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Disposable domestics immigrant women workers in the global economy

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ªIllegal.º Un-American. Disposable. The

“Since Grace Chang’s Disposable Domestics was first published sixteen years ago, it
has not only become a major classic in feminist studies, but has helped to make
transnational analyses of reproductive labor central to our understanding of race
and gender in the twenty-first century.”
—Angela Y. Davis, author of Women, Race & Class









Grace Chang is a writer and activist in struggles
for migrant and women of color rights. She
teaches courses in social science research methods and ethics; women resisting violence; and
grassroots, transnational, feminist social justice
movements. She is founding director of Women
Of color Revolutionary Dialogues (word), a support group for women, queer, and trans people of
color to build community through spoken word,
political theater, music, dance, and film.

“Disposable Domestics is as timely and relevant now as when it was first written. As
debates rage over ‘immigration reform,’ Grace Chang exposes the outlandish myth
that corporate interests or liberal Democrats stand against mass deportation and
xenophobia. Instead she reveals a long history of collusion between governments, the
IMF and World Bank, big agriculture, and corporations, and private employers to
create and maintain a super-exploited, low-wage, female labor force of caregivers and
cleaners. Structural adjustment policies force them to leave home; labor, welfare, and
education policies deny them basic benefits and protections; employers deny them a
living wage. But as Chang also shows us, racism, misogyny, and neoliberalism have
never succeeded in denying these women dignity, personhood, or power. A decade and
a half later, they are still here and still fighting.”
— Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination


Immigrant Women Workers
in the Global Economy

“Grace Chang’s nuanced analysis of our immigration policy and the devastating consequences of

global capitalism captures the experiences of
poor immigrant women of color. Disposable
Domestics reveals how these women, servicing
the economy as domestics, nannies, maids, and
janitors, are vilified by politicians and the media.”
— Mary Romero, author of Maid in the USA


Women's Studies / Labor

“America is nothing without its immigrant
workforce. Offices would not be cleaned, fruits
would not be picked, children would not be
loved. Grace Chang’s classic Disposable Domestics brings alive the world of the immigrant
workers and of the structures that rely upon
them but that deny them dignity. But more
than anything, Disposable Domestics champions
the immigrants themselves—their words, their
politics, their leadership. This is a book to
throw at Donald Trump.”
—Vijay Prashad, author of The Poorer Nations:
The Possible History of the Global South
“Grace Chang is a pioneer in the contemporary
study of home care and domestic workers.
Disposable Domestics paints a compelling and
textured picture of how immigration, race,
gender, law, politics, and culture conspire to
impoverish caregivers. But just as importantly,
it portrays caregivers as the heroes of their own
story, not just as the victims of someone else’s.
Future readers will look back on Disposable
Domestics as part of the essential liberation
literature of our time.”
— David Rolf, president of SEIU 775

Grace Chang

“Grace Chang teaches us how to understand contemporary globalization. Refusing to
segregate people, places, or processes, Disposable Domestics reorganizes our capacity
to think powerfully about the world in which the struggle for social justice is too
often imperiled by certain kinds of partiality. In other words, Chang’s classic
compels us to see the contradictory motion of workers toward the goal of gathering
varieties of motion into a movement.”
— Ruth Wilson Gilmore, author of Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus,
Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California

Disposable Domestics

prevailing image of
migrants, particularly women of color, is that of a drain on “our” resources. Grace
Chang’s vital account of migrant women—frequently undocumented and disenfranchised, working as nannies, domestic workers, janitors, nursing aides, and home care
workers—proves just the opposite. These women perform our nation’s most crucial
labor, yet are treated as the most exploitable and expendable in our economy and
society. Disposable Domestics highlights how immigrant women perform this critical
work while leading some of the most important social justice movements of our time.

Grace Chang

Forewords by Mimi Abramovitz and Ai-jen Poo, Afterword by Alicia Garza

Praise for the 2016 Edition
“Disposable Domestics gives readers a 360-degree perspective on both the
lives of immigrant women laborers and the macro and global forces that
shape them. When first published over fifteen years ago, the book was
eye-opening. Today, readers will see how Grace Chang’s work foretold
the future about the indispensable role of women from the global South
in the grinding machination of economic globalization; the evidence of
their collective indispensability and individual ‘disposability’ is now all
around and much more visible. The power and durability of Disposable
Domestics is due in large measure to Chang’s activist-scholar orientation
and sensibilities, which generated descriptions that humanize the women
and analysis that explains how they are dehumanized and exploited, and
shows who benefits and how.”
—Margo Okazawa-Rey, coeditor of Women’s Lives:
Multicultural Perspectives

Praise for the 2000 Edition

Disposable Domestics is a compelling book that is all too rare these days,
combining academic research and theory, political conviction, and moral
—Kitty Calavita, University of California at Irvine
With patience and clarity, Grace Chang shows us that the work of
immigrant women is an indispensable feature of global capitalism. Their
blood and sweat has been rewarded only by increasing government regulation, domestic violence, and cultural commodification. Feminists and
labor organizers beware! Disposable Domestics names the hot-button
social justice issue of this decade.
—Karin Aguilar-San Juan, editor of The State of Asian America
In her illuminating book, Grace Chang shows us clearly how global
capital and international policy are linked with domestic policy to trap
immigrant women in their paradoxical position as the most valuable
and the most vulnerable workers in the United States today, whether
they are domestics and nannies in their homes, farmworkers who put

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food on their tables, or factory workers who benefit both the US and
their homeland economies. Chang’s book exposes the hypocrisy, cruelty,
and insanity of anti-immigrant policies and attitudes that persist toward
those whose labor benefits others so much more than themselves. Chang
also offers an inspiring account of how immigrant women and immigrant advocates are organizing to fight for justice. I hope everyone will
read this important book.
—Elaine Kim, University of California at Berkeley
Grace Chang makes an enormous contribution by showing how immigrant women workers facilitate the operation of the global economy.
These are histories at risk of invisibility.
—Saskia Sassen, author of Guests and Aliens
Disposable Domestics shows the underbelly of the dot-com economic
boom—that is, the women who toil behind the scenes as caretakers and
factory workers for wages that keep them mired in poverty. With great
poignancy, Grace Chang traces how austerity programs imposed by the
International Monetary Fund force poor women to emigrate to the
United States, how they are vilified and exploited in their “host” country, and how they are fighting against tremendous odds to secure their
basic rights. It is an essential book for those trying to connect the dots
between global economic policies and women’s labor.
—Medea Benjamin, founding director, Global Exchange
Grace Chang presents an eye-opening and pathbreaking account of
how so-called welfare reform in the United States, combined with racist anti-immigrant policies, has enabled Americans to take advantage of
the labor of immigrant women. Chang demolishes the myth that immigrant women are “welfare queens” and “baby machines.” In this book,
she documents the essential role that immigrant women play in the US
economy as workers who clean houses, offices, and hotel rooms and also
take care of our elderly and children. Disposable Domestics should be read
by anyone wanting to understand the realities of how the US political
and economic system is treating immigrant women at the beginning of
the twenty-first century.
—Evelyn Nakano Glenn, University of California at Berkeley

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Immigrant Women Workers
in the Global Economy
Second Edition

Forewords by
Ai-Jen Poo and Mimi Abramovitz
Afterword by
Alicia Garza

Haymarket Books
Chicago, Illinois

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Copyright © 2016 by Grace Chang
First published by South End Press in 2000
This edition published in 2016 by
Haymarket Books
P.O. Box 180165
Chicago, IL 60618
ISBN: 978-1-60846-528-6
Trade distribution:
In the US, Consortium Book Sales and Distribution, www.cbsd.com
In Canada, Publishers Group Canada, www.pgcbooks.ca
In the UK, Turnaround Publisher Services, www.turnaround-uk.com
All other countries, Publishers Group Worldwide, www.pgw.com
This book was published with the generous support of Lannan Foundation
and Wallace Action Fund.
Cover art by Favianna Rodriguez, modified with permission.
Printed in Canada by union labor.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication data is available.
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

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Foreword to the 2016 Edition by Ai-jen Poo


Foreword to the 2000 Edition by Mimi Abramovitz


Preface to the 2016 Edition



Breeding Ignorance, Breeding Hatred



Undocumented Latinas: The New Employable Mother



The Nanny Visa: The Bracero Program Revisited



Global Exchange: The World Bank, “Welfare Reform,”
and the Trade in Migrant Women



Immigrants and Workfare Workers:
Employable but “Not Employed”



Gatekeeping and Housekeeping


Afterword to the 2016 Edition by Alicia Garza






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Foreword to the 2016 Edition
by Ai-jen Poo
Myrla Baldanado is my heroine. Her work as a caregiver has supported
more than twenty elders to live independently, with dignity, in their own
homes. Originally from the Philippines, she lives and works in Chicago,
and was proud to take on work as a caregiver. She worked twenty-fourhour shifts, four days a week, lifting her clients in and out of bed, bathing,
administering medicine, helping to do physical therapy, plus cooking and
cleaning around the home. For this work, Myrla took home between $5
and $9 an hour. And then what did she do? Because she’s also a parent,
she sent some of that precious money to support her five children living
back home in the Philippines who are in the care of relatives. But with
that expense, plus the cost of rent for the room she lives in, some weeks
Myrla barely has any money left over. On several occasions, she has gone
for weeks eating nothing but hard-boiled eggs and bananas.
Domestic work—the work of caring for children, elders, and homes—
is the work that makes all other work possible. This simple truth has
become the call to action for a global movement of women workers,
organizing for dignity and respect. The labor of women like Myrla has
indeed served as the invisible infrastructure for today’s global economic
system—essential and yet completely invisible, and yes, disposable. In
1998, when I first began organizing with domestic workers in New York
City, I quickly learned how difficult the work itself was, and also how
often unbearable the working conditions are. Myrla’s story is unfortunately quite common. When I picked up the first edition of Disposable
Domestics in 2000, Grace Chang provided the analysis of the global
economy that I needed. It made the role of the women who do this
work clear and visible in the context of our global economic system, and
explained why it was made invisible by design.

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Today, sixteen years later, much of the analysis in this book is as
timely and true as ever. However, there are a few important updates. The
first and most important update is that Myrla and hundreds of thousands of women in more than two dozen cities and fifty-five countries
around the world have ignited a powerful movement to bring dignity
to domestic work and disrupt this global economic system that treats
domestic workers and so many other low-wage workers as disposable.
The long history of exclusion from basic workers’ rights, an exclusion
rooted in the legacy of slavery and the racial exclusion of Black workers, is finally beginning to transform as Black and immigrant women
join hands throughout the nation and globally. In recent years, our
movement has won basic rights for domestic workers in six states,
and passed the first global policy establishing minimum standards for
domestic work, the International Labor Organization Convention 189,
also known as the “Decent Work for Domestic Workers” Convention.
As this book goes to print, more than twenty countries have ratified
the convention.
This organizing comes at an important moment of change in the US
workforce and in our demographics. Today, more and more of the workforce can identify with the conditions that characterize domestic work—
low wages, high levels of vulnerability, isolation, lack of job security, lack
of access to basic benefits and services, and lack of control over hours
and schedule. What was once considered a shadow part of our economy
is increasingly the norm.
The other important update lies in our demographic changes. Immigrant
communities and Black communities in the United States are growing.
While criminalization continues to plague communities of color, and
eleven million immigrants remain trapped in undocumented immigration
status, these communities are changing the political landscape of our time.
Meanwhile, as a result of the baby boom generation reaching retirement
age at a rate of ten thousand people per day, and extended longevity created by advances in health care, at least 20 percent of our population will
be over the age of sixty-five by the year 2030. By the year 2050, twentyseven million of us will need care; we will be more reliant upon the labor of
women like Myrla than we ever imagined. This nation can no longer afford
to treat women like Myrla as disposable.
As the second edition of Disposable Domestics goes to print, the global
movement that Myrla is building will ensure that not only is the work

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protected and valued for its true worth but that it is treated as completely indispensable. Armed with the analysis in these pages, the women
workers who are organizing for dignity as domestic workers, direct care
workers, retail workers, restaurant workers, and nail salon workers will
reshape the future of the global economy, such that no one is disposable.
In the words of Arundhati Roy, “Another world is not only possible, she
is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

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Foreword to the 2000 Edition
by Mimi Abramovitz


any of us have heard at least one news story about sweatshop
workers, home-care attendants, mail-order brides, and foreign
nannies—mostly immigrant women who have come to the United
States to work. But what do we really know about the lives of the women
(and men) who take these jobs or why they come here? Grace Chang—a
writer, single mother, activist—begins to answer these questions, focusing on the role of government policy itself. Disposable Domestics is especially timely given the globalization of the economy and the growing
number of immigrant women working for wages in the United States.
The analysis provided in this book is critical both for understanding
the plight of immigrant women workers and for designing strategies for
The temptation when writing a book such as this is to “put a human
face” on the issues by dwelling mainly on the stories of hardship faced by
poor immigrant women and/or their political struggles against the odds.
While Chang recounts the lives of individual women and their collective
actions, the strength of this book lies in Chang’s gendered analysis of
how government policies regulate the lives of women in the increasingly
global labor market. In a series of fascinating, convincing, and easy-toread essays, Disposable Domestics also conveys Chang’s underlying message—that the dynamics of immigration are less a matter of individual
choice and more a product of the interests of First World nations whose
economic investment policies often bring harm to Third World people
and places. While this critique of immigration as voluntaristic may not
be altogether new, its focus on low-income women and government policy yields important new understandings and interpretations.

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Disposable Domestics extends existing studies of the ways in which
government policy shapes women’s work and family life. First and foremost, Chang highlights how government policies in the US—both
structural adjustment policies and domestic social welfare policies—
interact to shape the lives of immigrant women. Second, she focuses on
low-income women who immigrate to the United States, a group that
both immigration and welfare state researchers often overlook. Chang
assures us that the unique experiences of poor Latina and Asian women
are no longer lost in the shuffle. Third, Chang uses a gender lens. In
addition to writing “about” women, Chang follows the important feminist tradition that elevates gender to an analytic variable. Among other
things, this leads Chang to recognize that when investigating the lives
of women, one must look at work and family life or, more broadly speaking, at the dynamics of economic production and social reproduction.
And like increasing numbers of feminists, Chang’s gender lens filters in
race and class. Finally, Chang shows that the hardship suffered by many
has mobilized some immigrant women to become activists on their own
Chang takes on the argument of immigration as voluntaristic when
she describes the way in which structural adjustment policies imposed
by First World on Third World nations have helped to create “disposable domestics.” Unlike many observers and scholars, Chang disputes
the idea that individuals “decide” to leave the Third World simply to
either escape grinding poverty or political persecution or to benefit from
the economic opportunity and democracy promised in the First World.
Chang joins those who fault First World economic development policies for forcing people to leave home. In contrast to the popular belief
that economic development policies create jobs and reduce emigration,
Chang finds that in many instances, structural adjustment policies create the conditions—austerity, poverty, and unemployment—that make it
necessary for people to search for jobs elsewhere. To the extent that the
profits of First World banks and corporations depend on debt reduction
and the extraction of resources (both capital and human), government
policies eventually force Third World individuals “to follow their country’s wealth” to the First World. Because the low-paid jobs in the First
World pay more than work in their own countries, Third World nations
have no choice but to “surrender their citizens, especially women,” to
First World companies and countries. They “surrender” them because

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both family members and the national economy rely heavily on the dollars the women send back. As long as First World imperialism creates
the poverty that causes Third World women to “want” to leave home,
Chang concludes that the “decision” to emigrate cannot be regarded as
a “free” one.
Chang’s argument against the voluntaristic interpretation of immigration extends from structural adjustment policies imposed on Third
World economies to First World domestic policies. Nearly every chapter
in this book depicts how the increasingly restrictive immigration and
welfare policies in the United States since the mid-1980s have channeled thousands of new arrivals into the growing number of low-paid
jobs in the rapidly expanding service sector of the US economy. Typically
reserved for women, many of these jobs—especially in the nation’s cities—are part of the infrastructure needed to operate the global economic
system—be it manufacturing, import-export trade, or international
finance. Among other important points, Chang’s discussion exposes
the historic relationship between the denial of access to cash benefits,
enforced work, and low wages.
The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (), for example,
retained the 1882 public-charge rule that prevents aliens from applying for immigration visas if they are likely to become a public charge.
Immigrants must prove that they can support themselves without receipt
of public aid.  also bars legalization applicants from most federal
assistance programs for five years from the time they apply for temporary residency and denies legal status to undocumented women who
apply for public assistance for themselves or their citizen children.
The 1996 federal welfare “reform” similarly denied benefits to immigrants and other poor women. It banned state and local governments
from providing all but emergency services to undocumented immigrants
and to some legal immigrants and denied aid to children born to any
women on welfare. Along with the fear of jeopardizing legalization,
these punitive provisions have kept immigrant women away from public assistance and turned them, especially immigrant women of color,
into a super-exploitable, low-wage workforce to staff the nation’s nursing
homes, ever-increasing sweatshops, and middle-class households.
Other punitive features of welfare reform have also thrown poor
women off welfare. The five-year lifetime limit on welfare eligibility, the
new tougher work rules, the workfare program (which requires welfare

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recipients to work off their benefit in public or private sector jobs), the
child exclusion legislation (which denies aid to children born to women
on welfare), and a host of punitive sanctions have channeled thousands
of women of all races and nationalities into service, manufacturing, and
private household employment.
The use of immigration and welfare reform to deny cash aid, combined with fears of deportation and other features of the immigrant
experience, forces poor Third World women to take virtually any job
regardless of its wages and working conditions. In addition to channeling women into low-paid and often unsafe employment, the policies help to press wages down for all low-wage workers. Flooding the
low-wage labor markets with additional workers increases the number of
people competing for jobs. This makes it easier for employers to pay less
and harder for unions to negotiate good contracts.
The historic use of US welfare policy to increase the supply of lowwage women workers only reinforces Chang’s point. From 1940–60,
Chang reminds us, welfare’s “employable mother” rule drove women,
especially poor African-American mothers in the South, into low-paid
domestic and agricultural work, as did the suitable home rules that
penalized single motherhood. In fact, the practice of limiting welfare
benefits and supplying employers with cheap labor dates back to colonial
times when town governments established the principle that the value of
cash benefits must always fall below the lowest prevailing wage—so that
only the most desperate people would choose welfare over work.
The current effort to deny benefits to immigrant women and to
restrict eligibility for all recipients continues this harsh tradition. The
tradition persists, in part, because access to a viable alternative to market wages (for example, adequate welfare, food stamps, unemployment
benefits) has the potential to enable women to avoid taking the worst
jobs. Limited as it is, the economic security provided by cash benefits
can, at times, embolden women (and men) to join a union, to strike, or
to otherwise fight back. To the extent that economic assistance provides
poor women with some autonomy, independent entry into the mainstream culture, and the wherewithal to escape abusive relationships, the
availability of cash benefits can also undermine patriarchal power relations. Given the welfare state’s potential challenges to the imperatives
of capital and patriarchy, it is no wonder that its benefits have always
remained so low!

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Chang’s examination of the relationship between social welfare provision and the labor market needs of US corporations benefits from her
gendered analysis. Many welfare state theorists have established that
when the profit-driven market economy failed to produce the income
and jobs needed to sustain the average family, the government stepped
in to mediate the tension between the limits of economic production
and the requirements of social reproduction. That is, the provision of
cash assistance—however reluctant and meager—helped to ensure that
families deprived of adequate market income could continue to form and
to sustain their members.
Using a gender lens, feminists have pointed out that this dynamic
placed the welfare state in a specific relationship to families and women.
For one, the tasks of social reproduction—family formation, caretaking, and maintenance—take place largely in the home. Second, given
the gender division of labor, the actual work of social reproduction still
falls largely to women in the home. Third, the work of social production
not only serves the needs of family members but also those of the wider
society, for it ensures employers a regular supply of healthy, educated,
and properly socialized workers. Finally, when women go to work outside the home, they need government-supported child care, family leave,
and other services if they are to balance home and work responsibilities.
Drawing on this contextual framework, Chang finds that when it
comes to immigrant households, the United States uses domestic policies
to avoid, rather than to support, the cost of social reproduction. That is,
the powers that be seek to extract labor from immigrant workers without
incurring the costs of family formation and maintenance. It is one thing
to admit adults “whose reproduction and training costs have already been
borne by their home country.... It is another to absorb the costs for their
children, who will not be productive workers for many years.”
Chang’s gender lens also reveals that once immigration to the United
States included large numbers of women, the means used to avert the
costs of biological and social reproduction changed dramatically. When
men predominated among immigrants, the government tried to lower
the costs of family formation and maintenance by preventing the men
from marrying and settling down in the US. To this end, the immigration office issued temporary work visas and prevented wives from
accompanying their husbands to the United States. The medical community tolerated doctors and hospitals that sterilized immigrant women

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without their consent, while the media demonized the male immigrants
by arguing that they “stole” jobs from “native” workers.
As First World investment and development policies dislocated more
women and “sent” them to the United States in search of work, the target of the anti-immigration arguments shifted from restricting family formation and maligning male job seekers to attacking the welfare
state’s support of immigrant families. The desire to minimize the cost of
family maintenance and enforcing work among poor immigrant women
was fueled in the early 1980s by the rise of conservatism, which favored
reducing the role of government spending, and by the fact that the children born in the United States to female immigrants became citizens
who were entitled to a host of public benefits and services.
Unable to prevent family formation by immigrant women, US immigration and welfare policies simultaneously minimized the cost of maintaining immigrant households and increased the supply of cheap female
labor to US firms employing workers in secondary labor market jobs. In
the early 1980s, the anti-immigrant rhetoric began to condemn “high
birth rates and consumption of public services,” implicitly maligning
women as mothers and social program recipients. If male immigrants
“stole” jobs from “native” workers, female immigrants drained the public
purse by applying for welfare, sending their children to public schools,
and overusing the health-care system.
The 1994 Proposition 187 campaign in California sought to deny the
children of immigrant women access to public schools, hospitals, and
cash benefits. The 1996 welfare reform stigmatized single motherhood
and penalized childbearing among poor women to reduce the costs of
family support. In addition to the denial of benefits to children born to
women on welfare, Congress created the “illegitimacy” bonus of $20 to
$25 billion per year for three years to be shared by the five states that
lower their nonmarital birthrates the most (not just among women on
welfare)—without increasing their statewide abortion rates above 1995
levels. Welfare reform also earmarked $250 million in matching funds
for states that run “abstinence-only” programs in the public schools—
programs that stress postponing sex until marriage and that prohibit
sex education. New Medicaid rules and other restrictive policies either
eliminated or significantly reduced government responsibility for paying
for the health, education, housing, and training of immigrant women
and their families.

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Finally, Chang’s feminism is a broad one that by definition includes
the impact of race and class as well as gender. She concludes that in addition to concerns about loss of jobs and high welfare state costs, public
hostility to immigrants reflects fears about threats to the “purity” of the
race and/or the dominance of the mainstream culture. In the early 20th
century, President Theodore Roosevelt chastised native-born American
women for having too few children. Reflecting the period’s xenophobia,
he told them that their low birthrates would lead to an overabundance
of the foreign-born population and otherwise endanger the purity of the
native-born racial stock.
Today’s opponents of immigration argue that the growing number of
immigrants on US soil—many more of whom are persons of color than
at the turn of the 20th century—threatens to turn America into a multicultural society. Given the demand for cheap female labor, the government is not about to ban immigration. However, fears about the cost and
cultural impact of immigration help to explain both the government’s
resistance to family formation and settlement by immigrant workers,
as well as the popularity of Americanization, English-only, parenting,
and other resocialization programs mounted by the government over
the years. Whatever benefits these programs yielded, they also encouraged immigrant families to give up their traditional culture in favor of
white middle-class norms. The burden of the conversion still falls on
immigrant women who are expected to socialize their children to the
“American Way.”
Nor does Chang dodge the troublesome tensions between women
from different classes. While feminists and students of immigration and
women’s studies often evade the issue, Chang makes it clear that the
policies that harm poor and working-class women often benefit their
white middle- and upper-class counterparts as well as business firms and
the state. For example, many white middle- and upper-class individuals
either demonized poor immigrants and women of color as “bad mothers” and “welfare queens” or sat by silently as others used these negative stereotypes to build support for “reforming” welfare. At the same
time, these affluent families frequently hired poor immigrants and poor
women of color to care for their children and parents at home or in an
institutional setting. Likewise for employers who hired former welfare
recipients to work in their restaurants, hospitals, shops, and offices.

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Chang believes that the middle-class household’s need for the services of poor women and poor women’s need for the job may stem, at
least in part, from restrictive domestic policies: social program cutbacks
and the overall lack of family support available to all working women
in the United States. However, the outcomes vary widely by class. The
career advancement of many middle- and upper-class women depends
heavily on the availability of immigrant women to clean their homes and
to care for their dependents. The labor of poor women also allows middle- and upper-class wives to add significantly to the household income.
The increased income, combined with reduced gender conflicts over
housework, helps to preserve these families as traditional two-parent
households favored by the social conservatives.
Meanwhile, lacking access to welfare state benefits, the requisites
of economic survival effectively force poor women to work long hours
(often for low pay) in the homes of the affluent. The income helps. But
the job heightens the stress for poor women who work, who worry about
the supervision of their own children—due largely to the lack of affordable quality child care. The economic coercion built into US public policy leaves poor immigrant women, many of whom are single mothers,
with little or no time to tend to their own homes, to care for their own
children or parents, or to pursue the education or training that might lift
them out of poverty.
Both welfare and immigration policies also contain the racially coded
messages that imply that it is okay, or even beneficial, for government
programs to force immigrant women to forgo full-time mothering in
favor of employment. Indeed, many social conservatives regard single
mothers, by definition, as ineffective and irresponsible adults whose parenting may even bring harm to their children. These advocates of “family values” support tax and spending policies that encourage white and
middle-class women to stay home, while forcing poor women to work
outside the home. Indeed, they regard the latter as better suited for lowpaid labor than for mothering. Some social conservatives now call for
removing poor children, especially children on welfare, from their mothers’ care, placing them in foster care and group homes, if not orphanages.
Chang makes it very clear throughout this book that both immigration and welfare policies have placed Congress and the White House
squarely on the side of corporations seeking to increase their profits
on the backs of poor women and children. Despite this strong critique,

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Chang does not end on a pessimistic note. First, she believes that government policy should recognize and reward women for the service they
provide through both their productive and reproductive labor. Access to
such resources would not only ease the economic hardship faced by poor
immigrant women, but would also provide them with a degree, however
limited, of autonomy and control over their lives. Chang also reports that
poor women are not taking the pain and the punishment lying down.
While many immigrants internalize the popular but negative stereotypes
of themselves as “invaders and parasites,” a growing number of women
are working for personal and social change. Despite its low pay, employment has led immigrant women to become more comfortable participating in wider society. Joining a long tradition of activism among poor and
working-class women in the United States and throughout the world,
large numbers of immigrant women have become more involved in their
own community affairs, joined mainstream unions, participated in livingwage campaigns, created community-based organizations, and otherwise
found individual and collective ways to fight back. Like the women who
preceded them, they understand that neither social conditions nor social
policy can change for the better unless pressed from below.

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Preface to the 2016 Edition
When I first wrote Disposable Domestics, I was a graduate student at
the University of California, Berkeley, raising two small children as a
single mother, and witnessing immigrant women—many of whom were
also single mothers—trying to support and protect their families amid
the malicious anti-immigrant environment that was the prelude to and
aftermath of Proposition 187. While much has changed since the release
of the book in 2000, too much has not. Since then, many measures have
been proposed or enacted, such as SB 1070 in Arizona and HR 4437
nationally, that merely codified the anti-immigrant hate reflected in the
words and actions of zealots like Donald Trump and Sheriff Joe Arpaio
in Phoenix, Arizona, vigilante groups like the Minutemen, or individual
“citizens” concerned for their continued racial and economic supremacy.
We have also seen many signs of hope and shows of resistance in the
past sixteen years, such as the historic immigrant rights marches all over
the country in the spring of 2006. Also, alternative labor organizations
like the National Domestic Workers Alliance have emerged, forging
bill of rights campaigns in several states, and the Service Employees
International Union has led the way on $15 minimum wage victories
across the nation.
In some ways, the landscape for migrant women and their children
in the United States may appear to be even grimmer than sixteen years
ago, when I was writing this book in the ugly anti-immigrant environment surrounding Proposition 187. At that time, women were working and living under conditions often described as “in the shadows” of
oppressive US society, but also fighting back for their rights, lives, and
families. These oppressive conditions still exist, and perhaps are exacerbated in the face of vehement anti-immigrant violence, embodied in
state repression, public sentiment, and hate crimes. Yet there is also a
new spirit among the next generation of immigrant youth I know—and
their families, communities, and organizations—captured in the phrase
“undocumented and unafraid.” They have lived through migration with

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and without their families, whether within the United States, left behind
at home for a time, or stranded here when their loved ones have been
deported, and this experience has impacted the kinds of citizens and
noncitizens they have and will become—fierce and unstoppable. But
their adversaries, too, have become ever bolder and unabashedly violent.
As the dramas playing out on our TV and social media screens reveal,
our so-called leaders, elected and self-installed, fan anti-immigrant
flames of hate as if it is competitive sport, and the popularity of this
spectator craze spans the globe.
In 2014, when a media frenzy focusing on children and youth migrating to the United States alone from Central America forced the US
public to acknowledge a problem, albeit momentarily, some dubbed it a
“humanitarian crisis.” But others saw a phenomenon that was not new,
resulting from long-standing US economic and military interventions
that exacerbate poverty and violence in those countries, forcing people
to run for their lives, literally. Moreover, when those children and youth
arrived here alone or with their mothers, they were immediately incarcerated and slated for expedited removal back to certain deadly fates at
home, rather than being treated as refugees deserving consideration for
protection and asylum here. The Obama administration also seized upon
the “crisis” as opportunity to propose expanded immigration enforcement and border militarization.
What did not emerge from this “teachable moment” was any greater
understanding of the reasons that people, including women with small
children and youth, are driven from their homelands to take such risks
to migrate here. Nor did any greater compassion or a softening of the
vehement and vicious anti-immigrant hate emerge amid this so-called
humanitarian crisis. Instead, we saw vigilante groups aimed at stopping
busloads of children being transported to a detention center in Southern
California, greeting them with signs and angry shouting, intending to
scare away these already traumatized children. While the youth trapped
on those buses had no ability to turn around and leave, even if they had
wanted to reverse their long, treacherous journeys here, the adults in that
angry crowd saw fit to scream at them, bang on the buses, and attempt to
terrorize them further. They likely succeeded.
Meanwhile, detention centers dedicated specifically to holding these
refugee women and children have been functioning around the country

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to keep them suspended in legal limbo and imprisonment that cannot
be passed off as any less egregious just because they were designated
to “house” women and youth separately. As I write this, hundreds of
women are staging a hunger strike to demand their release from Hutto
Detention Center in Taylor, Texas, an all-women ICE (Immigration and
Customs Enforcement, formerly Homeland Security) facility. Most have
been there for more than a year, after fleeing violence and poverty in
Central America and having established “credible fear” of danger if they
were forced to return.
Migrant children and youth are constantly devalued as unworthy of
becoming the next generation of citizens. Instead, they are perceived as
a threat that they presumably pose as “undeserving” consumers of “limited” public resources, as well as the threat they could pose as future voters, political adversaries, and revolutionaries. Just as in the 1990s, these
public sentiments and fears still form the social and economic underpinnings of anti-immigrant legislation and violence today. But while the
immediate and lasting consequences of these policies and hate crimes
have been traumatic for their survivors, they have also “backfired” to
produce a generation of immigrant youth who have grown up learning to
resist this violence through political engagement, civil disobedience, and
daily survival. I see them as some of the most radical community organizers of the day, the future and formidable leaders of many social justice
movements across the country.
While SB 1070, the Arizona state law criminalizing undocumented
people, made it nearly impossible for them to live and work, it also
inspired a new generation of undocumented immigrant youth, their families, and communities to forge resistance against these attacks. In 2010,
I was invited by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and the
National Domestic Workers Alliance to participate in an emergency
human rights delegation to hear testimony from women and youth at the
Tonatierra Center in Phoenix about their lives in anticipation of SB 1070.
They reported living in an environment of state violence against women
and children on every level (physical, psychological, and legal) and knew
that SB  1070 would only intensify these assaults on their basic human
rights as women and youth attempting to support their families. Women
and their children testified about the many traumatic experiences they
had already endured and the lasting effects of raids, harassment, detention, and deportation on their families and communities. Their testimony

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reflected that while these events have indeed had long-term traumatic
impacts on them, they have also influenced them to develop as the next
generation of activists, organizers, and leaders.
In contrast, policies such as the DREAM Act and DACA (Deferred
Action for Childhood Arrivals) have been double-edged in their
impacts. While these policies were ostensibly meant to benefit undocumented youth and give them opportunities based on their “innocence”
in being brought here by their parents as children, some youth criticize these measures as a betrayal of themselves and their parents, asking
them to participate in their own parents’ criminalization in order to gain
citizenship or other benefits. They witness how US society has already
criminalized and vilified their parents and community members merely
for trying to survive—working, contributing to society—and in return
being exploited and subjected to state terror efforts and grave human
and labor rights abuses. Contrary to public perception, these youth reject
the rhetoric that they “should not suffer for the crimes of their parents”
who brought them here as “innocent” children. Instead, they respect the
contributions of their parents and elders and honor the suffering and
sacrifices they have made for them. They in turn make their own sacrifices, laying their own bodies and freedom on the line through radical
actions such as infiltrating detention centers, and blocking ICE and US
Border Patrol arrests.
For example, in 2011, Jonathan Perez,1 a queer, undocumented migrant
from Colombia, and cofounder of the Immigrant Youth Coalition in
California, recognized over the course of organizing dozens of actions
that, when ICE did not detain protesters who engaged in public actions,
the state managed to defuse the power of civil disobedience.2 So Perez
and a friend went undercover, purposefully got arrested and posed as
“the type of immigrant that they usually detain, and not the ones who
know their rights and have connections to advocacy groups.” Perez said,
“Most importantly, we pretended to be afraid.” Meanwhile, they were
organizing—planning a hunger strike with other detainees and connecting them to their families and immigration attorneys—from the inside
of South Louisiana Correctional Center.
In 2013, Raúl Alcaráz Ochoa, a queer Mexican immigrant rights organizer, crawled under a Border Patrol (BP) vehicle to try to block agents
from taking a man, René Huerta, away from his pregnant wife and six
children, after the family had been pulled over by Tucson Police officers.

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