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hand holding photo The past five years have shown little improvement for the working conditions of U.S. immigrant women who clean homes, take care of children, or tend to the elderly.

Transnational Motherhood

Why are thousands of Central American, Mexican and Caribbean immigrant women living and working in the United States while their children and other family members remain in their countries of origin? The changing nature of U.S. labor demand and restrictive immigration policies have encouraged these new transnational family forms. Post-industrial economies bring with them a labor demand for immigrant workers that is differently gendered than that typical of industrial or industrializing societies. In all post-industrial nations, we see an increase in demand for jobs dedicated to social reproduction. These include jobs in convalescent homes, private household cleaning, and childcare. These jobs are traditionally coded as "women's jobs," but today, these jobs have entered the global marketplace.

The U.S. is not alone in it's recruitment of impoverished immigrant women for private, paid domestic work. Around the globe, Peruvian, Sri Lankan, Indonesian, Indian, Thai, Eastern European and Filipina women - the latter in disproportionately great numbers - perform paid domestic work in the newly industrialized nations of Asia, in the oil-rich nations of the Middle East, in Canada and in parts of Europe. Some countries have developed highly regulated, government-operated, contract labor programs that have institutionalized the recruitment and the bonded-servitude of migrant domestic workers. Many of these programs mandate long-term separation of these domestic workers from their families.

The U.S. follows more of a laissez-faire approach to the incorporation of immigrant women into paid domestic work. Unlike Hong Kong, Taiwan and Canada, there is no formal government system or policy to legally contract foreign domestic workers in the United States. Although the methods of recruitment and hiring, and the role of the state in these processes are different, the consequences are similar. Both systems require the incorporation of migrant women as workers who must remain separated from their families.

The requirements of live-in domestic jobs, in particular, virtually mandate these separations. Many Latina immigrant women who work in live-in jobs in the United States find that they must be "on-call" during all waking hours - and sometimes throughout the night - so there is no clear line between working and nonworking hours. The line between job space and private space is similarly blurred, and rules and regulations may extend around the clock; some employers restrict the ability of their live-in employees to receive phone calls, entertain friends, attend evening ESL classes or see boyfriends. Other employers do not impose these sorts of restrictions, but because their homes are located in remote hillsides, suburban enclaves or in gated communities, live-in nanny/housekeepers are effectively restricted from participating in anything resembling social life, family life of their own or public culture.

These contemporary arrangements continue a long historical legacy of people of color being incorporated into the United States through coercive labor systems that do not recognize family rights. Advocates for the rights of immigrant women who toil in post-industrial nations - while their families remain behind in their countries of origin - condemn the immigration laws and the employment patterns that institutionalize these practices.

This article, reprinted with permission from NNIRR's Network News, was written by Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, professor of sociology at the University of Southern California and author of Gendered Transitions: Mexican Experiences of Immigration (University of California Press, 1994) and co-editor of Latina Challenging Fronteras: Structuring and Latino Lives in the U.S. (Routledge, 1997).

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