Open Borders Would be Great for Women

This is a guest post by Victoria Ferauge. Victoria is an American expatriate currently living in France.  She thus has first hand knowledge of how immigration controls work and impact migrants. Victoria also maintains a blog here.

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.

Victoria Ferauge

11 thoughts on “Open Borders Would be Great for Women”

  1. “It’s incorrect to assume that “escape” is the primary reason that woman migrate.”

    I think this is an important point. Migration is a valuable right and capability for all kinds of people, not just those who “need” it to escape poverty or persecution. I think focusing on the humanitarian benefits of open borders is important for a certain audience, but perhaps not for everyone. If classism and disregard for the poor are real phenomena, then for some audiences it might be better to talk about how comfortably middle class individuals might want to migrate for the sheer hell of it.

  2. Thank you for the comment. Yes, women have just as much a sense of adventure as men do. And the start of my migration journey (just like many of my migrant friends) was not only about being with the person I fell in love with, but also the joy of discovering a new country and building a life and a career there.

    The Frenchwomen I know who are considering a move to the US, Canada or Asia, and the American women I know who dream of life in France or the UK or Australia don’t see themselves represented in discussions about escaping persecution. Women migrants are just as diverse as male migrants and most have multiple reasons for wanting to try their luck elsewhere. I truly think it would be better if we could have a discussion that is more inclusive and treats women, not as escapees, but as human beings who dream (just like so many other people on this planet) of distant shores.

  3. re: “So why do so many of the discussions about migration assume that the average migrant is a relatively young man seeking better opportunities elsewhere?”

    I think a lot of the time, the nature of migration doesn’t particularly have much to do with gender, and we might just use “a relatively young man seeking better opportunities elsewhere” as an example for convenience, assuming that the same logic would apply equally to a young woman seeking new opportunities. That might be gender bias of a sort, but would seem to be analytically innocuous. Possibly a danger of writing about women’s issues in migration is that people might get the impression that women have very different reasons for migrating. This post is a useful reminder that the effects of open borders probably wouldn’t differ that much by gender, though there might be some cultures women are particularly eager to escape.

    Three other thoughts occur to me:

    1. Are there “men’s issues” in migration, in addition to “women’s issues?” For example, open borders as a way of liberating some men from conscription into the Russian army?

    2. While people often don’t like to think about marriage as a “market,” men do compete with men for mates and women with women, and there is a kind of “price” in this market, not usually paid explicitly nowadays (though what with dowry / bride price it often was in the past), but rather in working out, make-up, accommodating a career or agreeing to stay home with kids, and all the other things the sexes do for each other. Now, it seems to me that if in some countries the marriage market is more congenial to men, in other countries to women, open borders would lead to export surpluses, so to speak, in one or the other gender. For example, my impression is that Russia has a “comparative advantage” in women, that the quality of its women relative to those in other countries is higher than the quality of its men. Russia tends to “export” women, or rather, women often choose to leave Russia. What you might see under open borders is a convergence of “prices” across countries. It’s possible, for example, that for Western men who would rather marry stay-at-home women than working professionals, there are relatively few takers among Western women, but plenty of non-Western women would seize the opportunity, leaving Western men under less pressure to accommodate women’s careers. At any rate, this leads into an interesting line of speculation…

    3. Victoria’s complaint that when a woman’s right to immigrate depends on a spouse, or more rarely a father or brother, he has great power over her, seems like a special case of the general problem that a lot of injustice results when people don’t have RIGHTS. There ought to be a RIGHT to migrate-and-work, even if we don’t to institute a right to migrate-and-use-welfare, or migrate-and-vote.

    1. I think gender discrimination in immigration law is a quite potent point. The immigration laws of many countries, including my own (Malaysia), quite explicitly discriminate against women. For instance, a female Malaysian citizen has a much weaker “right to invite” than a male Malaysian citizen. A female Malaysian by law cannot even obtain a visa for her male spouse or her foreign-born dependents. Many Malaysian women who marry foreigners thus emigrate. On the flipside, my mother (a Filipino who married a Malaysian) though technically able to apply for a permanent resident visa, never had her application approved. She lived in Malaysia for over a decade on a “social visit pass” (subject to annual renewal) without being allowed to work. The pass could also be revoked at her husband’s discretion. Women’s rights groups in Malaysia are actually fairly vocal about the injustice of our immigration laws, relative to their counterparts I’ve observed in other countries (though most other countries I’ve observed don’t have *as big* a problem with gender discrimination in their immigration laws).

  4. @Nathan, Good question. Yes, I think there are “men’s issues”. Conscription is an obvious one. Consider the case of a bi-national family I knew many years ago. Their teenage son thought about US, France and Israel as possible destinations. Two had drafts at the time (one still does I think) and one didn’t. Not sure where he ended up but the issue figured prominently in his and his parents thinking at the time.

    On the other hand military service has in many countries been a way for men to earn the right to migrate permanently. France does this and so does the US. I think Germany is considering it. Is that an option open to women? No sure but worth looking into.

    Marriage as a “market”. An interesting way to look at it. My impression is that having a foreign wife in some places confers status on the husband. Plus if the woman comes with a desirable citizenship (US, EU) the children will benefit by being born duals thus giving them more easy migration options. I think demography is also a factor. An area with a low birthrate needs men AND women – especially the latter, right? I know that my two daughters (both well-educated Francophones) who are studying in Quebec are being strongly encouraged to stay on after they complete their studies.

    @John Lee, Thank you for pointing that out. Yes, it is still true that some countries restrict women’s right to migrate often under the guise of “protecting” them. I would love to see a list of the countries that still have such rules. Even where laws like this this don’t exist, families (or the larger society) may treat their sons and daughters differently – the former being encouraged to migrate while the latter being strongly discouraged.

    Finally, may I recommend this article from the Migration Policy Institute: Women and Migration: Incorporating Gender into International Migration Theory

    The authors provide a link to a good resource lists on this topic so it might be a good place to start.

  5. Victoria is correct that there are multiple reasons why women (and men) desire to migrate. For the record, I acknowledged this point to a certain extent in my post when I wrote, “Like men, women would benefit from the economic opportunities made available by open borders and, conversely, be released from the various hardships imposed by restrictionism such as deportation, detention, separation from family, fear, exploitation, and being forced to remain in their home countries.” The beauty of open borders is that the policy would accommodate the various motivations for migrating, even, as Paul notes, the desire to move to a new country “for the sheer hell of it.”

    Victoria is probably right that “It’s incorrect to assume that ‘escape’ is the primary reason that woman migrate.” However, with the realization of open borders, the numbers of women fleeing oppression in their home countries would most likely increase, perhaps significantly.

    1. @Joel You did indeed. I could not agree more that open borders would be good for all women, regardless of their reasons for wanting to leave their home countries. And for those who are fleeing oppression it would make it so much easier. I have to wonder as well if it might be a factor for change in those societies.

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