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Illegal Immigration Is Not Just Men's Work

By Laura Hill, research fellow, Public Policy Institute of California
This opinion article appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune on March 17, 2004

It used to be that illegal immigration was men's work. This is no longer the case: More than ever before, it is women's work, too.

Twenty years ago, illegal immigrants were predominantly male. Today, women and children cross our borders illegally with far greater frequency than in the past. This important fact has apparently been lost on lawmakers proposing guest worker programs: None of these proposals takes into account the reality that these workers can and will have families here during their stay in the United States.

Under President Bush's new immigration proposal, undocumented workers can apply for guest worker visas. The president's proposal would grant this status for a maximum of six years, after which time a worker must leave the United States. Some counterproposals would allow workers to remain for a longer period of time, and in some cases, to become citizens. But while they do address some abuses of the past, none of these proposed programs takes on the issues raised by the presence of many guest-worker women and their families.

Why does this issue matter? Today, over 40 percent of the undocumented population in the United States is female, and some 30 percent of guest-worker applications could come from women. Migrants who participated in the only other formal program of temporary migration for guest workers (the Bracero program, 1942-64) were predominantly Mexican males.

Because most men came alone, few Braceros had children born in the United States. But times have changed: Today, we know that the approximately 9 million undocumented men and women who live in the United States have 3 million citizen children.

Children born in the United States are citizens, regardless of the legal status of their parents. Parents of these children, who have broken the law to get here, and whose employers are breaking the law to employ them, may be deported at any time. Under current immigration law, only 4,000 illegal residents can be granted protection from deportation due to the hardships forced family separation would cause a citizen (or lawful resident) child or spouse.

Under a new temporary guest-worker regime, this cap would be insufficient to handle the numbers of citizen children who could be separated from parents once guest-worker visas expire. Indeed, fears about eventual forced separation could cause the entire program to fail if the undocumented are afraid to participate. Further, any policy that necessarily causes parents and children to be separated is wholly inconsistent with our current focus on family values.

It is possible that the authors of proposed guest-worker programs assume that parents will simply take their citizen children home with them when their visas expire. This assumption is not borne out by past experience. The far likelier scenario is that workers will choose to remain in the United States illegally in order to give their citizen children the benefits of growing up here.

Clearly, the oversight in considering the families of guest workers needs to be addressed in future versions of the proposed programs. Will guest workers be allowed to bring their spouses and children with them during their employment term? If guest workers are not allowed to bring their families with them, how will we respond if they do? How will citizen children be dealt with if and when their parents are forced to leave? At a minimum, it would seem that it will be necessary to raise the 4,000 per year cap on the number of immigrants who can avoid deportation due to the hardship it would cause a citizen child.

The good news is that the issue of a new guest-worker policy is so contentious that political leaders are not feeling the need for a speedy resolution. This means that there is time for a more well-rounded discussion of how to make our nation's immigration policy consistent with the reality and demographics of immigration today.

Californians have a vested interest in getting these guest-worker programs right. Our state is home to more than a quarter of the nation's undocumented immigrants, and we can expect that these new national policies will affect us disproportionately.


California Counts: California's Newest Immigrants

Just the Facts: Immigrants in California

Understanding the Future of Californians' Fertility: The Role of Immigrants