Immigrant Women in the Workforce

Ratified on August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granted American women the right to vote. The right, known as woman suffrage, was the culmination of over seventy years of protest and activism set in motion by the women’s rights movement beginning in 1848. Today, women continue to face significant setbacks across American society. Whether it’s the “war” on women’s reproductive rights or wage disparities among men and women, it seems that gender inequality remains a tremendous problem both in the United States and the world. So in honor of Women’s Equality Day, celebrated across the nation on August 26, 2017, we will be discussing different topics related to gender inequality throughout the month of August. The topic this week will be immigrant women in the workforce.

Gender Wage Gap

The US Census Bureau reports that full-time working American women tend to earn $0.77 for every dollar that men make. This is critical to the future of our workforce as more than five years have passed and studies today continue to show that there has not been much progress in the effort for equality in women’s wages: Women working full time are paid 80 cents for every dollar men working full time are paid.



And the wage disparity among female immigrant workers (either naturalized or undocumented) is even greater. Being that more than half of all undocumented immigrants are of Hispanic origin and that Latinos will make up more than a quarter of the US population by 2060, fighting for equal pay among all genders, races, and ethnicities should be of great importance in order to get communities out of poverty and to improve the overall U.S. economy. This is even of greater importance to our work as according to the Migration Policy Institute, immigrant women between the ages of 20 – 29 make up 6% of the overall immigrant population residing in the US. This group consists of over 2,796,400 women who are facing an even greater pay discrepancy compared to their already low earning US-born counterparts.


Fear of Deportation

One of the current and more critical fears of all immigrants is deportation from the United States and separation from family. American political views on immigration and pathways to citizenship have been conflicted in the past, but now that our executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government are right-leaning politically, it seems that amnesty is unlikely and the deportation of millions more imminent. As a result, undocumented immigrants are being more cautious in attempts to avoid law enforcement. Most notably, undocumented women are more scared than ever to report domestic or sexual abuse because they fear having to file a report or to face a judge.


Jennifer Medina asserts in her New York Times article that, “Since the presidential election, there has been a sharp downturn in reports of sexual assault and domestic violence among Latinos throughout the country, and many experts attribute the decline to fears of deportation.” This fear can also be attributed to applying for college, Medi-Cal, or even food stamps because many immigrants believe that doing so may draw the attention of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials. Without an education, a healthy lifestyle, and a stable income, it is difficult for immigrant women to have a decent standard of living and can hinder their ability to succeed.


It is critical for immigrant women to learn to build bridges to the kinds of opportunities available to legal citizens, including public education, fair wages, and decent housing. The following stories highlight the tenacity, ingenuity, and strength of character shown by three women who arrived in the United States as undocumented children: Julissa Arce, Maria Contreras-Sweet, and Nely Galan. Their experiences constitute a roadmap for future generations of undocumented immigrants willing to fight the system and become legal citizens.

Spotlight on Immigrant Women

Julissa Arce

Julissa Arce: Immigrant Rights Advocate and Former Wall Street Executive

Despite so many setbacks that immigrant women face, there are many who are fighting to overcome these obstacles to build their own future. Julissa Arce fought her way through the faulty immigration system to make her way to the top of her classes in high school and college, eventually scoring a position at Goldman Sachs. Even though she was earning more than $340,000 a year as a financial analyst, Julissa spent years hiding who she truly was, an undocumented Mexican woman. She knew that if anyone found out – her life would be ruined. After leaving Wall Street, Julissa became a leading voice in the fight for social justice and serves on the board of the National Immigration Law Center. She became a citizen in 2014.


Maria Contreras-Sweet

Maria Contreras-Sweet: Administrator of the Small Business Administration

Maria Contreras-Sweet was born in Mexico and is another important immigrant woman who has thrived in the United States. Travelling from Guadalajara to California, Maria Contreras-Sweet’s family struggled early on to support themselves because few opportunities were available to immigrants at the time. Her single mother raised a family of six while working at poultry processing plant. Maria studied hard, learned English, skipped a grade, and eventually went on to attend California State University, Los Angeles. Throughout her long career, Maria held executive positions in several firms and was California’s Secretary of Business, Transportation and Housing before joining Barack Obama’s Cabinet as the Administrator of the Small Business Administration. More importantly, Maria has continuously advocated for the advancement of Latina women in both the public and private sector.

Nely GalanNely Galán: Independent Producer and former President of Entertainment for Telemundo

Nely Galán has had somewhat of a rags-to-riches story. Following Castro’s rise to power, her family left Cuba and eventually settled in Teaneck, New Jersey in 1965. They worked low-paying jobs in order to sustain themselves. While in high school, Nely began her media career by submitting an article to Seventeen magazine that was so impressive she was asked to be a guest editor. Nely eventually became Telemundo’s first Latina President of Entertainment. She credits Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Maria Contreras-Sweet as her most crucial mentors. She is currently a board member of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund and continues to support women through her organization, The Adelante Movement, which seeks to train and empower Latinas to become entrepreneurs.

The Future of Women in the Workforce

These exceptional women serve as perfect examples of how high immigrant women can reach when given the same resources and opportunities as their US-born peers. As advocates for immigrant women we need to continue the work that began in 1848 with the Women’s Suffrage Movement and ensure that women are treated equally; regardless of race, ethnicity, immigration status, or sexual orientation. We must continue to empower ALL young women and recognize and address the gender wage gap, education inequities, and social justice issues that are affecting the future of our workforce.

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