Adareli Ponce is a typical working woman in America, but her work experience is not typically “American.” Even though the products of the labor of women like her are everywhere, her story is invisible to many.Â As the main provider for her family back in Hidalgo, Mexico, the 31-year-old has spent years slogging away in U.S. chocolate and seafood processing facilities. Migration was her chance to escape the entrenched poverty that ensnares so many young women in her hometown, who she says are often excluded from sustainable job opportunities. But the journey has been fraught with hardship and loneliness.
This week,Â she and a number of other women who have worked in the U.S. on “guestworker” visasÂ went to Washington, D.C.Â with the bi-national labor advocacy group Centro de los Derechos del MigranteÂ to testify about migrant women’s struggles.
BecauseÂ most migrant workers are men, Ponce said in her public testimony, â€śmigrant women are commonly excluded and made invisible in debates about immigration.” But they make up as much as over 40 percent of the low-wage immigrant labor force,Â according to some estimates,Â and theyÂ face gender-specificÂ problems ranging fromÂ sexual harassmentÂ on the job to the challenges of transborder motherhood.
If migrant women are missing from the immigration debate, they are also excluded fromÂ conversations aboutÂ U.S.Â women in the workforce, which tend toÂ dwell on white-collar problems likeÂ the gender pay gap and the corporate “glass ceiling.” Migrant women face much more basic problems: how toÂ stave off sexual abuse and cope with long-term separation from their children, which compound issues common to migrants of all genders, likeÂ crushing poverty orÂ heat exhaustion and toxic fumesÂ in farmÂ fields.
Ironically, migrant women workers have propelled opportunities for middle-class Americans. Moms who work outside of the home can better achieve work/life balance thanks to options like a migrant nanny at home or frozen seafood dinners processed by the industries fueled by migrant women’s labor.
Facing double discrimination as immigrants and women, female guestworkersÂ like PonceÂ risk beingÂ tracked into especially low-paid, exploitative jobs. In this racket,Â everyone else gets a cut:international labor recruitersÂ who act as shady brokers of coveted visa jobs; U.S. employers who bring in these workers toÂ serve as cheap, â€śdisposableâ€ť labor, and big corporations like Walmart that earn fat profitsÂ at the expense of underpaid migrantsÂ in subcontracted supply chains.
Advocates are pushing forÂ preservation of the family reunification systemÂ and aÂ more open, humanitarian-based legalization process. Many support the billâ€™s provisions to expand immigrant’ labor rights, including reforms toÂ curb employer abuses of the guestworker system. But even with those reforms,Â perilous barriers to family reunification would remain. And for undocumented workers, the process for petitioning for legalization could take well over a decade and involve strict employment requirements and fines, which might forecloseÂ opportunities for women to qualifyâ€”yet another gender barrierÂ to setting here and reuniting with family. At the end of the day, whether they start out with papers or not, a workers’ family could take half a generation to become whole again.
Thatâ€™s too long to wait for the mothers, sisters and daughters who have for years toiled in the U.S. for their families, yet no longer know what their children look like.Â Thereâ€™s no provision in the reform bill that resolves the pain of that longing. There are only voices like Ponceâ€™s, which have no grand legislative solutionsâ€”just an appeal for dignity in return for all theyâ€™ve given up.
This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on October 12, 2013. Â Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Michelle ChenÂ is a contributing editor atÂ In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor atÂ CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer ofÂ Asia Pacific ForumÂ on Pacifica’s WBAI. Her work has appeared on Alternet, Colorlines.com, Ms., and The Nation, Newsday, and her old zine,Â cain.