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Immigrant Women in the United States

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Immigrant Women in the United States

As of 2013, 49 percent (10.5 million) of all immigrant women were naturalized U.S. citizens. (Photo: McBeth/Flickr)

Following a history of majority male migration through the mid-20th century, women have migrated to the United States in large numbers as a result of the emphasis on family reunification ushered in by the 1965 Immigration Act. Female immigrants represent 51 percent of the overall foreign-born population, with 21.2 million immigrant women residing in the United States in 2013, out of a total immigrant population of 41.3 million. The female share of the immigrant population is higher in the United States than it is globally, where about 48 percent of the international migrant stock is female (see Figure 1). Even as female migration has increased globally since 1980, the share in the United States—the world’s top immigrant destination—has decreased slightly from 53 percent in 1980 to around 51 percent in 2013.

The gender of the immigrant population raises implications for sending and receiving countries, with respect to labor opportunities, family structure, gender roles, and more.

Using data from the United Nations Population Division, the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey (ACS), and the Department of Homeland Security’s Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, this Spotlight provides information on the population of female immigrants in the United States, focusing on marital status, fertility, and other key socioeconomic characteristics, with comparison to both native-born women and immigrant men.

Figure 1. Share of Women among International Migrants in the World and United States, 1980-2013

Source: United Nations Population Division, “Trends in International Migrant Stock: Migrants by Age and Sex,” Table 20. Female migrants as a percentage of the international migrant stock by age and by major area, region, country, or area, 2013, www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/migration/data/estimates2/estimatesage.shtml.

Click on the bullet points below for more information:

Origins

The female share among immigrants in the United States varies greatly by their country or region of origin and over time. As of 2013, more than 60 percent of immigrants from Germany and the Philippines were women. In general, between 1980 and 2013, immigrants from Germany, the Philippines, and Peru were more likely to be women, while immigrants from Mexico, India, and Nigeria were more likely to be men (see Figure 2). Notably, the share of women among Nigerian immigrants increased from 30 percent to 47 percent over the same period, reflecting significant changes in gender composition for this population over the past three decades.

Figure 2. The Female Share of Immigrants from Selected Countries of Birth, 1980-2013

Note: Estimate for the share of women among German immigrants was not available for 1980.
Source: MPI tabulation of Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS) from U.S. Census Bureau, 1980-2013 American Community Survey (ACS).

Overall, immigrants from Europe, Asia, the Caribbean, and South America were more likely to be women, while those from Mexico and Central America were more likely to be men.

Figure 3. Share of Women among All U.S. Immigrants by Region of Birth, 2013

Source: MPI tabulation of data from U.S. Census Bureau, 2013 ACS.

Distribution

In terms of distribution across the United States, immigrant women outnumbered immigrant men in the District of Columbia and 31 states (mostly with small immigrant populations), such as Maine (58 percent), Hawaii and Montana (56 percent each), and New Hampshire and Wyoming (54 percent each. In states like Louisiana (45 percent), Tennessee (47 percent), and Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Oklahoma (48 percent each), immigrant women represented a smaller share among all foreign born. Notably, in 11 states including California, Hawaii, Nevada, and Washington, women represented a greater share in the immigrant population, but a smaller share in the native-born population.

Age and Marital Status

Immigrant women were generally older than native-born women, with median ages of 44 and 37, respectively, according to 2013 ACS estimates. For immigrant men, the median age was 42 compared to 35 for native-born men. Although immigrants overall were more likely to be of working age (18 to 64) than their native-born counterparts, immigrant men (82 percent) were slightly more likely to be in this age range than immigrant women (78 percent).

As a whole, immigrants were more likely to be married, and less likely to be separated, divorced, widowed, or single than the native born regardless of gender (see Figure 4). Men were more likely to be married or single, and less likely to be separated, divorced, or widowed compared to their female counterparts, regardless of nativity. Immigrant women were much more likely to be married than their U.S.-born counterparts (57 percent versus 44 percent).

Figure 4. Share of Immigrant and Native-Born Populations by Gender and Marital Status, 2013

Note: Analysis of marital status is based on the population that is 15 years of age or older.
Source: MPI tabulation of IPUMS data from U.S. Census Bureau, 2013 ACS.

Fertility

Immigrant women ages 15 to 50 were slightly more likely to have given birth in the last 12 months (6 percent) than U.S.-born women (5 percent) in the same age group, according to estimates from the 2013 ACS. Among those who gave birth, immigrant women were more likely to be married than native-born women (77 percent versus 61 percent). The median age of immigrant and native-born women who gave birth in the past 12 months was 37 and 32, respectively.

Immigrant women were much more likely to have one or more of their own children living in the same household compared to native-born women (52 percent versus 28 percent). Immigrant men were also more likely to have one or more of their own children living in their house compared to native-born men (43 percent versus 21 percent).

Note: The ACS defines “own” children to include step- and adopted children in addition to biological children.

Educational Attainment

While immigrants were more likely than their native-born peers to lack a high school education, there was little variation in the educational attainment between women and men among immigrants and natives.

Figure 5. Share of Immigrant and Native-Born Populations by Gender and Educational Attainment, 2013

Note: Refers to population ages 25 and older.
Source: MPI tabulation of IPUMS data from U.S. Census Bureau, 2013 ACS.

However, educational attainment varied substantially by country of origin. Among the seven largest origin groups (each with at least 1 million immigrants in the United States)—Mexico, India, China, the Philippines, El Salvador, Cuba, and Korea—female immigrants from Asian countries had obtained higher levels of education than those from Latin America. Cuban immigrants were the exception as they were the most likely to have earned a high school or an associate’s degree, although less likely than Asian immigrants to have obtained a bachelor’s degree or higher. Though still lower in educational attainment than their male counterparts, women from India (72 percent) and the Philippines (51 percent) had higher rates of attaining a bachelor’s degree among the seven countries; women from El Salvador (7 percent) and Mexico (6 percent) had the lowest rate of obtaining college degrees.

Figure 6. Share of Immigrant Women by Educational Attainment for Top Seven Origin Countries, 2013

Note: Refers to population ages 25 and older.
Source: MPI tabulation of IPUMS data from U.S. Census Bureau, 2013 ACS.

Limited English Proficiency

Forty-nine percent of all immigrants above the age of 5 in the United States were Limited English Proficient (LEP), according to the 2013 ACS. The share of all immigrants who were LEP varied by country of origin: for example, 69 percent of Mexican and 63 percent of Chinese immigrants were LEP, compared to only 26 percent of Indian immigrants. There was no significant variation in English language proficiency between immigrant men and women from the same country.

Note: The term "Limited English Proficient" refers to persons ages 5 and older who reported speaking English "not at all," "not well," or "well" on their survey questionnaire. Individuals who reported speaking only English or speaking English "very well" are considered proficient in English.

Employment and Occupations

Although immigrants (ages 16 and older) as a whole participated in the civilian labor force at higher rates than native-born individuals (67 percent versus 63 percent), immigrant women had a lower rate of workforce participation than native-born women (56 percent versus 59 percent). Interestingly, although Indian immigrant women were much more highly educated than those from El Salvador, they were much less likely to be employed (50 percent versus 60 percent).

As of 2013, there were more than 10.4 million immigrant women workers (ages 16 and older) in the United States, comprising 15 percent of all female workers and 7 percent of all U.S. workers. Thirty-three percent of immigrant women were employed in service occupations, a higher share than immigrant men or the native born; similarly, 33 percent were employed in management, business, science, and arts occupations; 23 percent in sales and office occupations; and 10 percent in production, transportation, and material moving occupations. About 2 percent of immigrant women were employed in natural resources, construction, and maintenance occupations.

Figure 7. Share of Immigrant and Native-Born Populations by Gender and Occupation, 2013

Source: MPI tabulation of IPUMS data from U.S. Census Bureau, 2013 ACS.

Poverty

Immigrant women fared worse on poverty measures than either immigrant men (with 20 percent living in poverty compared to 17 percent for their male counterparts) or the native-born population (with 17 percent of U.S.-born women and 14 percent of U.S.-born men in poverty). However, employed female immigrants (11 percent) were less likely to be in poverty than immigrant women overall (20 percent); they were also as likely as their male counterparts to be working poor (11 percent).

Note: Whether an individual or household falls below 100 percent of the federal poverty level depends not only on total family income, but also on the size of the family, the number of people in the family who are children, and the age of the householder (under/over age 65). A single individual is considered to be a family of one. A household is the total number of families living in the same residence.

Figure 8. Poverty Rates for Total and Civilian Employed Populations by Nativity and Gender, 2013

Source: MPI tabulation of IPUMS data from U.S. Census Bureau, 2013 ACS.

Single parenthood has been a strong predictor for poverty; single mothers in particular encounter significant financial hardship. As of 2013, close to 30 percent of single mothers, regardless of nativity, were in poverty, compared to 21 percent of single immigrant fathers and 16 percent of single native fathers.

Figure 9. Poverty Rates for Single Parents by Nativity and Gender, 2013

Note: Single parents refer to those with at least one child living in the same household and who had no spouse present.
Source: MPI tabulation of IPUMS data from U.S. Census Bureau, 2013 ACS.

Health Insurance

In general, immigrants were more likely to be uninsured than the native born. In terms of gender difference, immigrant women were less likely to be uninsured than immigrant men (29 percent versus 35 percent), and more likely to be covered by public health insurance (27 percent versus 21 percent), partly due to public health insurance programs available to low-income mothers. Compared to native women, immigrant women were much more likely to be uninsured (29 percent versus 11 percent) and less likely to be enrolled in either public (27 percent versus 34 percent) or private (51 percent versus 67 percent) insurance programs.

Figure 10. Health Insurance Rate for Immigrant and Native Populations by Gender, 2013

Note: The sum of shares by type of insurance may be greater than 100 because people may have more than one type of insurance.
Source: MPI tabulation of IPUMS from U.S. Census Bureau, 2013 ACS.

Citizenship and Immigration Status

As of 2013, 49 percent (10.5 million) of all immigrant women were naturalized U.S. citizens, compared to 44 percent of all immigrant men.

Women accounted for a larger share among naturalized citizens and legal permanent residents than men between 2003 and 2013, according to data from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). However, women represented smaller shares than men among refugee arrivals and those granted affirmative asylum. There was a moderate decline in the share of women among naturalized immigrants between 2008 and 2009, but an increase to nearly 55 percent by 2013. The female share of individuals gaining legal permanent residence remained relatively stable (around 55 percent) until 2012, when it decreased to 52 percent. On the one hand, the share of women arriving as refugees has steadily decreased, while on the other, their share of those granted affirmative asylum has increased over the last decade.

Figure 11. Share of Women by Immigration Status, 2003-13

Note: Women’s share among those who were granted affirmative asylum does not reflect the trend of all granted asylum. DHS does not provide data by gender for those who were granted asylum defensively.
Source: MPI tabulation of data from the Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, various years, www.dhs.gov/yearbook-immigration-statistics.

Unauthorized Population

Women composed 46 percent of the 11.4 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States in the 2008-12 period, according to the latest estimates from the Migration Policy Institute. Four states and the District of Columbia have larger shares of unauthorized women than the U.S. average: Hawaii (55 percent), the District of Columbia (50 percent), California (47 percent), New York (47 percent), and Virginia (47 percent), in descending order.

Visit the Data Hub’s Unauthorized Immigrant Population Profiles, for in-depth profiles of this population’s characteristics nationally and in 41 states, the District of Columbia, and the 94 counties with the largest unauthorized populations.

Sources

Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Office of Immigration Statistics. 2014. Yearbook of Immigration Statistics. Washington, DC: DHS Office of Immigration Statistics. Available Online.

U.S. Census Bureau. 2010. United States 1850 to 2013 and 2013 ACS. Accessed from Steven Ruggles, J. Trent Alexander, Katie Genadek, Ronald Goeken, Matthew B. Schroeder, and Matthew Sobek. Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 5.0 [Machine-readable database]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2010. Available Online.

---. 2013. 2013 American Community Survey (ACS). American FactFinder. Available Online.

United Nations International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (UN-INSTRAW) and United Nations Development Program (UNDP). 2010. Migration, Remittances and Gender-Responsive Local Development. Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic: UN-INSTRAW. Available Online.

United Nations Population Division. 2013. Trends in International Migrant Stock: Migrants by Age and Sex. Table 20: Female migrants as a percentage of the international migrant stock by age and by major area, region, country, or area, 2013. Available Online.

Zhou, Min. 2003. Contemporary Female Immigration to the United States: A Demographics Profile. In Women Immigrants in the United States, eds. Philippa Strum and Danielle Tarantolo. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Available Online.