A powerful opening presentation by the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Sonia Nazario created a compelling backdrop for this year’s annual Radcliffe conference on gender. Held in late April and titled “Crossing Borders: Immigration and Gender in the Americas,” the conference drew on the work of a diverse range of academics and practitioners to broaden awareness of the role gender plays in the causes and consequences of migration.
Nazario, a career journalist most recently on staff at the Los Angeles Times, is the author of Enrique’s Journey (Random House, 2007), a national best seller that chronicles the perilous passage of a teenage boy from Honduras through Mexico to the United States, in search of the mother who left him when he was just five years old. Research for the book pitched Nazario into the world of the “small army” of children as young as nine who travel, undocumented and alone, through Central America and Mexico, clinging to the tops and sides of so-called “death trains,” in danger of attack from violent bandits, corrupt officials, and kidnappers, as well as of accidental death or maiming on the rails. While traveling with these children, Nazario came to understand both the pain of separation that impelled them to pursue their mothers—often with just a phone number on a slip of paper to guide them—and the crushing poverty that drove their mothers to seek jobs in the United States in order to support them.
A decade ago, by Nazario’s estimate, 48,000 children a year were attempting to enter the United States in this manner, chiefly from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Today, she said, that number has swelled to almost 100,000. In addition to searching for their mothers, many of these children are fleeing abusive home situations, forced recruitment into transnational narcotics gangs, and other forms of violent crime.
Nazario’s presentation was followed by an introductory address by the University of California at Irvine sociology professor Rubén G. Rumbaut, who said, “We live in a world of widening inequalities. Since the end of World War II, the crossing of borders from poorer, younger countries to richer, aging countries has been accelerating and will continue to accelerate inexorably.”
Rumbaut, who has directed major empirical studies of immigrants and refugees in the United States, offered an overview of the history of the study of gender in migration. Statistics on legal immigration to the United States indicate that women have outnumbered men every year since the 1930s. But until fairly recently, Rumbaut said, academics studying this topic had not looked at gender “as a factor that can be analyzed on a continuum from patriarchal to matrifocal” that affects the actions of men and women migrants. A turning point came in 1994, when the Social Science Research Council appointed an interdisciplinary committee to help define the field of immigration studies. That committee—which included Rumbaut and “Crossing Borders” conference participants Mary C. Waters and Nancy Foner—set up working groups, conferences, and fellowships to encourage research on immigration across disciplines. One of those working groups focused on migration and gender, and its findings have since influenced the work of historians, anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, political scientists, legal scholars, and others in the field of immigration studies.
The Feminization of Immigration?
Of the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in this country—a total that Mary Waters, the conference chair and a Harvard sociology professor, compared to the number of African Americans living in the southern United States during the Jim Crow era—51 percent are women and children. “Americans in general are quite ambivalent about immigration,” Waters noted. “We’re proud of our own immigrant ancestors . . . but we’re worried about the immigrants who keep arriving.”
During a panel titled “The Gendering of the International Migration,” Donna R. Gabaccia, chair of the University of Minnesota’s Immigration History Research Center, cautioned against characterizing the increased mobility of women and children in the 21st century as “an aberrant, or revolutionary, or negative development.” She maintained that what some term the “feminization” of immigration might better be described as a “long-term, global convergence towards gender balance in international migration”—a convergence that is creating immigrant populations with male-to-female ratios that more closely resemble those in their new countries. Yet Gabaccia acknowledged that women and children migrants face distinctive challenges—a theme taken up by the panelist Carola Suárez-Orozco, a professor of psychological studies in education at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Suárez-Orozco said that female migrants are twice as likely as their male counterparts to be widowed, divorced, or separated and are more likely to bear financial and caretaking responsibility for children, either in their new countries or in the homes they left behind. Both Suárez-Orozco and the City University of New York sociology professor Robert C. Smith emphasized the particular burdens that undocumented immigrant status places on women. Vulnerability to violence during crossing, exploitation once they arrive, the threat of deportation and family separation, poverty, and domestic violence create persistent psychological and physical stress.
Smith, who has worked with immigrant women who are victims of domestic violence in the United States, noted that many are from countries where the police are unlikely to intervene when the perpetrator is the victim’s husband or father. “One woman told me, ‘What I learned from my mother was silence,’” Smith reported. An innovative New York City program that offers enhanced legal status to immigrant women who press charges against their abusers has begun to empower women and alter some of these attitudes, he said. In other parts of the United States, however, undocumented women who call the police because of domestic violence almost certainly risk deportation.
Asylum from Violence
During a panel on law and asylum, Nancy Kelly, a co–managing director of the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic and Greater Boston Legal Services, revisited the plight of the 361 undocumented textile workers— including mothers of young children—who were arrested in 2007 in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and immediately sent to detention centers in Texas. Six years later, Kelly’s organization is still working to establish refugee status for some of these detainees. Many are Mayan women from Guatemala who came to the United States to escape “deep-seated racism” and gender-driven violence in a country torn apart by a bloody civil war that lasted from 1960 to 1996. The process of establishing asylum claims “is very labor-intensive,” Kelly said, adding that some US courts have begun “to issue very thoughtful asylum rulings in which they have looked at the history of violence perpetrated against this community as well as gender issues.”
The human rights lawyer Marsha Freeman spoke of the “deep pain of betrayal” that immigrant women bring with them to the United States from Central American countries that do little to protect them and their children from civil, racial, and domestic violence. In Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, she said, “Violence is in the water—it’s routine.” Although the United Nations and other organizations officially recognize violence against women as a human rights issue, Freeman, the director of the International Women’s Rights Action Watch at the University of Minnesota, emphasized that having laws on the books is not enough. “The real responsibility is in developing the structures that actually protect women,” she said. “That takes resources. That takes education. That takes cultural change. That takes functioning and honest police and judiciary systems.” Women continue to die in these countries, Freeman added, “and nobody really does anything about it.”
Dreamers and Reality
The day’s final panel focused on the experiences of the children of immigrants, including what Natasha Kumar Warikoo, the moderator and a Harvard Graduate School of Education professor, called their “transition to illegality as they enter adulthood.” Roberto G. Gonzales, a University of Chicago professor, contrasted the divergent paths of undocumented parents, who take low-wage jobs and live “in the shadows,” with those of their children, who are integrated immediately into the US school system and grow up “in the sunshine.” As children learn English, embrace American culture, and socialize with US-born peers, he said, “they move further and further away from the realities of their parents.”
However, when these children reach adulthood, “they are plunged into their parents’ world”—a world where they cannot get a Social Security number, a driver’s license, or a well-paid job. Gonzales quoted one young immigrant he interviewed, who said, “I’ve got levels of education that far surpass those of my parents. I can speak English with a much greater fluency. But here I am, with the same narrowly circumscribed range of options.”
The City University of New York professor Nancy Foner discussed this dilemma in concluding remarks that urged conference attendees to consider the impact of pending US immigration reform on the interests of women and children. She referenced the Dream Act, a long-debated piece of legislation that “puts young ‘dreamers’ on a fast track to legalization and citizenship.”
Similar measures would create new hope for immigrants who entered the United States as children, like the undocumented Honduran student who traveled to the conference from Texas with two other “dreamers.”
He asked the panelists, “What advice do you have for those of us who are dealing with the psychology of being undocumented?”
Reaching for an answer, Roberto Gonzales underscored the importance of teachers, community leaders, and social workers who understand the realities of living in poverty and fear.
Quetzal Rocks the Conference
"Crossing Borders" began with an evening performance by the Grammy-winning bilingual rock band Quetzal. Radcliffe Dean Lizabeth Cohen introduced the band, emphasizing Radcliffe's long-standing commitment to integrating the work of artists with that of academic scholars. Cohen said, "The rhythms, melodies, images, and insights inspired by Quezal's East Los Angeles immigrant community will open our eyes, imaginations, and hearts to the immigrant experience in ways that even the most brilliant analytic discourse cannot."
The band's lead singer, Martha Gonzalez, a feminist music theorist and doctoral candidate in the Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies program at the University of Washington, sparked an entertaining and thought-provoking program that alternated between music and discussion. In a break between sets, the moderator and Amherst College professor Ilan Stavans asked her about the power of music. "I believe that songs. . . influence and ignite thought," said Gonzalez, the daughter of Mexican immigrants and one of many women at the conference who exemplified the outstanding achievements of first- and second-generation immigrant women. "When you dialogue through creative expression, you reach a different kind of understanding. It lets you get tot bigger theories and ideas." The group's musical director, Quetzal Flores, also participated in the discussion.
DEBORAH BLAGG is a freelance writer.