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Undocumented Mothers in the US Are Often Vulnerable, Ignored and Misunderstood

Undocumented women face challenges with employment, health care, high rates of domestic violence and psychological trauma.

Mother and daughter on the Malecon - Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, May 2, 2014. (Photo: Chris Goldberg / Flickr)

Rosario Lopez emigrated from Mexico City to the United States with her mother and three siblings when she was 13 years old. After their weeklong journey, in which they lacked food and water, they reunited with her father who had come to the United States after losing his job. In Mexico, Lopez’s father worked 12-hour days, which was not enough to feed the family at times.

Though Lopez’s life has improved since she left Mexico as a child, she’s faced many barriers as an undocumented mother. Up until 2010, Lopez lived in North Carolina where she couldn’t obtain a driver’s license. Many times Lopez says this caused an incredible amount of stress. “When you see the police behind you, you feel anger more than fear.” Lopez says she was also unable to attend her daughter’s school events because she was required to undergo a background check. Because of this restriction, she feels she’s missed out on some important moments in her daughter’s life.

Lopez has had to work several menial jobs to provide for her daughter. Even though she was able to obtain an associate degree in biology, she still had to work as a waitress because of her undocumented status. “My associate’s in biology was only an ornament,” she says.

What bothers Lopez most about the mainstream perception of undocumented immigrants is the lack of context and empathy. She feels the media, for instance, never cover the causes of migration. “At the end of the day, they don’t consider why we’re here. In general, there is a lot of hate. We need more compassion – and not just towards immigrants,” she says.

Earlier this month, there was a surge of undocumented children apprehended at the US-Mexico border. When a group of undocumented immigrants were transported to Murrieta, California, they were met with anti-immigrant protests. Most media outlets have focused on the children and latched onto the backlash, while neglecting the large number of undocumented mothers and pregnant women currently fleeing their home countries and the realities of undocumented mothers currently struggling to raise their families in the United States.

Currently, there are 5.4 million undocumented women living in the United States. Those who are employed are often the most underpaid workers in the workforce due to both gender and immigration-status discrimination. Many of these women are farm workers, domestic workers and caregivers. Undocumented immigrant women from Mexico earn only 71 cents for every dollar that undocumented men from Mexico earn. A recent Center for American Progress report also found that detentions and deportations often separate married couples, frequently leaving single mothers struggling to support their families.

Like Lopez, undocumented mother Estefania Perez immigrated from Guanajuato with her family when she was a child to reunite with her father who had already come to the United States in search of work. Perez says that many people don’t know how difficult it is to get to this country legally. “If you had those requirements, you probably wouldn’t try to come over here. People think we come here to have kids, as if it were a benefit to us.” All she wants, Perez says, is the opportunity to give her son a better childhood than the one she had. Because of her undocumented status, she has been frequently underemployed, making it difficult for her to support her family. At one point in her life, Perez had three concurrent jobs in maintenance, data entry and customer service.

Perez would like to become an accounting technician, but has been unable to afford the tuition without financial aid. Immigration reform, she says, would radically improve the lives of women like her. Giving undocumented women legal status would give them the opportunity to qualify for financial aid and become gainfully employed. “It can help women become less dependent to men and to what our culture says we should do. We would have a chance to follow our dreams in a independent way,” she says. “[It’s a] perfect way to help society realize how much more women can contribute to this world. If they’re undocumented, there’s no way for them to reach their dreams and goals.”

Dorothy Truax, executive director of Reynolds Home, a homeless shelter in El Paso for women and children, says many of the undocumented mothers at her shelter work in homes and warehouses, which is very inconsistent employment. “Families come when they’ve exhausted all resources. Some families come begging to sleep on the floor. They go where they have to go to feed their children. They don’t want to abuse the system. They want opportunities to better themselves. Truax says she’s seen a large influx of families fleeing the violence in Juarez in the last few years.

According to Truax, the biggest issues for undocumented mothers are child care, work options and medical care. According to a2012 report(PDF) from Child Care Aware of America, center-based child care fees for two children exceed annual median rent payments in all 50 states. Many underpaid undocumented women have to rely on their friends and family because they’re unable to afford daycare.

The homeless families at shelters also deal with a disproportionate rate of illness, Truax says. When it comes to health care, undocumented women are the most disadvantaged. Immigrants who have resided in the United States for five years or less arebarred from using federal Medicaid, and immigrant womenare twice as likelyas US-born women to lack health insurance.

One of the women from the shelter, Truax says, left everything behind in Mexico and came to the United States in search of medical care for her child who was so severely deformed that he couldn’t eat, speak or stand. The woman lived in a relative’s garage where she was repeatedly abused until another family member was able to connect her to Reynolds Home. She’s now employed and helps other immigrant families in crisis.

Truax says there is a misconception that immigrant women come to the United States to take advantage of government services. The reality is that these women are not eligible for food stamps, medical coverage and many other social services.

Clarisa Sanchez, a BIA accredited representative for Catholic Charities CYO Refugees & Immigrant Services in San Francisco, says her organization has been recently flooded with undocumented women seeking legal help. She says a majority of them have been victims of domestic violence. Many of her clients also come to the United States to reunite with their husbands, and later find out they’ve started a new life and family without them, which means they have to grapple with multiple traumas. Catholic Charities has a counseling program, but they are in dire need of more Spanish-speaking counselors.

In addition to the emotional trauma, undocumented mothers in San Francisco are facing a housing crisis right now. As a result, many families are doubling up in small apartments or renting studios, says Christopher Martinez, senior program director of Catholic Charities CYO’s Refugee and Immigrant Services. “It’s getting to be that you need to make six figures to live here,” he says.

“These women don’t want to take any sort of public assistance,” says Sanchez. “Most of my clients are scraping by to pay the rent because they don’t want to be seen as a public charge. Anti-immigrant sentiment is at an all time high right now.”

“Many people feel that immigrants come here and take our jobs, but immigrant women work jobs that most Americans won’t do where they are underpaid and experience abuse,” adds Martinez. “The number one reason these women immigrate to the United States is to take care of their children and back home they’re not able to do that.” Martinez also points out that immigrants do pay taxes when they purchase items or homes. Many of them, he says, also pay income taxes.

Undocumented mother of four Sandra Villareal immigrated to the United States in 1996 because she felt there were very few opportunities for her as a woman in rural Mexico. “Sometimes they say that we have a lot of kids, but I’ve never asked for food stamps or any kind of help,” she says. “They also say that we come to take people’s jobs, but when I worked in a factory, [white] Americans wouldn’t even last a day. Sometimes they’d leave in the middle of the day and never come back. That used to make me laugh,” Villareal says. “I don’t want to say I came here to get rich. I just wanted to make a better life for myself. I wanted to study and help my family back home.”

A path to citizenship, Villareal says, would allow women like her to have stable jobs and give their children more educational opportunities. “Above all, it would give us the peace of mind that we won’t be separated from our children,” she says.