08/29/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Invisible Face of Immigration

We've all seen the parade of "immigration" images on cable news networks and primetime exposes. Designed to evoke visceral reactions, they range from relatively benign -- day laborers gathered at convenience stores patiently waiting for work -- to overtly frightening -- scenes from the aftermath of drug gang violence in border cities. Conspicuously absent from the reams of stock images however, are foreign-born women who, with their children, constitute the majority of immigrants in the United States. From attending to the elderly and providing childcare to harvesting crops and cleaning office buildings, millions of foreign-born women are integral in driving commerce and meeting the needs of families across the nation, details which rarely garner mainstream media attention.

Just as their contributions are often invisible, so too is the darker side of immigrant women's experience in America: in terms of poverty, violence, and sexual assault, they are one of the most at-risk populations in the U.S.

Thanks to a recent poll by New American Media that puts a long-overdue spotlight on aspects of foreign-born women lives in the United States, we know that more than18.9 million immigrant women currently reside here. More than half participate in the labor force. Immigrant women's experience as workers, however, as compared to other demographics, is disproportionately marred by violence and exploitation, a fact that receives short shrift in policy debates.

Language skills, lack of work authorization, and ongoing discrimination significantly limit the job prospects of many immigrants. These factors create a perfect storm of vulnerability that unscrupulous employers are quick to exploit. Below minimum wage pay, unsafe conditions and brutal hours are par for the course. Take Tita, for example: lured from Mexico with the promise of steady work in a garment factory, she worked 16-hour days in the shop at a salary of a few dollars per hour in order to pay off her smuggling fees. She was forced to live in the garment factory and was denied medical care; anytime she was ever able to leave the premises a factory manager accompanied her and threatened that if she tried to escape the police would catch and deport her.

The same factors -- language barriers, lack of familiarity with U.S. law, isolation in the workplace -- that leave foreign-born women workers exposed to labor exploitation also make them particularly vulnerable to sexual violence and abuse on the job. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that over 77 percent of Latina women report that sexual harassment is a major problem at work. Many women from that survey recounted a disturbingly similar tale: a male supervisor using immigration status as leverage to coerce sexual favors from female employees.

Likewise, the unique work environment for domestic workers, the vast majority of which are foreign-born women, requires special attention: without any type of company structure or basic wage protections, these workers simply have no redress whatsoever for harassing or abusive behavior.

As it stands, the invisible face of immigration is not a pretty one. Women immigrants are facing impossible choices daily: put up with abuse, or sacrifice their only life line to economic security for themselves and their families.

The current situation does not harm only immigrant women and men, but undermines standards for all workers. Similarly, it puts employers and business owners who operate above board and treat their employees ethically at a disadvantage. Moreover, when workers are held against their will, pressured for sex, and otherwise threatened, the repercussions do not stop at the factory doors or farm boundaries; rather, it undermines the rule of law, values and basic safety we desire for our cities and communities.

Unfortunately, the people most capable of speaking out about such situations are those that feel like they have nowhere to turn and have the most to lose. As policymakers at all levels struggle to fix a broken immigration system, it is critical to take into account the experiences of all immigrants: the men we see, and the women we usually do not.