The shuttering of the global economy and the devastating health ramifications of COVID-19 have left undocumented immigrant women in the United States struggling to provide emotional and economic care across borders.
As the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic raced across the United States in March 2020, we were in the midst of two respective ethnographic projects with a total of 65 immigrant mothers from Latin America. Our research broadly explored women’s experiences with their children’s schools, relationships with kin across borders, and senses of belonging within their communities. As the dangerous virus unraveled all of our lives as we had known them, we began to examine how this crisis affected immigrant mothers from Latin America who care for family members both here in the United States and in their countries of origin. While our participants hold a range of immigration statuses, the collapse of the economy and the public health system meant that undocumented women were subject to even more precarity, even if they had lived in the United States for years. The stories of Beatriz and Kelly reveal how the pandemic strains undocumented women’s care work across borders, adding duress to their already fragile circumstances.
Beatriz migrated to Somerville, Massachusetts, in 2005 to seek work to support herself and her family back home in El Salvador. She and her sister were raised by a single mother in a rural area, subsisting primarily off their small farm. Upon arriving in the United States, Beatriz, who is undocumented, obtained a job cleaning office buildings in Boston, allowing her to send money home to her mother, which became especially critical when her mother grew ill and needed $150 for medication each month. Beatriz and her husband have dedicated themselves to raising their 12-year-old son, and Beatriz has been active in her son’s school district as an advocate for other families. After years of hoping for a second baby, she became pregnant in December 2019, and her husband and son cried with joy when she shared the news.
Yet the stability Beatriz had established for her family vanished as COVID-19 raced through communities across the United States. Her husband lost his restaurant job. She was furloughed, but was unable to claim unemployment because she is undocumented, making the family ineligible for any federal stimulus funds. They scrambled to pay rent and put food on the table. The pandemic and the accompanying economic crisis left Beatriz torn between two competing care responsibilities. She was devastated by not being able to send remittances home, as part of her motivation for migration was to provide care for her mother, and she is doubly afraid because her mother’s pre-existing conditions leave her vulnerable to the coronavirus. At the same time, she mourned what her pregnancy could have been—a time of celebration and joy—and felt daunted by the prospect of caring for a newborn without income. Her transnational responsibilities spanned miles, borders, and generations.
Women like Beatriz compose a large part of the flow of migrants worldwide, driven to emigrate from their countries of origin in search of a living wage, leaving their families and children behind. Although Beatriz migrated before becoming a mother, others live and work in different countries from those of their children, resulting in a “care deficit” in many nations in the global south (see for example, Ehrenreich and Hochschild 2002; Yeates 2005). The sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild defines these international relationships of care as “global care chains—a series of personal links between people across the globe based on the paid or unpaid work of caring” (2014, 131). Long before the pandemic, these global care chains produced significant reorganization in family units and required extraordinary sacrifices of women across generations. For instance, Rhacel Salazar Parreñas (2005) revealed the complex repercussions on both mothers and children as globalization forced women to migrate to provide basic needs for their families. In attending to the families the women leave behind, Kristin Yarris (2017) demonstrated how critical grandmothers become in providing care in women’s countries of origin, offering emotional support to their grandchildren and to their daughters as the migrating women navigate mothering from afar. The political economy of care and the feminist critique on which the care chain approach is based have made significant contributions to the literature on migration. This feminist lens shines light on the ways in which immigrant women performed additional gendered labor, even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But beyond the broad patterns of gendered labor, immigrant women make meaning of their care work, anchoring themselves to notions of motherhood and to their hopes for a better life for their loved ones, at home and in their new communities. For instance, Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo and Ernestine Avila (1997) described transnational motherhood as a process through which immigrant mothers redefine a good mother to locate their wage-earning labor as an act of devotion and care, even as this work required them to be physically distant from their children. More recently, Gabrielle’s research revealed that transnational Mexican mothers in the United States enact their gendered care work from afar through their involvement with the schools their children attend in Mexico (Oliveira 2018). For the women in our studies, transnational care implies physical and distant manifestations of love and affection as well as economic and educational support. In our research, we demonstrate that undocumented immigrant women from Latin America have been affected by the current global pandemic in at least three ways: (1) the economic downturn caused by the pandemic has hindered their capacity to consistently send money home in the form of remittances, (2) they have had to navigate understandings of health care and illness transnationally, and (3) as the primary caregivers “here” and “there,” the global care chain that they are part of has been compromised. For Beatriz, and for Kelly, a Brazilian mother whose story we share below, managing this pandemic trifecta has been heart-wrenching and exhausting.
Kelly’s story illuminates these dynamics. She migrated from Brazil to the United States in 2017, in search of better prospects for her two daughters. She had lived in São Paulo and worked as a grocer near her house while her husband worked at a factory. Her mother became ill with cancer in 2015, and Kelly struggled to pay the health bills. For a while she was able to have her oldest daughter in a Catholic private school with a full scholarship but the costs were too high and Kelly had to withdraw her daughter from the school. When Kelly came to the United States she landed in Framingham, Massachusetts, a common destination for Brazilian families. Her cousin, who had migrated previously, told her she would have a place to stay for a couple of months until she found her own place. Upon arrival, Kelly started cleaning homes, bagging groceries, and making and delivering party ornaments. Her two daughters, aged seven and four, started attending the local public schools. For the first time in her life, Kelly had a reliable income. Her husband took a job driving a van and fixing air–conditioning and heating systems around Boston. Kelly was able to send home an average of $150 every week. The currency in Brazil is usually between four and six reais to the dollar and the minimum wage in the country is $263 per month. Thus, the impact of the remittance sent home by Kelly was seismic for her mother in Brazil. Kelly, her husband, and two daughters were undocumented, making these improvements in their lives tenuous.
In late March 2020, Kelly spoke about her worries, “I am nervous. Things are falling apart…” She described a multitier impact on her role as a transnational caregiver: “The girls won’t go to school, I won’t be able to work, I can’t pay my bills. What if I am evicted? Can the government deport me for not paying bills? And then, my mother in Brazil…her treatment, her health. If she dies I can’t go…” Kelly did lose her job, as did her husband. Like Beatriz’s family, they were not eligible for unemployment benefits, remaining largely unseen, but incredibly surveilled. She worried about driving, about signing papers at her daughters’ school, about potential raids and interactions with the police. Kelly’s mother was at risk in Brazil where the government had been slow to react to the spread of COVID-19 and where her cancer treatment had been interrupted. Kelly’s youngest daughter, Milly, contracted COVID-19 in early April. She experienced high fever for almost a full week, which resulted in multiple visits to the emergency room. Kelly described, “I was trying to understand how I could afford health care here and there, how I can care for my mother and my daughter at the same time. This disease made my family implode.”
Although the shuttering of the global economy because of COVID-19 has left women around the world holding together their families in the face of illness and economic uncertainty, for undocumented immigrant women in the United States, the burden is even heavier. Even in the best of times, navigating care responsibilities across borders is complex, gendered labor, especially for low-income and undocumented women working in precarious labor markets (see Dreby 2015). Before the pandemic the remittances of women like Beatriz and Kelly provided health care across national borders for their mothers, at the same time as they met the needs of their own children in the United States. But this transnational care left them even more vulnerable because they were unable to both send remittances and save enough for unexpected emergencies. Their undocumented status reinforces this vulnerability, as most of the women in our studies were unable to access federal stimulus money intended to ease the financial impact of the virus, nor are they able to easily find other work without authorization. As they struggle to hold onto their caregiving roles as mothers and daughters, the ripples of COVID-19 extend to rural El Salvador and an unborn US citizen, and to São Paulo in Brazil, weakening the webs of care Beatriz and Kelly have woven across borders.
The pandemic has strained global economies and health care systems to the breaking point and has wreaked havoc on immigrant families, exposing harsh inequalities in access to stable income, adequate health care, and secure housing across the United States. As countries across the globe struggle to respond to yet another wave of the pandemic, support for migrant women must account for their critical and often invisible labor in their nations of origin and their places of arrival. Scholars and policymakers alike must adopt a critical, intersectional lens that attends to the complex relationships between gender, immigration status, and economic position. We remain critical of the broader economic and political structures that leave Beatriz and Kelly bearing a disproportionate level of responsibility for basic care of family members across borders. But they do this work, and supporting them as they navigate this pandemic is essential as they strive to maintain their vital role in providing emotional and economic transnational care.
Sarah Bruhn is a PhD candidate in education at Harvard University. Her research broadly examines relationships between migration, gender, and belonging. Her current study explores how immigrant mothers from Latin America develop a sense of belonging with the context of a sanctuary city, with a particular attention to the role of schools.
Gabrielle Oliveira is an assistant professor at Boston College Lynch School of Education and Human Development whose research focuses on immigration and mobility—how people move, adapt, and parent across borders. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow with the National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation.
Cite as: Bruhn, Sarah, and Gabrielle Oliveira. 2021. “Immigrant Women’s Care Work in a Global Pandemic.” Anthropology News website, January 27, 2021. https://doi.org/10.14506/AN.1578