Race and Gender in Immigration, Political Asylum and Human Trafficking

Greek tea workers, 1905-1915 (forced migration, agricultural labor)


The intersection of gender, race and ethnicity is apparent in the plight of female immigrants and asylum seekers in the United States.  Between 14,500 and 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States each year, not counting those trafficked domestically. It is estimated that 79% of human trafficking victims are women and children.  Women and girls do occupy a subordinate position in patriarchal societies, facing  a particular proneness to hunger, poverty, exploitation and violence.  These vulnerabilities are exacerbated by illiteracy, low education levels, localized and internecine conflicts, and limited job opportunities. The search for better employment opportunities is a major motivating factor in immigration. The fact is that most individuals exploited in informal economies, the sex trade and and other forms of human trafficking are immigrant women.  The feminine face of poverty is one explanation for the overwhelming  femininity of the exploited underclass.  These findings are considered in this report that focuses attention on this issue to encourage the development and implementation of solutions that address these risks.


The intersection of race and gender is often neglected for the sake of simplicity.  Anything beyond the Black/White and Male/Female binaries requires casting a critical eye on race and gender.  This paper will focus on the intersection of race and gender in the discourse surrounding immigration into the United States.  Women of color, are often criticized for their reproductive choices- and this criticism is even more acute for immigrant women.  This is evident in colloquial terms that are heard in among particular demographics not apparent in the majority culture in the United States. One example is the perjorative term „anchor baby“ that refers primarily to the children of Latina immigrants who are born on American soil.  The history of the biological policing of poor women of color in U.S. and American-occupied territories is a fraught one that is tied to the exploitation of bodies of color.  A European-descended woman in the United States is likely to earn more than her African-American, Hispanic-American or Asian-American counterparts.  Additional factors (all stratified by race) influence these numbers like socio-economic class, access to post-secondary education.  In short, racism and sexism reify one another to a detrimental affect in the lives of women of color.

There are social factors that contribute to the workforce and salary disparities between men and women.  Gender roles of homemaker, caretaker, housekeeper that women dominate in the early nineteenth century still persists today. However other trends like decreasing family size and the increase in gender-neutral job functions in the emerging fields powered by technology have been observed simultaneously with the increased presence of women wage earners over this time.  A factor tied closely to family size is the advent of the birth control pill.  Before this signifcant advancement in fertility-centric contraception, the options available to women for family planning were limited.  This new contraceptive technology was a watershed moment in the economic  trend that saw women leaving domestic positions and entering the workforce.  Ironically, The Pill was perfected on the bodies of women in Puerto Rico, simultaneous to the resurgence of Eugenics.  Following the Spanish-American War, the 1898 Treaty of Paris granted the United States sovereignty over Puerto Rico.  Nearly forty years later,  American officials worried that overpopulation would lead to disastrous socio-economic conditions in Puerto Rico, and thus passed Law 116 in 1937, institutionalizing population control programs designed by the Eugenics board.  Law 116 allowed government officials to sterilize „unwilling and unwitting“ women.  Women who were categorized as insane, “feeble-minded,” “dependent,” or “diseased” were deemed incapable of controlling their reproductive faculties.1 Rather than promote the use of contraceptives, these programs incentivized sterilization through coercion.  Factories often discriminated against women who did not have a tubal ligation, in order to reduce the high turnover rate.  The 35% of Puerto Rican women who got „la operacion“ in the late 1960s were not informed that tubal ligation was a permanent form of birth control as euphemisms like „tying the tubes“ de-emphasized the permanence of the operation. in 1955, the Puerto Rico Pill Trials commenced at the urging of Margeret Sanger by Dr. John Rock.2 Synthetic oral progesterone was administered to Puerto Rican subjects who Dr. Gregory Pincus had deemed „fecund“ and „uneducated.“  In the course of the trials, 17% of the women reported nausea, dizziness, headaches, stomache pain and vomiting.  Drs. Rock and Pincus summarily dismissed these symptoms as “psychosomatic,” as if these women’s bodies and well-being were of little consequence in the large scale.  They also felt that these women‘s discomfort was a small price for the benefits of the pill.  Three women died in the course of this experiment, and their deaths were never investigated.  This is strong evidence that these women‘s gender and subordinate socio-economic positions made them vulnerable to exploitation.

The relationship between gender, immigration and human trafficking and other forms of exploitation is not readily apparent to the casual observer.  Women and girls do occupy a subordinate position in patriarchal societies, facing particular vulnerabilities to hunger, poverty, exploitation and violence.  These vulnerabilities are exacerbated by illiteracy, low education levels, localized and internecine conflicts, and limited job opportunities. Hope for better financial opportunities upon which to build better lives is and has always been a principal motivating factor in immigration.  Immigration takes several forms: legal immigration, political asylum, and illegal immigration (illegal entry, visa overstay, visa fraud). In the United States, the victims of human trafficking are almost exclusively immigrants, and an estimated 79% of those victims are women and children.3 The global community (or at least a few supranational organizations with global representation) have come to some agreement on the definition of human trafficking:

The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs. The consent of a victim of trafficking in persons to the intended exploitation set forth [above] shall be irrelevant where any of the means set forth [above] have been used.4

U.S. Department of State estimates state that 14,500 to 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States each year, but this number doesn‘t include those trafficked domestically.5 In that same Report, it is written that as many as 79% of victims of human trafficking are women.  According the the United States‘ Trafficking Victims Protection Act human trafficking is defined as:

• Sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age, OR

• The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.6

Undocumented workers and political asylum seekers are particularly prone to being exploited, as they do not have the authorization to work legally in the United States.  Many people in this position also face linguistic limitations that impede their ability to learn the legal protections that they have at their disposal.  Employers who exploit this lack also exploit the informal labor economy, which does not offer laborers the protections that unionized jobs offer.

Historically, domestically enforced laws have an impact on immigration patterns, while international contexts drove immigration into the United States.  The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in response to nativist and xenophobic fears of the burgeoning Chinese population in California, Oregon and Idaho (whose population was 28.5% Chinese in 1870)7 and other states to prevent East and Southeast Asian immigrants from becoming American citizens regardless of how long they‘d been in the United States or how law abiding they were.8 Additionally, it prohibited the entry of any more immigrants from Asia.  The Chinese Exclusion Act was not repealed until 1943 with the passage of the Magnuson Act, which allowed for Chinese nationals to be nationalized.  The Magnuson Act also capped Chinese immigration to 105 persons a year.  It was not until 1965 that this immigration quota was lifted with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Services Act.  The Magnuson Act excluded Japanese, Korean immigrants (not to mention Southeast and South Asian immigrants).  It is worth noting that while the Magnuson Act was preceded by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt‘s signing of Executive Order 9066 (which ordered the internment of all Japanese-Americans in military areas) in February 1942, it was the first act since the Naturalization Act of 1790 that allowed Asians to be naturalized.  It must be noted that this Act was passed on the context of a newly formed alliance with the Chinese during World War Two.

On an international scale, American imperial intervention and occupation can clearly be connected with the displacement of people from the global South.  In the 1975, the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act granted 3,466 Hmong political asylum following the the American proxy war and the communist takeover of Laos.  From 1953 to 1975, Laos was wracked by internecine conflict as the communist-led Pathet Lao (supported by the North Vietnamese army) and the neutralist government (supported by the American armed forces).  In the context of Cold War geopolitical polarities, the United States‘ army‘s conscription of Hmong people in Laos was expedient, regardless of the human toll.9 In May 1975, the evacuation of General Vang Pao and other Hmong leaders by American personnel to Thailand triggered the emigration of about forty thousand Hmong to Thailand.  Rather than face repression and discrimination for their collaboration with the Americans, many Hmong sought asylum in the United States.10 In 1980, the Congress passed the Refugee Act, reducing restrictions on entry as 2 million Vietnamese fled Vietnam.  Between 1981 and 2000, 531,310 Vietnamese political refugees and asylees were approved by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

In a 2008, The Guardian published an article entitled „USA Set For Dramatic Change as White America Becomes the Minority in 2042.“11 Citing US Census Bureau demographic statistics and projections, this article does recognize that the projections are „based on assumptions about future births, deaths, immigration from abroad and internal migration that it has extrapolated from trends over the past 20 years.“  Any of those factors are subject to change: immigration (entering a country in order to remain there) and emigration (leaving a country in order to remain away) patterns shift in accordance with global factors.  For example, immigration and political asylum are heavily influenced by the movement of capital (e.g. job outsourcing), political upheaval and war.  As witnessed in Sudan, Somalia, Colombia, Burma and Afghanistan, the displacement of persons due to war leaves them vulnerable to homelessness, impoverishment, starvation/malnourishment and gender violence.

Momentarily disregarding the geopolitical influences of the second World War and the burgeoning Cold War, it is now necessary to move forward to 2010.  The nativist politics and the fears of the loss of White Americans‘ jobs are a driving factor in today‘s immigration debate, instead of demonizing Asian immigrants and migrant workers, the discourse tends to focus on Mexican immigrants and migrant workers.  This flies in the face of the fact that there are other countries of origin from which illegal immigrants arrive including El Salvador, Guatemala, The Philippines, Honduras and India.  As of 2006, these were the five of the top six countries of origin from which illegal immigrants emigrated.12 Also, illegal immigration India, Brazil, and Honduras are increasing at a greater level compared to illegal immigration from Mexico (125%, 110% and 75% respectively).  Additionally, the attention directed to SB 1070 in Arizona fails to recognize that the state of Illinois has more illegal immigrants than Arizona.13 Another facet of the discussion that is so often ignored is the fact that corporations‘ demand drives the supply of illegal immigration.

Of course, this is now. What would progress look like? Progress would be evident when Afghan asylum seekers aren‘t turned away like the German liner MS St. Louis was on June 4, 1939.  The MS St. Louis, captained by Gustav Schröder, held 900 German Jews who had been denied asylum by the Cuban government, and were again denied asylum off the coast of Florida by the American government.  The MS St. Louis eventually went to Belgium, after which the refugees scattered in Belgium, the United Kingdom and France, where it was very likely that they all saw the Nazi takeover of those respective nations as World War Two wore on.14 The state of Afghans in the United States seeking asylum differs from the plight of German Jews in the advent of the second World War, but not wholly so.  In a March 2010 radio report, the United Nations presented data that suggested that Afghan nationals are the largest group of asylum seekers in developed nations.15 According to the report, „Forty-five per cent of the 377,000 applications were from Afghanistan followed by Iraq with 24,000 applicants. Applications from Somalia numbered 22,600.“16 Contrary to the myths of floods of asylum seekers from war-torn, underdeveloped nations to wealthier, industrialized nations, the number of asylum applicants only increased by 100 between the years 2008 and 2009, an increase of less than 0.03%.  This, however, does not diminish the fact that in 2008, 18,000 Afghan nationals applied for asylum- double the number reported in 2007, according to the United Nations.17

In the United States, asylum seekers make up about ten percent of the immigrant population.  Asylum applicants are not allowed to apply for employment authorization until one hundred and fifty days after the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has received the full application for asylum.18 In that one hundred and fifty days, asylum applicants live in limbo. After one hundred and fifty days has passed, asylum applicants must submit an application for a work visa, which takes up to thirty days to be confirmed.  So by the time an a person who has applied for political asylum is cleared to live and work in the United States, they‘ve been on American soil for almost 200 days, or just over 6 months.  Consider, also, that seventy five per cent of people displaced by war are women.  It‘s fair to say that, after over twenty decades of conflict and political upheaval, most of Afghanistan‘s asylum seekers are women displaced by war.  Considering that only 1% of global land wealth is held by women, it‘s safe to say that poverty has a feminine face.19 So most of these asylum seekers will be women, and they will not generally have access to wealth.  It follows that in the 6 months of limbo between applying for asylum and being granted a work visa, the Afghan, Somali or Iraqi woman (who may or may not have children to support) will be financially vulnerable.  This vulnerability makes her susceptible to wage slavery, debt slavery or slavery any of its other guises.  This includes sex trafficking.  There is a provision for in-country asylum applicants whose status is still pending after 180 days that  makes them eligible for a work permit.  After one year of political asylum, one may apply for permanent residence (green card).

While more attention is paid to the overrepresentation of minorities in prisons, it is important to factor in the ways in which the criminalization of undocumented or illegal immigrants boosts the for-profit prison system.20 Professor Angela Davis, would term this system the „prison-industrial complex.“  This is in conjunction with Congress‘ failure to extend welfare benefits to poor, disabled and elderly refugees. In the previous paragraphs,   it was noted that poverty has a feminine face.  In the 1996 overhaul of welfare, a five-year limit was placed on the Supplemental Security Income and cash assistance for the elderly and disabled. In 1997, that limit was lengthened to 7 years.  However, it‘s increasingly clear that seven years of benefits will not lift refugees and immigrants out of poverty and no Congress member has stepped up to advocate the extension of benefits to impoverished, disabled and elderly refugees in 2010.21 On October 1, 2010, 3,800 refugees will be cut off from the benefits that have kept them off the streets if Congress does not address the issue before summer recess.  It is important to note that these benefits are not a large sum: $1011 a month for couples and $647 a month for individuals.  Compare this to the cost of sustaining a military presence in over 100 countries (at a cost approximate to 43% of the world‘s total expenditures on the military).22 It is ironic that the American military presence in some of these refugees‘ nations of origin (e.g. Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia, Vietnam) undermined political unity and diminished the quality of life and compounded the necessity of their emigration.  Hence it is necessary to have a full-bodied discussion of the intersection of race, ethnicity, socio-economic class and gender in the plights of immigrants and political asylum seekers.


  1. For information on sundown towns, James Loewen‘s „Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism is an excellent souce.
  2. Merriam Webster Dictionary, s.v. „Gender“ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/gender (accessed 09 August 2010)
  3. Krase Katherine, „Sterilization Abuse“ The National Women‘s Health Network Newsletter, Jan/Feb 1996
  4. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/pill/peopleevents/e_puertorico.html (accessed 07 August 2010)
  5. U.S. Dep’t of State, Trafficking in Persons Report, 2006 at 6 (2006), see also: UN Women‘s „Facts and Figures On  Women Worldwide“
  6. 12 .a Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime
  7. New York, 15 November 2000   http://treaties.un.org/Pages/ViewDetails.aspx?src=TREATY&mtdsg_no=XVIII-12-a&chapter=18&lang=en (Accessed 11 August 2010)
  8. United Nations Convention Against Organized Crime and Protocoles Thereto, http://www.unodc.org/documents/treaties/UNTOC/Publications/TOC%20Convention/TOCebook-e.pdf (accessed 11 August 2010)
  9. U.S. Dep’t of State, Trafficking in Persons Report, 2004 at 23 (2004)
  10. University of Idaho, Asian and Asian-American Comparative Collection: „Significance of Asians and Asian-Americans in Idaho History“,  http://www.uiweb.uidaho.edu/LS/AACC/SIGNIF.HTM, (accessed 06 August 2010)
  11. University of Colorado at Boulder, „The Chinese-American Experience“  http://immigrants.harpweek.com/chineseamericans/1Introduction/BillWeiIntro.htm, (accessed 06 August, 2010)
  12. Westad, Odd Arne. The Global Cold War: Third Wolrd Interventions and the Making of Our Times. New York. Cambridge university Press. 2007. pp. 128, 189
  13. Castle, Timothy N. At War in the Shadow of Vietnam: U. S. Military Aid to the Royal Lao Government, 1955 – 1975. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
  14. Pilkington, Ed,  „USA Set For Dramatic Change as White America Becomes the Minority in 2042,“ The Guardian, 15 August 2008  [http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/aug/15/population.race], (accessed 06 August 2010), World News Section
  15. Michael Hoefer, Nancy Rytina, Christopher Campbell,  Estimates of the Unauthorized Immigrant Population Residing in the United States, January 2006“   http://www.dhs.gov/xlibrary/assets/statistics/publications/ill_pe_2006.pdf, (accessed 06 August 2010)
  16. ibid. Hoefer, Rytina and Campbell, pp. 4
  17. Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts‘ 1974 book entitled „The Voyage of the Damned“ is an adaptation of the historic voyage of the MS St. Louis
  18. United Nations Radio, http://www.unmultimedia.org/radio/english/detail/92644.html, (accessed 06 August 2010)
  19. ibid., United Nations Radio
  20. Ellick, Adam B, „Running Out of Options, Afghans Pay For an Exit, New York Times, July 4, 2009 „http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/05/world/asia/05smuggle.html (accessed 06 August, 2010)
  21. USCIS‘s website: http://www.uscis.gov/portal/site/uscis (accessed 06 August 2010)
  22. http://www.internationalwomensday.com/facts.asp (accessed 06 August 2010)
  23. Abdullah, Khalil, Report: Criminalizing Undocumented Boosts For-Profit Prisons,  New America Media, 06 August 2010, http://newamericamedia.org/2010/08/report-criminalizing-undocumented-boosts-for-profit-prisons.php (accessed 11 August 2010)
  24. See also:  Vulnerable Refugees, Losing a Lifeline, New York Times, 08 August 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/09/opinion/09mon4.html?_r=1&emc=tnt&tntemail0=y (accessed 11 August)
  25. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, http://www.sipri.org/research/armaments/milex/resultoutput/milex_15, (Accessed 11 August, 2010)

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