February 15, 2022
Nearly one million immigrant women who are undocumented live, work, and raise their families in California. They harvest, prepare, pack, and serve the food that sustains the United States. They are college students and businesswomen. They care for the young, the elderly, and the sick. They clean the offices, hotels, and homes of California businesses and families. They are mothers to upwards of 1.8 million California children.
Yet just as these women are compelled by their immigration status to live in the shadows, their lives, labors, and aspirations are rendered invisible in public debate about America’s immigration system. Forty-five percent of undocumented people in the United States are women. But when the media or politicians discuss America’s immigration challenges, the immigrants they talk about tend to be men. With men as the norm, women’s distinctive experiences and concerns are ignored.
The Gender Equity Policy Institute’s “Undocumented and Essential” presents a data-based profile of California’s undocumented women, their families, work, and economic challenges. While other institutes and researchers have published estimates on the number of undocumented people in the U.S. and how many are women and men, no others have disaggregated demographic and labor force data by gender to investigate the living conditions of undocumented women specifically.
As the following report shows, undocumented women make vital contributions to California’s economy. They have high rates of labor force participation. The industries in which they work are critical to the success and growth of the state’s $3.4 trillion economy. But undocumented women face significant barriers in their efforts to access economic opportunity—barriers that are higher than those encountered by undocumented men. Undocumented women are paid less for similar work than all other Californian workers. They have high rates of poverty and low rates of homeownership and health insurance.
Undocumented women are integral members of California’s dynamic economy, diverse communities, and vibrant cultures. As policymakers look ahead, the 2022 budget surplus provides an opportunity to uplift the families of 2.2 million undocumented Californians who make up a critical mass of the state’s workforce and help propel economic growth in the nation’s largest economy.
The average annual cost to attend a four-year public institution has nearly tripled since 1980. Following decades of rising tuition and costs for higher education, roughly 43 million Americans owe more than $1.7 trillion in student loans. Graduates take an average of 20 years to fully pay off their loans. Burdened by student debt as they enter the workforce, they often have to put off buying a home, saving for retirement, or starting a family. And those who default face a host of negative consequences.
Various policies to alleviate the student debt crisis have been proposed, and several include increasing Pell Grants, an important source of support for higher education for Americans with financial need.
Congress’s budget reconciliation plan includes proposals to increase the amount of the Pell Grant and make community college free. Likewise, a bill before both chambers, The Pell Grant Preservation & Expansion Act of 2021, substantially increases the Pell award—doubling the maximum award to $13,000—and includes measures to encourage college attendance and stabilize the Pell Grant program overall.
The Gender Equity Policy Institute analyzed data on past and current student demographics, college costs, and student debt to assess the impact of proposed improvements to the Pell Grant program, with particular focus on how the benefits would be distributed across gender, race, and ethnicity.
The Institute calls attention to the way increasing Pell Grants and improving the program is appropriately responsive to the ways in which gender norms and roles impact access to higher education and the financial rewards that accrue to degree-holders. The mix of increasing the award and greater support for part-time study represents a nuanced approach to tackling the different challenges faced by women and men. People of color will see large reductions in student debt. The Act earns a score of 88% on the Gender Equity Policy Institute’s gender equity scale.