I am an immigrant. In 1989 right after I graduated from university I left the United States for France. I have lived nearly 20 years now in the Hexagon where I am a legal resident and hope to be a citizen soon.
I’m not alone. According to the International Organization for Migration, 49% of the 214 million international migrants are women. So why do so many of the discussions about migration assume that the average migrant is a relatively young man seeking better opportunities elsewhere? This gender bias makes it very hard to join a conversation that revolves primarily around the economics of migration and ignores all the other factors that go into every woman’s (and man’s) decision to cast him or herself onto a distant shore.
In a previous post here on Open Borders, Joel Newman talked about one advantage that women would have under Open Borders: escape from persecution and discrimination . This is certainly true but these cases don’t represent the majority of woman migrants. It’s incorrect to assume that “escape” is the primary reason that woman migrate. Some of our reasons (like opportunity) are, in fact, very similar to those commonly attributed to men. The Moroccan women I know here in France came because their language skills and degrees meant more opportunity for them in a Francophone country in the EU, and not because they felt actively persecuted at home. Other migrants like myself had other reasons to migrate that were just as important as the chase after better opportunities.
Family is one of these. It can be about joining family members already living outside the home country, it can be a decision to get married and start a family with a native citizen in another country, or it can mean moving the entire family to a safer place to raise children in a society that invests in children. For the record, one of the primary reasons I’ve heard from American immigrants in Europe and elsewhere for migrating is to raise children in a less violent society with better public schools. For this, they were more than willing to trade economic opportunity (and pay higher taxes) for a more “family friendly” environment.
The problem women migrants face when they migrate to join family (especially a spouse) is that the woman begins her migration journey as the appendage to the man. The assumption is one of “dependent” status. This impacts the economic equality of immigrant women within their marriages to citizens or to other legal residents. In most countries it is a fact that women make less than men. Many skilled immigrants are under-employed compared to their education level and skill sets during the time that they assimilate and learn the language. If you combine the two, this means that the difference between the native husband’s income and that of the foreign woman struggling to start or restart a career, can be enormous. As a result of this inequality, she may have less power when it comes to deciding how the children are brought up, what language(s) to use in the home, and what traditions will be followed.
To be very clear all too often her right to live and work in the country of arrival is based on her relationship with her spouse (or another family member – usually a father or brother) and that gives them extraordinary power over her. This power lessens over time as the woman establishes residency but in the beginning, it is a powerful weapon that can be used to control a woman’s behaviour in the host country.
So my argument for Open Borders is simply this: It would give us women more equality in our migration journeys. We could enter other countries on our own terms, and our status and ability to stay, to live and work, would be completely independent of our husbands or fathers. And finally, it would make bi-national marriages and partnerships where one is a citizen and the other is not, much more equal.
And that is why Open Borders would be good for women everywhere, regardless of socioeconomic status and country of origin.