’s dollar (Garcia, 2013). The systematic inequality faced by female immigrants coincide with Charles Tilly’s ideas of exploitation as they face categoric inequality which is deeply embedded in the society. Over the years this societal stratification has been misused by organizations to exploit the immigrants, especially female immigrants by underpaying them and not providing them with their basic rights. Female immigrants have been more severely exploited than their male counterparts as their gender had led them to another categoric form of discrimination based on male/female divide. Drawing parallel from Tilly’s Durable Inequality we can find that the at the base of colonialization of South Africa lay a system of severe exploitation where European masters-controlled mines and farms, which in turn led the African workers to commit effort to those enterprises where they were rewarded much less than their value effort and in fact benefitting the Europeans (Tilly, 1998). In the same way female immigrants have faced continuing discrimination in the capitalist job and labour market prevailing in United States, they have been segregated by virtue of sex, race and class to jobs which are underpaid compared to the value added by them. Another explanation for low paid nature of jobs and the key barriers to upward mobility for many low-wage immigrant female workers can be said to be the relative lack of skills and their underutilization of human capital. Reports show that two-fifths (39.9 percent) of low-wage immigrant workers lacked a high-school diploma; one-third (34.5 percent) had only a high-school diploma; fewer than one-fifth (17.9 percent) had some college education short of a degree, while only 7.7 percent had a bachelor’s degree or higher (American Immigration Council, 2020). But this lack of education of the female immigrants are because they are stuck in the vicious cycle of poverty induced upon them due the low paying nature of jobs and the stereotype they face while getting jobs. This has resulted in them following the same lives where they are regularly discriminated and exploited against.

Harassment faced by women immigrants

Undocumented female immigrants in particular face sexual abuse and harassment at work. The cultural isolation, poverty, need for work and fear of deportation are the factors that make women immigrants especially vulnerable to sexual assault and harassment. Most victims are unaware of the fact that they can receive protection against these kinds of act. Immigrant women and girls are perceived to be more legally and socially vulnerable. One of the most significant factors affecting a woman’s decision to report abuse is her immigration status as they fear being deported and losing their employment due to lack of access to legal resources and linguistic barriers (Husain, 2015). Another form of exploitation faced by the female immigrants was in the healthcare sector. Through working in areas with poor workplace safety and health standards, immigrant’s risk ill health, but the constant fear of being deported, imprisoned, and finally expelled makes them unwilling to complain about working conditions. Although their wellbeing is still at higher risk, they were not qualified for basic preventive services for example, pregnant women without a social security number, although they are the ones in need, are not eligible for the WIC supplementary feeding program. Children of foreign immigrants growing up in the U.S. are exposed to stressful and disruptive living conditions which may result in mental health problems from an early age (Sally, 1984). Immigrant women working as domestic workers in the United States are considered so unworthy of legal protection that basic worker’s rights do not extend to them, even the political climate and leadership of recent times have a very unwelcoming attitude towards them. Many women even face slave-like working condition. Some real-life examples are, Camille a domestic help is paid $13-$14 an hour which is well below what a full-time nanny must get and is also discriminated due to her colour. She does not confront her employer to demand better pay and equitable treatment as she is afraid of losing her job. Another instance is of Rodriguez who has been sexually harassed by male intermediaries and her pregnancy was treated “like a contagious disease”, but despite all of these she could not say anything because of her undocumented status and her fear of getting deported (Aljazeera, 2017). Poverty, gender discrimination, illiteracy and low levels of education, regional conflicts, and a lack of job opportunities affect women in great numbers. Such conditions pressure women to migrate and make them particularly vulnerable to trafficking that is, to unscrupulous recruiters or employers who, through force, fraud, or coercion, place women in job situations to which they did not consent and from which they cannot freely escape and fall prey to different forms of human trafficking (ACLU, 2020). These inequalities have led to establishing effective means of exploitation where categoric boundaries were created segregating the immigrant women. These boundaries of exploitation can be seen in the sense of categoric unequal rewards received for the value added by them and physical and mental exploitation faced by them in their workplace. Widespread coincidence of gender boundaries with exploitation-mobility frontiers within firms has an unexpected, fascinating implication as men cast women in conventional male/female roles. Male sexual predation towards women also contribute to the plight of the immigrant females as they are afraid to raise their voices in fear of serious repercussions that they might face (Tilly, 1998).

Reasons pertaining to this exploitative arrangement

This ongoing arrangement of exploitation and discrimination has been cemented by the categoric inequality toward the female immigrant which has emerged from multiple categorically differentiated experiences. Two mechanisms cement these kinds of arrangement namely exploitation and opportunity hoarding. The female immigrants are segregated to certain kinds of jobs which are inherently of the nature of being underpaid, this leads to opportunity hoarding by the powerful organisations and enterprises against the female immigrants. The poverty-stricken immigrant women fall prey to the negative effects of opportunity hoarding which is inherently present in the societal stratification. Over the year’s immigrant female are associated with these niches of employment which are the result of the ongoing opportunity hoarding used by powerful enterprises to continually exploit them. Exploitation and opportunity hoarding favour the installation of categorical inequality. Tilly argues that familiar and enduring relations of social inequality although qualitatively different are established through exploitation and opportunity hoarding and that the most persistent and powerful causes of inequality to be concatenation of casual mechanism (Tilly, 1998).


Taking everything in account we can see that immigrant females face discrimination and inequality in every aspect of their life. They are not provided with proper citizenship, suffer from sexual abuse, are underpaid, and do not receive basic human rights treatment. They undergo this systematic exploitation as because the powerful derive benefits from this arrangement. The political environment in United States is also against the goodwill of the immigrants which can be very well understood by their immigration laws. The powerful enterprises have long benefitted from this arrangement by exploiting the undocumented immigrants and this shas been going on from a long time. Apart from these inequalities faced by them they are also regularly discriminated on the basis of caste, colour, and ethnicity. Furthermore, women immigrants are exploited based on their gender and face categoric inequality based on the male/female conventional division. All these inequalities faced by the female immigrants are the perfect embodiment of Charles Tilly’s theory of exploitation by powerful organisations against the less privileged. As in Durable Inequality he uses colonialization of South Africa and the exploitation faced by the black natives (Tilly, 1998) as an example here parallel can be drawn between the black natives and women immigrants as they both have faced a history of systematic and categorical exploitation. Their children are born in this vicious arrangement and face inequalities and exploitation their whole life from which it is very hard to find a way out.

Works cited

American Immigration Council (2020), “Immigrant Women and Girls in the United States: A Portrait of Demographic Diversity”, pp. 1-10.

Arizpe, Lourdes. (1977), “Women in the Informal Labor Sector: The Case of Mexico City.” Signs, vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 25–37.

Bashi, V., & McDaniel, A. (1997). A Theory of Immigration and Racial Stratification. Journal of Black Studies, 27(5), 668-682.

Bick, Carolyn (2017), “Invisible women: Domestic workers underpaid and abused”, Aljazeera News.

Cobble, D. S. (1991). Dishing it out: Waitresses and their unions in the twentieth century. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Garcia, Ann, et al. (2013), “Unequal Pay Day for Immigrant Women”, Center for American Progress.

Hao, Lingxin (2007). “Color Lines, Country Lines: Race, Immigration, and Wealth Stratification in America”. Russell sage Foundation.

Houstoun, Marion F., et al. (1984), “Female Predominance in Immigration to the United States Since 1930: A First Look.”, The International Migration Review, vol. 18, no. 4, pp. 908–963.


Husain, Alina (2015), “Immigrant Women, Work, and Violence Statistics.”, Washington College of Law.

Jasso G. (2011). Migration and stratification. Social science research, 40(5), 1292–1336.

Sally, Guttmacher (1984), “Women Migrant Workers In the US”, Cultural Survival Quarterly Magazine.


About the author: Aditya Biswas is a first year Law student double majoring in Law and Business Administration at JGLS.

Cover Image: Peter Stackpole

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