Capitalism, immigration and women’s lives


Ana, a 26-year-old mother from La Libertad, El Salvador, decides the day has come to leave her home and take a three-week-long journey by land to the United States. She has raised enough money, over $10,000 per person, to pay the “coyote” who will guide her and her four-year-old son, Alex. She leaves her mother, her grandmother, cousins, and the community she has known her entire life. The only person she knows in the United States is a cousin living in Baltimore, Maryland.

Ana was always a good student. She loved school and wanted to become a nurse. Her mother sold food in the market to provide her with school supplies. Eventually, Ana could no longer afford to go to school. She realized that she could not support herself and her son alone. She had tried looking for work in the city, but was harassed as she traveled to and from work. Feeling that she had no other options, she decided to emigrate to the United States.

She faced the decision of whether to leave her child with her mother and travel alone. In the end, she was able to borrow enough money to cover her and her son’s journey to the United States together.

When the coyote delivered Ana to the border, they were arrested by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a division of the Department of Homeland Security. Immigration detained Ana and Alex for 20 days while they interviewed with an asylum officer about their reasons for coming to the United States. They were eventually released from detention to make space for more immigrants who had arrived. Now Ana works in Baltimore cleaning offices and supporting herself and her son while they both face an ongoing deportation case in immigration court. Ana’s story is but one of many examples of the realities of immigration to the United States.

Millions of people experience the realities of migration. The circumstances of exploitation, poverty and war that shape this reality and compel people to emigrate are created by the capitalist system itself.

Immigration is a women’s issue

The struggle of immigrants and refugees to gain democratic rights and economic justice is a stinging reminder of all of the injustice and violence that capitalism has sowed worldwide.

In fiscal year 2016 alone, Immigration and Customs Enforcement began deportation proceedings against more than 800,000 people. Over 50 percent of these people were arrested at the U.S.-Mexico border. Over 350,000 people were detained by U.S. immigration authorities in county jails and private immigration prisons for non-criminal violations. Over 450,000 people were deported from the United States. Over 90 percent of those deported are from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

In the last six months of 2016, ICE apprehended over 19,000 “family units” from El Salvador, over 16,000 from Guatemala, and over 16,000 from Honduras. A “family unit” is at least one parent traveling with one child or more. Over 7,000 children traveled without a parent from El Salvador to the U.S. border, over 9,000 from Guatemala, nearly 5,500 from Honduras and approximately 1,200 from Mexico. In FY 2014, over 68,000 youth immigrated to the United States without a parent. Forty percent of those young immigrants were girls.

While immigration is not considered by some to be a “women’s issue,” it is very much an issue for the millions of women it affects. At least three quarters of all immigrants to the United States are women or children. As of 2012, there were over 20 million immigrant women and girls in the United States, and this figure has certainly risen. Immigrant women outnumber immigrant men. In fact, some countries, like the Philippines and El Salvador, send so many women to the United States that they participate in the U.S. workforce at a higher rate than U.S.-born women. It is a “women’s issue.”

Immigrant women now work in every sector of the U.S. economy, and they reflect the diverse class composition of U.S. immigration. A third of immigrant women work in low-wage service jobs, while another third wor in “professional” occupations. Nevertheless, in terms of earnings, immigrant women earn less than every other demographic: immigrant men, U.S.-born men and U.S.-born women.

Women who immigrate to the United States also frequently overcome exceptional hurdles and gender-based oppression before the reach the border. United Nations reports from 2006 found that 6 to 70 percent of all women who try to enter the United States by land through Mexico are sexually assaulted along the way. Rape is so common that it is viewed as a price of admission to America. Women have reported taking birth control before they attempt to cross the border, expecting that they might be raped.

Border Patrol agents abuse women who cross the border. Recently, in 2014, 116 children between the ages of 5 and 17 filed a complaint with Department of Homeland Security listing over 100 incidents of abuse by Border Patrol officers, including assault and rape. Other complaints included lack of access to food, an torture, including being forced to drink toilet water. Overall, one in four children detained reported some abuse by the officers.

Causes of migration

Immigration from oppressed and formerly colonized countries to the United States is caused by global capitalism and the imperialist conquest of labor and markets worldwide. The resulting poverty, war, violence and environmental devastation force workers to travel to the economic centers of global capitalism, including the United States.

Class society has developed through many stages — all defined by the struggles between the exploiting and exploited classes.

Today, monopoly capitalism is defined by the rule of the banks and finance capitalists. Finance, production, services and trade are all monopolized by a relatively small group of owners, wealthy shareholders of financial institutions and giant corporations.

Capital has reached unparalleled levels of concentration and centralization, dominating the world economy. The 500 largest multinational corporations account for 35 to 40 percent of world income. This stage of capitalism in the United States, western European countries like England, France, Germany and Japan in Asia, among others, is known as imperialism.

Russian revolutionary V.I. Lenin defined imperialism:

If it were necessary to give the briefest possible definition of imperialism we should have to say that imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism. Such a definition would include what is most important, for, on the one hand, finance capital is the bank capital of a few very big monopolist banks, merged with the capital of the monopolist associations of industrialists; and, on the other hand, the division of the world is the transition from a colonial policy which has extended without hindrance to territories unseized by any capitalist power, to a colonial policy of monopolist possession of the territory of the world, which has been completely divided up.

Raul Delgado Wise, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization chair on Migration for Mexico, explained monopoly capitalism today and its relationship to migration in an article published in the Feb. 1, 2013, Monthly Review. He writes, “In expanding their operations, monopoly capitalism’s agents have created a global network of production, finance, distribution, and investment that has allowed them to seize the strategic and profitable segments of peripheral economies and appropriate their economic surplus.” Wise points out that outsourcing, extended global financial control, restructuring and environmental degradation fuel the capitalist system today. Furthermore, he notes that cheap labor acts as a “main engine.” These conditions create the conditions for widespread immigration, which is then criminalized by the system itself while corporations are free to move across boundaries that for them are insignificant.

Imperialist states, the most powerful of which is the United States, use their military might through war and military threats to defend the private economic interests of the ruling class, and use their economic power to defend their hegemony.

The crisis of refugees fleeing war in the Middle East shows that U.S. war policy leads to emigration. In the Syrian conflict, the United States and its allies have fueled the war by arming and supporting anti-government militants. Nevertheless, when hundreds of thousands of men, women and children fled this violence, all of the wealthiest countries, including the United States, kept their doors legally shut or allowed in limited numbers of refugees. Between 2011 and 2014, 2.8 million people fled the war. They have been forced to resettle in temporary camps throughout the Middle East and Europe. As of 2014, one-quarter of all Syrian refugee households were headed by women without male support.

This state of affairs has led to extreme poverty, and women have had to make tough decisions. Many women report having to leave their children alone or forcing them to work to meet the family’s basic needs.

War is just one consequence of imperialism. One prominent feature of the global economy today is the assault on labor and living conditions for the vast majority of workers. Specifically, the top 100 global corporations have shifted the majority of their production into the Global South.

The wealthiest corporations move their production intentionally to the poorest areas of the world, where they can pay workers the least. Corporations also look for places with weak environmental protections, and their operations destroy the planet.

So-called “free trade” agreements of the last 25 years, are designed to give the capitalists more power to exploit workers of the countries involved. The 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), for example, ended the corn subsidy that Mexico’s government provided its farmers, and allowed U.S. agribusiness to flood Mexico with U.S. corn and other products. This led to Mexican farmers’ impoverishment and mass migration of millions northward.

Economic conditions have created a “global reserve of labor,” people who accept employment in any country, at any rate, for sheer survival. These workers account for 60 percent of the global labor force. Approximately 630 million workers earn less than $1.25 a day.

Low wages and poor working conditions fuel international migration.
Effects of migration on women

Effects of migration on women

International migration has caused a pandemic of family separation. The U.S. immigration system has created a backlog of 4.4 million people who have filed immigration applications, but still wait for what could be decades, to reunite with family members. This separation disproportionately affects women, as 70 percent of women who have documents obtain them through family members. As a consequence, women remain in their home countries until all hope runs out that they will be able to support their families. They are forced to raise children and care for elderly parents alone, sacrificing to receive remissions from abroad.
Once women come to the United States, if they or their family members do not have immigration documents, they remain at risk of deportation. Whole families migrate in response to deportation. The number of U.S.-born children enrolling in Mexican schools is reportedly rising due to the deportation of family members.

Deportation also plunges immigrant families in the United States into poverty. An immigration arrest drops family household income by an average of approximately $15,400. This means that women need to take on multiple, often low-wage, jobs to survive. Foreign-born women make up 15 percent of all employed women in the United States over the age of 16. Over 60 percent of immigrant women in San Francisco reported not signing up for benefits for which they are eligible out of fear that they will be arrested by ICE or deported.

There are physical and psychological consequences for generations of women and children as a result of decades of family separation, detention, deportation, unemployment and poverty that are difficult to quantify. Isolation, violence and poverty lead women to rely on the men in their lives often forced to stay in violent relationships.

Immigrant women and the U.S. working class

According to the 2013 American Community Survey, there were 13.1 million immigrant women workers in the United States, making up approximately 7 percent of U.S. workers. Most women come from Mexico, the Philippines, India, China and Vietnam, migrating to the cities to work in housekeeping, nursing/home health, and service. They make up a significant component and contribute to the social composition of the working class today.

Over 20 years ago, Sam Marcy explained the importance of the changing nature of the working class in the pamphlet High Tech, Low Pay (1986):

The decline of the traditionally more privileged workers and industries with higher wages and the creation of a vast pool of lower-paid workers. … From a class point of view, it is truly one of the most profound, socially significant trends to emerge.

Statistics appear almost daily in the capitalist press that show how much of the working class today is Black, Latin, Asian, Native as well as women. The most recent study shows that white males are no longer predominant in industry.

The workforce is already composed of over 40 percent women. And notwithstanding the heavy Black and Latin unemployment, their percentage of the workforce continues to increase significantly.

The trends Marcy identified are far more pronounced today and hav important implications for the organization of the U.S. working class and its struggles.

The global struggle for women’s liberation

There are many ways that global migration both involves and affects women and our families. We travel by ourselves and with our young children around the world to survive. We brave the most oppressive and dangerous working environments. Women are targeted by imperialist conquest and war. We have left our homes and have become an integral part of the global economy.

As we build the international struggle for socialism and liberation, women will be front-and-center among the leadership. We will fight the hardest for protections at work and education for our children. Ultimately, we will join with our brothers in resistance to create a
system that protects our needs over
private profit.

1. Ana’s real name is not used here to preserve anonymity.