In summary

A new study shows women without legal residency face a lopsided pay gap. In California they take home 44 cents for every dollar that white, non-Latino men make and 87 cents for every dollar undocumented men make. Would raising the minimum wage help?

Beatriz Almazan, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, overstayed her tourist visa after someone stole her purse with legal documents inside. Now, four years later, she struggles to find steady work in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

It didn’t help that some employers, aware of her legal status, shortchanged her pay when she worked as a cleaner, Almazan said. She added she feels disheartened that her gender and legal status seem to guarantee she’ll be among the lowest paid in this country.  

“If we’re here, it’s because our country isn’t giving us what we need, and we’re here for our families and for our children,” said Almazan, who sends money when she can to her teenage daughter in Mexico. 

Almazan’s experience is not unique. Women workers who are undocumented take home far less pay than any other demographic group in the country, according to a recent study titled Double Disadvantage. 

In California, undocumented women make 58 cents for every dollar paid to all men, 44 cents compared to white men, and 67 cents for every dollar paid to all women. That’s worse than the typical gender pay gap between women and men, which is around 87 cents to the dollar.

Women without legal residency also make 87 cents for every dollar undocumented men make, according to the study by the Gender Equity Policy Institute, a Los Angeles nonprofit that analyzed data from the census bureau’s American Community Survey and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The study’s authors wanted to highlight the invisibility of undocumented women in the nation’s immigration debate, said Nancy L. Cohen, president of the Gender Equity Policy Institute. 

“Undocumented women face the same kinds of gender bias and discrimination in the workforce that all women in the U.S. face,” Cohen said. “Essentially women are shut out of good economic opportunities because they are women. The difference is that undocumented women are also penalized for their immigration status and for their ethnicity.”

California’s immigrant safety net

California is home to the largest number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S., more than 2 million. About 900,000 are women or girls. Nearly half are mothers of school-aged children, according to the report. 

Undocumented parents are raising 1 million U.S. citizens in California, so their pay and economic outcomes have reverberations beyond immigrant communities, advocates say.

The study focuses on four states with the most immigrant workers: California, Florida, New York and Texas. 

Undocumented women in California and New York fare better than those in Florida and Texas, largely because of more progressive, immigrant friendly policies, Cohen said. Undocumented women in California and New York are more likely to have health insurance and are less likely to live in poverty, compared to their Florida and Texas counterparts. 

In California 41% of undocumented women did not have health insurance and 16% lived in poverty in 2021. In Texas, 65% were uninsured and 27% lived in poverty, according to the study.  

“Women are shut out of good economic opportunities because they are women … Undocumented women are also penalized for their immigration status and for their ethnicity.”

Nancy L. Cohen, president of the Gender Equity Policy Institute

A major reason undocumented women are paid less, even than undocumented men, is the types of jobs they can access, Cohen said. Often they’re housekeepers, agricultural workers, cashiers or personal care aides. 

Undocumented men, on the other hand, take jobs in industries that pay slightly better, such as construction, landscaping and truck driving.

In California construction, agriculture, landscaping and truck driving generate median annual incomes of $32,000 to $39,000, while domestic jobs, such as housekeeping and caregiving, pay median incomes of $27,000 to $30,000, according to the study.

“I would hope that we’re focused on getting undocumented women, and women in general, into the well-paying jobs they’re fully qualified to do and that they’re blocked from because of historic and current bias,” Cohen said. 

Undocumented Latinas’ pay gap

The pay gap between undocumented women and U.S. men also may be attributed to formal education, but that’s not the full story, according to the report.

Undocumented women in general report lower levels of college completion than other demographic groups. However many undocumented women show an entrepreneurial spirit. According to the report, 60,000 reported being self-employed, and another 60,000 reported being enrolled in post-secondary education. 

Nationally, 9 out of 10 undocumented women are non-white, according to the report. That means their gender disparities are compounded by racial discrimination, Cohen said. 

“Women are heads of households. We have to earn the same.”

Beatriz Almazan, undocumented immigrant from Mexico

Researchers found Latina undocumented women — the largest share of the demographic in California at 69% — are the lowest earners compared to undocumented women of other ethnic backgrounds. 

One way to level the playing field, Cohen said, would be to raise the minimum wage, because the lowest-paid individuals tend to benefit most from minimum wage increases. 

Fighting for backpay 

Almazan said discrimination at various jobs has made it difficult for her to keep jobs and find financial stability. 

For instance, Almazan worked for about $18 an hour, cleaning a San Francisco theater. The work was overwhelming, she said. When she couldn’t complete it on time, her employer moved her to another theater an hour away from where she lived. After working there awhile, she was not paid, she said. 

She got an assist from the San Francisco-based workers’ rights organization Trabajadores Unidos Workers United, which helped her organize her pay stubs and find errors in them. It also successfully pressured her employer to eventually pay her the $800 she said she was owed. 

Almazan left that job anyway, after the poor treatment. 

“Our education tells us that men are providers, that they should earn more because they maintain the family and that women have husbands who help them,” she said. “That’s a lie. Women are heads of households. We have to earn the same.” 

Almazan remains unemployed. She is receiving assistance from Trabajadores Unidos Workers United and got a scholarship to help pay for English classes. She hopes to obtain a stable job and resume sending money to her daughter.

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Alejandra is a California Divide reporter writing about inequality in Los Angeles. She previously covered breaking news, the pandemic and Latino communities for the Los Angeles Times. She earned her bachelor’s...