The Feminization of Migration: What Does It Mean For the LDS Church?

Over the past decade, migration researchers have noted that the percentage of undocumented immigrants who are women is on the rise. Whereas a generation ago men accounted for a super-majority of immigrants, women may now account for nearly 50% of the immigrant population in the U.S.The reasons why women are immigrating are changing, too. Previously, most women immigrated as dependents, meaning they came to the U.S. to reunite with their breadwinning husbands or fathers. Today, an increasingly large number of women are migrating independently in order to pursue economic opportunities themselves. Fortunately for them, our economy’s long-established demand for male workers in agriculture, construction, and landscaping is now accompanied by a substantial number of opportunities for females in domestic and service-related industries.Interestingly, immigrant women tend to remit a larger portion of their earnings to their countries of origin than do men. The money these women send back is primarily used for household purposes—to buy necessities such as groceries, medicine, or clothing. Contrastingly, the money men remit is more likely to be used for “investment” purposes, such as purchasing land or farm machinery.

While research suggests that most undocumented immigrants in the U.S. come here for economic reasons, the trends described above lead me to believe that female immigrants may constitute a much more impoverished group than their male counterparts. Whereas many men seem to head north to pad the lining of their (admittedly meager) savings, more women appear to migrate out of desperation to feed their families. Abandoned, widowed, or forgotten by the fathers of their children, these women take the initiative to travel thousands of miles, often unaccompanied, to an unfamiliar land, where they will likely work grueling hours and for less than a living wage. Grandmothers and aunts care for their children while they are away.

Female immigrants face unique challenges. In the first place, because most immigrant women work in unregulated domestic- and service-related industries (unregulated = little recourse through the legal system), immigrant women are placed at a greater risk of exploitation in the sense of poor working conditions, physical abuse, and sexual abuse. Moreover, similar to U.S.-born women in the labor force, immigrant women face gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and disparity of pay. For these reasons, and many others not contemplated here, the plight of immigrant women merits special attention.

Over the past 3+ years of my participation in the Bloggernacle, I’ve engaged in quite a few discussions about undocumented immigration. These discussions are often lively, and unfortunately tend to fall into similar argumentative patterns. Someone will infer something not-so-nice about unauthorized immigrants, others counter with personal anecdotes, someone else pulls out the 12th Article of Faith (“obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law”), and so forth, and so on. I’m wondering if today we can develop a different discussion about undocumented immigration—one focused particularly on the existence, condition, and needs of undocumented immigrant women in the LDS Church.

A few discussion starting points I would like to throw out there:

 Given that women tend to be baptized at greater rates than men, and tend to be more active than men after baptism, what are the implications of a large population of female immigrants (who are increasingly likely to be unaccompanied and impoverished) attending the LDS church? What are the implications re: foreign language units and minimum numerical requirements for priesthood holders?

 How should priesthood leaders approach welfare requests that, in many cases, may be remitted to a 3rd party in a foreign country? Should the fact that Hermana Miranda’s children live in Oaxaca, instead of West Salt Lake, even matter at all?

 What can we do, as Sisters (and Brothers) in Zion, to alleviate some of the burdens of the undocumented women in our wards and stakes?

*We can all agree that undocumented immigration is not a good thing. Our immigration laws are broken and ineffective. Despite all of the publicity about legislative reform over the past two summers, it’s not likely that the immigration system will be repaired any time soon. Let’s please not turn this into another tired debate on legislative reform.

** The term “illegal alien” is pejorative, racist, dehumanizing, and harmful, in that it serves as a rhetorical device that intellectually legitimizes the mistreatment of immigrants. Saying the “I” word around me is akin to using a racial slur. Appropriate terms include undocumented, unauthorized, unregulated, or just plain old immigrant.



  1. It’s probably too obvious to say it, but here’s what we see in our Spanish branch: Vibrant Relief Society. Lots of children and youth attending church. Boys beginning to drop off around age 14. Relatively few active men. Until recently the Branch presidency comprised men called from the stake’s English-speaking wards to serve in the branch. (Our Hmong branch still has English-speaking leadership, by the way. There may be even greater challenges in that branch than in the Spanish branch, because the language is rarely spoken among other members of the Church.)
    I’m sure there are lots of welfare cases I’m unaware of, but the one I know about involved a divorced mom who was deported while her U.S. citizen children were left behind and moved to live with a non-member relative outside ward boundaries. The mother hoped the church would make payments on her house for her until she could return. The did not. She is back, I have heard, but not attending church anymore. Just today I ran into her daughter, my former Mia Maid class president. It is heartbreaking to me. I don’t think the decision not to maintain the house while she was deported was wrong, but I sure wish that somehow things could have turned out differently.

    Another interesting specific and common situation brings to mind this question: How can we actively support immigrant families where at least one parent is working as a seasonal or migrant laborer, commuting long distances or working long-term in another city? This situation is a part of how the mom in the case I am thinking of ended up divorced.

  2. By the way, I don’t serve specifically in the branch. Our ward has joint auxiliaries with the branch, and I serve in Young Women with lots of girls from Spanish-speaking families.

  3. Thanks for this post, Maria,
    I actually haven’t thought much about this issue, probably because I am in insulated Irvine and don’t know of any undocumented immigrants in my ward.

    You ask great questions. I’m not sure about the impact of a mass of female LDS immigrants on wards here in the U.S, but I have often hoped that the starkly imbalanced congregations south of the border might spur church leaders to consider a more expansive role for women in the church.

    I personally would hope that leaders would approach requests for money from these immigrant women with great compassion and liberality. We here in the U.S. are blessed with such overabundance. I love the idea of generously sharing that money with people in other parts of the world.

  4. This is my first encounter of this site and this blog.
    This was a great post. I am saddened to hear of these conditions existing within the church and our admitted ignorance of these issues. I agree wholeheartedly that welfare issues regarding migrant worker women must be addressed within a more multiculturally sensitive perpective irrespective of traditional international boundary lines. (I could here launch into a discussion of the global workforce, corporate outsourcing and the impoverishing of 3rd world nations that is, at least partially, responsible for the immigration patterns that we observe, but I am trying to keep it short:-)The practical question is how do we begin, first, to educate the RS presidents and Bishops–and the membership–on how best to approach these issues? Should it be on a case by case basis? Should some initial guidelines of implementation be developed first? I am not sure myself.

  5. Ana,

    My heart breaks for the deported woman and her family. I’m curious if you are aware of how the RS handled the situation–if ever there was a time for “compassionate service,” I think it would have been as she was entangled in the removal proceedings. The lengthy trial process can be extremely traumatic for not just the immigrants, but their auxiliary family members. I can only imagine how petrified her children must have been throughout the whole process. Add on to that all the legal fees, court appearances, etc. Yikes.

    I have mixed feelings re: the family’s house payment. If she had become temporarily disabled, I’m sure no one would have blinked an eye if the ward had picked up the tab for a month or two. And, the family losing their home might result in requests for rental assistance later on.

  6. Another comment re: deportation–as USICE (DHS) continues to increase its workplace raids, etc., deportation issues will likely become a hotter topic for wards and branches left to pick up the pieces as mom (or dad) is removed from the country.

  7. Caroline–

    My guess would be that most foreign language units without sufficient priesthood holders would “import” RMs (that speak the language) from other units in the stake in order to meet the PH # requirements. At least that was my experience in my mission in SoCal. But wouldn’t it be great if it opened up greater opportunities for women? You know I would be 100% behind that.

  8. Caroline–

    I would also personally tend to fall on the side of liberalness re: welfare distributions, but I imagine that many bishops/RS presidents would be leary if they felt they were supporting entire families in foreign countries for extended periods of time.

  9. I have a more apocalyptic view on this: this immigration problem is going to continue ad infinitum regardless of govt or social intervention. For the average latter day saint who is not involved with some current government or social program, I think the most reasonable attitude is to be neither pro nor contra illegal immigration, because it’s the work of the Lord. I don’t see any relief in the long run except through the inspired direction of the prophets.

    We should be mindful of these women and families and give relief to them individually, in the pattern set by Brother Brigham’s admonition to rescue and care for the handcart pioneers. In fact, the story of the handcart pioneers is the only and exclusive way, as I see it, to view this current dilemma.

  10. Anonymous–

    Welcome to Exponent II. We hope you’ll hang around and continue to comment.

    I think that handling these issues on a case-by-case basis is probably what the church will do–I can’t imagine that church legal would allow a document to go out that sets in place contingency plans for undocumented immigrants or their families. Unfortunately, the official church policy is that we have no policy on undocumented immigration, and I’m sure that isn’t likely to change any time soon.

    Therefore, I think the onus is upon us, as individual members, to be aware of the undocumented women and their families in our wards and to advocate on their behalf should the occasion arise. Throw this onto the list of issues that caring visiting teachers should be aware of.

  11. I work at a domestic violence shelter in Arizona with a high population of undocumented women. Some of those women have been LDS and I have been shocked by how little support they are given by the local leadership. It breaks my heart that we, with our understanding of the mission of Jesus Christ, will not do everything within our power to help these desperate women.

    This is an issue that the church is going to have to start confronting. The political situation is turning against undocumented immigrants and many states, including Arizona, have passed laws that will make it near impossible for them to get employment, even day labor and domestic work. I know the church likes to stay neutral on these subjects but I doubt we will be able to for much longer.

  12. I first became acquainted with this issue while on my mission in Spain seven years ago. Many of the people joining the church there are immigrants, many of them undocumented. One of the biggest problems in Spain was keeping track of people as they move around and move in and out of activity. One ward I was in had nearly 500 people on the roll with only about 100 attending sacrament meeting. As we went around trying to look up people, the majority of them had left and no one knew where they were. I taught some immigrants and many sincerely wanted to join the church, but the chaos of their lives really interfered with activity.

    Another problem was the breakup of families across borders. We taught a wonderful couple, but it turned out that they weren’t married to each other. Trying to figure out the legal paperwork to get them married was pretty near impossible, and for many people that is a big barrier to joining the church as well. I knew a number of couples who broke up when one spouse would arrive in the new country to find out that their spouse had already found someone new.

    Another big issue for women in Spain was abuse by their employers. We met so many maids/nannies while knocking doors. And they would often tell us that they used to be members or that they wanted to be members, but that their employers kept them prisoner basically and only let them have a few hours of free time on Sunday afternoon. So sad.

    So, there are a lot of big issues caused by undocumented immigration. It’s hard for me because I can understand the reasons why families do it. If I couldn’t feed my kids or if I was being terrorized by drug lords, I’d fly across an ocean or walk across a desert to get out of that situation. But the big legal problems and the breakdown of families are so hard to see.

  13. Years ago I was asked by my very caring bishop to hire an undocumented immigrant who claimed to have been abused and in fear of her life and the lives of her children. It took years to learn that was a lie. I have no idea what the truth is. I continue to hire her because she will stay in this country and the children need food. I pay her well and make her schedule flexible to facilitate her mothering. I hire other employees legally and I am not eager to be fined by the feds for failure to fire this woman but I worry about her and the children. What is the real story? Why did she leave an underaged child in Mexico? Why did she come here with her other children? What was years in the abused woman’s underground all about and what did that do to the kids? (I now know that falsely claiming abuse is a not uncommon ploy of immigrant women alone.) Are the children better off away from extended family? And, the real worry, am I enabling her to deny a father and children a chance at a relationship? The whole situation makes me very uncomfortable. I see no right answer, just a lot of jumbled rights and wrongs on my part, her part and society’s part.

  14. “The term “illegal alien” is pejorative, racist, dehumanizing, and harmful, in that it serves as a rhetorical device that intellectually legitimizes the mistreatment of immigrants.”

    Apologies for the brief threadjack, but this is fascinating. I’ve never heard this claim before – and I’m an English language nerd. I’m entirely in favor of appropriate language, but I’m afraid this one sounds like it’s been concocted by special interest groups. Even hyper PC-friendly sources such as CNN use the term “illegal alien.”

    It seems to me those interested in makes such changes to our language face a difficult road. The first being that the commonness of terms “illegal alien” and “illegal immigration” suggest that most people use the terms in a non-pejorative way. Simply telling people that a term they’ve been using all their lives is pejorative doesn’t work with very many.

    More significantly, trying to change language in hopes to change attitudes is rarely a successful effort. If people do use a word in a pejorative sense, replacing the word with a neutral one only means that it too will become pejorative with time. Years down the road, I can easily hear the words, “undocumented immigrant is an offensive term. Labeling people by their ‘documentation’ is dehumanizing. We ought to call them ‘free friends’ so as to indicate that they have entered this country outside of the government’s restrictive processing.”

  15. Eric:

    She’s not making it up — the semantics of the immigration debate have a long,ugly history.

    This link might be helpful.

    CNN uses the term on the LOU DOBBS show as a specific, calculated rhetorical device, and he has taken heat (for more than just that) for his incessant attempts to make undocumented immigrants the bogeyman (remember the episode last year where he claimed the Mormon Church was part of an immigration conspiracy? A summary here.

  16. “More significantly, trying to change language in hopes to change attitudes is rarely a successful effort. If people do use a word in a pejorative sense, replacing the word with a neutral one only means that it too will become pejorative with time.”

    Eric’s right about that: I took a class in grad school about homelessness; the professor who taught it had been one of the people who coined the term “homeless” in the late 70s. He explained that they had come up with it to be a value-neutral term, and before “homeless,” the homeless were referred to, generally, as bums, or other such derogatory appellations. However, by the time I was taking the class, he noted with some amusement and some chagrin, it was being seen, by some, as derogatory.

    I don’t have any idea about the history of labelling immigration, however.

  17. This is an interesting thread. I also live in Arizona, so I know it is a pressing issue for our region, but it is not something I deal with at church. I do hope that the church develops a policy for women in these desperate situations.
    In the meantime, I think others are right about compassion with the individuals we meet.
    Thanks for the comments and links.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Click to subscribe for new post alerts.

Click to subscribe to our magazine, in circulation since 1974.

Related Posts

Guest Post: What Sheep Taught Me About Motherhood

by Jesse (Jesse is a confirmed science nerd, writer, runner and mother of two children.  She completed my undergraduate and graduate work in Biology, and...

When the Church Owns the Local Newspaper

It appears that a three-year financial crisis that threatened the Salt Lake Tribune may be coming to a close with the recent announcement that...

“That’s Just Like Me…”

The theme for our Mothers' Day service was to reflect on the blessings and struggles of being a Mormon Mom. Because my husband is...

Hollow evening

I’m sad and frustrated. I just got an email from my dear friend Alyson. She’s a phenomenon. Smart, funny, stylin’, energetic, creative, sassy –...
submit guest post
Submit a Guest Blog Post
subscribe to our magazine
Subscribe to Our Magazine
Social Media Auto Publish Powered By :