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Back | Programme Area: Gender and Development (2000 - 2009), Special Events (2000 - 2009)

Gendering Migration, Livelihood and Entitlements: Migrant Women in Canada and the United States (Draft) (Draft)

Background paper prepared for the UNRISD report "Gender Equality: Striving for Justice in an Unequal World"

Although women have always migrated, developments in the last quarter of the twentieth century sustain both their presence in international migration flows and their recognition as migrants. In less-developed nations, structural adjustment programs shrink opportunities for male employment and for traditional forms of profit making, and contribute to declining government revenues. In turn, imperatives of finding alternative means for making a living, making a profit, and securing government revenue stimulate the international migration of women and men alike. Moreover, growing insecurities cause states, households and individuals to increasingly rely on women’s labor for their survival, a phenomenon that has been referred to as the “feminization of survival”. Women, of course, have always been heavily involved in their families’ and communities’ survival; but the phrase highlights the increasingly public and visible forms of women’s contributions to state and household economic strategies in the face of extreme conditions and growing world-wide demand for their services. One consequence is the increasing percentage of women in migration flows to all world regions, including North America.

Reflecting the broad similarities between Canada and the United States, many aspects of immigrant women’s experiences are similar in the two countries. Despite the efforts of the women’s movement of the 1970s and 1980s, and the subsequent enactment of affirmative action legislation, gender stratification, defined as asymmetrical relations of power and access to resources that privilege men, persists in both Canada and the United States. Consequently, the modes of entry into North America are gendered, implying that men and women frequently enter under different criteria governing the admission of permanent residents. Migrant women often enter as wives and dependents of men who sponsor their admission, and they are usually less likely than men to enter on humanitarian or economic grounds. However, the effects of gender stratification do not end there. Many migrant women engage in paid work; like their native-born counterparts, immigrant women face a gender stratified labor market where they frequently are employed in female typed occupations, stereotypically labelled as “women’s jobs”.

These jobs held by migrant women occur within similar economies. In both Canada and the United States, the move away from farming and heavy manufacturing began early in the twentieth century, and then escalated so that by the close of the century, employment in both countries was overwhelming in service industries. But in post-industrial economies, both the residual manufacturing and the growing service sectors can provide good and bad jobs. Migrant women in both Canada and the United States have their share of both, with examples ranging from seamstress work to domestic, cleaning and nursing occupations. Overall, the negative impacts of gender combine with those of being an immigrant, with the result that immigrant women are “doubly” disadvantaged,” and most likely to be over-represented in marginal, unregulated, and/or poorly paid jobs.

Both Canada and the United States have undergone similar developments in their immigration policies. From the start, first as areas of settlement, then as British colonies, and finally as independent nation-states, both countries sought migrants as permanent residents. Beginning in the 1960s and continuing throughout the remainder of the century, both countries dismantled their earlier immigration policies which permitted migration only for those of European, and thus white, origins. Combined with increasing global economic and political penetration, one result of the new immigration legislation of the 1960s and beyond was a dramatic shift in the origin, and colour composition, of permanent residents. Canadian and US cities now present a vibrant mix of ethnic and racial groups and individuals from every corner of the globe. Despite the very real opportunities that immigration continues to provide to newcomers in these countries, and despite the remarkable accomplishments and achievements of immigrants over time, it is nonetheless true that outcomes and opportunities are not evenly distributed, especially as regards employment. A very real potential for immigrant women now is to be “triply disadvantaged” in the labor market by virtue of being female, foreign-born and phenotypically “non-white.”

However, contemporary experiences of immigrant women in Canada and the United States do not wholly reflect the effects of gender, immigrant and racial stratification systems and the impacts of altered immigration policies. Stratification systems and immigration policies evolve and are applied within historical, political and ideological contexts in Canada and the United States. Among its many distinctive historical attributes, the United States shares a long land border with Mexico, thus setting the stage early on for state regulated migration on a temporary basis. The Bracero program permitted the legal and temporary entry of Mexicans to work for American farmers. Today, the strong business lobby for temporary labor migration also advocates for the recruitment of temporary information technology workers, and provisions are found in American immigration legislation. Another equally important legacy of shared borders is the development of sustained flows of migrants who entered the United States illegally, without government authorization. As a result, both temporary workers and illegal migrants are key items in any discussion of female migration into the United States. In Canada less attention is paid to these two categories of migrants, partly because the land border is shared with the United States rather than with a newly developed country.

The political systems of the two countries also contain differences which shape the climate within which migrant women enter and live out their lives. At both the federal and provincial levels, the Canadian system is a parliamentary one, in which party leaders typically maintain strong control over their party’s elected members of parliament. At the federal level, two governing bodies exist, an elected parliament and an appointed senate, with appointments terminated either by resignation or retirement at age 75. Federal-provincial relations are codified and on-going, achieved by Premier meetings, and by federal-provincial meetings between representatives of departments. In such a system, regulations are not enshrined in legislation, which instead states major guiding principles. As a result, alterations in immigrant admissions policies can occur with little visibility via bureaucratic guidelines rather than requiring continual legislative adjudication. As well, government departments have some discretion to fine tune guidelines, as happened with respect to refugee women facing gender related persecution.

In contrast, the United States system of governance is congressional, consisting of an elected House of Representatives and elected Senate. Party control over elected members is more precarious, and energetic politicians can be highly entrepreneurial, sometimes contradicting party platforms on issues. Accompanying the implicit system of checks and balances found in the governing structure (the legislative consisting of Congress and the Senate, the Executive and the Judiciary) is the development of a powerful lobbying system comprised of fiercely engaged interest groups. These features of governance affect development of immigration policies in the United States. Immigration legislation is highly visible and subject to capture and contest by interested parties. Difficulties in obtaining consensus over many diverse issues contained in a comprehensive immigration bill mean that immigration legislation has been piecemeal from the mid-1980s on, with separate acts or laws focussing solely on refugees, or on temporary workers, or on other issues such as amnesties. Within this context, it comes as no surprise that specific acts combine to produce competing results and that some issues surrounding immigration policies are subject to continual revisiting. For example, despite on-going discourse on the need to have policies that are labor focussed, family reunification remains the biggest component of immigration to the United States. American debates and legislation on temporary workers and amnesties are also reoccurring events.

In the realm of ideologies and belief systems, Canada and the United States are different yet similar. Despite on-going devolution of responsibilities to the provinces, the Canadian federal government remains more engaged in the policy and social support arenas than currently holds in the United States. These differences ultimately may reflect fundamental differences in societal values. Individualism is emphasized in the United States and collectivism in Canada, each rooted in the initial principles of nation-statehood of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for the United States, and “peace, order and good government” for Canada (Lipset 1990). Consistent with such value differences are the distinctive health care systems of the two countries, with privatized, user pay in the US versus federally funded, provincially supplied and universal health care coverage in Canada. These differences in turn affect access to health care for migrant women and their children.

Although differences exist in governance, in policy engagement, and possibly in values, both countries are similar ideologically in two respects. First, both are described as liberal welfare states, in which safety nets are extended to members on the basis of their attachments to paid work. Second, in both, ideological, political and policy climates have shifted over the 1980s and 1990s to include neo-liberal principals that emphasize the importance of an unfettered economy, and a minimally engaged government with respect to regulating the market and providing benefits. Such neo-liberal principles and accompanying policy climates have three implications in the field of immigration generally and for immigrant women in particular. First, rules and regulations that make up migration regimes bear the imprint of neo-liberal discourse. This is seen in debates over whom to admit, which increasingly emphasize the entry of those who can contribute to the market and enhance global competitiveness. It also is evident in the encouragement of growing numbers of temporary workers, many of whom are high skilled, as well as in the increased user-fees and administrative surcharges found in both countries, but particularly in Canada.

Second, in both countries, the pull toward free-market policies are consistent with lax enforcement of wage and workplace regulations, the persistence of stratified labor markets in which immigrant women often find themselves in the bottom strata, and listless affirmative action/employment equity legislation, which in turn also affects immigrant women. Third, in both countries, residents risk diminished entitlements in wake of the disengagement of governments from the provision of benefits, general erosion and privatization of social provision and deregulation of labour markets. These changes, which are consistent with neo-liberal commitments, have the potential to disproportionately affect the poor, and especially poor immigrants with educational or language deficits.

Immigrant disadvantage, then, occurs within the erosion of entitlements available to all residents in the US and in Canada; stratifying and awarding formal entitlements according to the legitimacy of perceived membership in the nation-state is not as a dominant approach as in Europe. Nonetheless, legal residency, gender and race can operate as stratifying, exclusionary criteria in all societies and the differences between the United States, Canada and Europe in the sources of immigrant disadvantage are those of degree rather than being absolute. As discussed in the later sections of this paper, the stratification of entitlements appears to have happened with respect to migrant women who are Live-in Domestic Workers in Canada and with respect to migrant women and men in the United States following Proposition 187 in California and major welfare reform legislation in 1996. And, hierarchical citizenship statuses, as an additional strategy to avoid the high costs of immigrant integration, may increasingly appear on the North American policy horizons. Signs exist in the growing numbers of temporary workers and in recent proposals in the US and Canada to hugely augment this group by converting irregular migrants into temporary workers.

Taken together, the migration of women and their livelihoods and entitlements in Canada and the United States reflects the forces of globalization and country similarities and differences in principles of stratification, in economic structures, in systems of governance, and in adherence to neo-liberal principles. As a result, the situation of migrant women in North America defies a simple story, particularly when comparisons are made between Canada and the United States. In some circumstances, the situation of migrant women in both countries is remarkably similar; in other circumstances, differences exist. Such similarities and differences are evident in the three core sections of the paper, which begins with a look at changes in migration patterns, giving first an overall analysis of new migration regimes and then a close look at their effects on women. The next area of concern is that of gendered work environments and how these are tied to recent government decisions. Finally, the paper examines immigrant entitlements, showing where government actions regarding social programs affect all immigrants generally as well as immigrant women specifically.