The Intersectional Landscape of Sex, Race and Immigration in the United States (1930 – 2000)


Recent fanfare on what has been deemed “the feminization of migration” by the United Nations starkly contrasts the abysmal invisibility of female immigrants in statistical and scholarly representation.  Where publicized data–even official datasets such as public US Census data from the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS) project–have erased and discounted their existence, academic narrative is limited to one of two reductive narratives—the default of the male immigrant, or the stereotypical immigrant female who has meekly followed the lead of her immigrating husband (Pearce, Clifford and Tandon 2011). For the immigrant female, the effect of being bastardized by census classifications is as multivariate as it is decimating of a total identity. The recent rise in discussion about immigrant females by mass media and academics alike has found itself resting on feeble attempts to interpolate the narrative for the male immigrant to the female counterpart by considering isolated identities of the female immigrant within the masculinized landscape. As Hondagneu-Sotelo (2003) notes, such reductive analyses bear severe consequences for the identity of the immigrant female as well as the humanized understanding, policy formation and sociological adaptations surrounding such a highly heterogeneous demographic.

Motivated by the emerging interdisciplinary literature that attempts to provide a more honest and humanized picture of the immigrant female and based on evidential analysis drawn from IPUMS data for 1930 through 2000, I aim to augment the existing portrayal of the immigration landscape with snapshots of the realities of this particular demographic through my research. I argue that the cumulative effect on the identity and lived experiences of immigrant females in the United States of sex, race and immigrant status is profoundly intersectional, rather than additive. To that end, an empirical approach and mixed-methods analysis will be employed to intercalate statistical data with the corpus of existing literature and arrive to a quantification, demarcation and visualization of the locus of intersection of these three variables that is both cogent and cohesive.


For all graphs, raw data were obtained from IPUMS 1% samples (5% scaled down to 1% for 1980“; 1960 is excluded for all the visualizations due to unavailability of several relevant variables for that year. All measures are given as a proportion of total subpopulation identity. In the following section, I refer to each of these identity subgroups as “subpopulation”. For the purposes of this post, I define as immigrants only those who have not naturalized (though they may have received first papers). Conversely, non-immigrants were identified as those born abroad of American parents and naturalized citizens; those with unavailable citizenship data were excluded. The intent behind including naturalized citizens was to reflect the hierarchy of privilege existing within the American immigration infrastructure regarding ease of naturalization, with the concurrent acknowledgement that naturalized citizens often still face unique and identical issues of immigrant identity as non-naturalized immigrants.

Scholars have argued that the intersection of these identities not only has social implications for the immigrant female, but also impacts policy framework, access to education and employment, and legislative rights uniquely relevant to them. Labour force participation as a data point fails to reflect the reality of the downward impact of intersecting identities on educational and occupational achievement. Through my first visualization, I will examine the complex influences of sex, race and immigrant status as they interact with each other on access to education and occupational status for the immigrant female. I use the IPUMS-constructed Nam-Powers-Boyd score as a cohesive indicator to account for the combined effect on both labour participation and the social capital granted by certain educational standards and occupations, instead of taking a one-dimensional approach and considering either education or labour force participation as isolated measures of success.

Static Screenshot of Figure 1

Static Screenshot of Figure 1

Figure 1: Click here for interactive plot

Figure 1 shows a sequence of graphs for weighted density distribution of total non-white male population, i.e. both immigrants and non-immigrants combined, as well as immigrant and non-immigrant non-white females separately in the United States per Nam-Powers-Boyd score for the census years 1930 through 2000. According to IPUMS, the Nam-Powers-Boyd score is a measure of occupational status based on both medians of earnings and educational attainment associated with each occupational category[1]. The scores were assigned based on different occupational categories on a 1950 and 1990 basis; thus, for consistent analysis, the dataset was assigned with the 1950-basis score for years 1950 and before (NPBOSS50), and with the 1990-basis score for years 1990 and later (NPBOSS90).  Analysis is limited to those identified as employed and not classified as white in the race variable. Density is represented in proportions of total subgroup population rather than absolute numbers, scaled up to a maximum standard value of 1 per curve. Data are weighted by PERWT. The x-axis shows discrete Nam-Powers-Boyd score, and the y-axis shows weighted density per score; panes are separated by year. The curves are stacked such that the zero-line for the top two starts at the upper line of the curve underneath it; blue represents data for non-white males, green for non-immigrant non-white females, and pink/peach for immigrant non-white females. Corresponding y-coordinate value along the curve represents proportion of subset population at the respective score.

The concept of “segmented assimilation” applies uniquely to female immigrants to dissimulate their existence within the fabric of American society.  Female immigrants not only negotiate identity within the overarching American society and the hierarchical structures that are nested in it (Gold 2003), but also within the tacit sub-societies that resemble remnants of the land they left behind and the unique structures of oppressive power embedded within that particular distinctly non-American society. These sub-societal structures are un-Americanized gendered institutions whose conflicts remain “uncontested when survey methods are used” (Hondagneu-Sotelo 2003). My second visualization examines how nested sub-societies (such as enclaves, immigrant networks and relatives) influence autonomy and decision-making for female immigrants in terms of employment, having to work without pay for related family, and ability to marry more than once against stigmatization; and whether or not they are obliged to conform to the role of the follower in the household if they are associated with a spouse in census data. To analyze the impact of these hierarchical structures, I use related subfamily and rule for linking spouse data for the female population in the United States. For the first three subgraphs, I use the subfamily type variable from IPUMS to identify only immigrant females who cohabit with subfamilies that are related to the household head by birth, marriage, or adoption. Propensity to work without pay for the family is measured using the ’class of worker’ variable from IPUMS. Since data on household head is not available for most years in my analysis, I use another variable—rule for linking spouse[2]–to examine hierarchy of power within a married couple where one half is an immigrant female, and compare data with that for their non-immigrant counterparts. Based on who was recorded as household head, this variable designates follower and precedent within a married couple.

(Code to generate Data Visualization 1 can be found here.)

Static Screenshot of Figure 2

Static Screenshot of Figure 2

Figure 2: Click here for interactive plots

Figure 2 shows a set of four column graphs for immigrant and non-immigrant females in the United States depicting the correlation of spousal linkage and subfamily influences on the variables mentioned above. Males were pre-excluded from the dataset, but white females are included. The x-axis of the first three subgraphs represents census year, while year is represented by the y-axis for the fourth graph (bottom right). For the first three subgraphs, the total subpopulation consists of non-immigrant or immigrant females with related subfamily; those with unavailable subfamily data, no subfamily and unrelated subfamily were excluded. For the fourth, the total subpopulation constitutes non-immigrant or immigrant females with spouse link data available (either adjacent or non-adjacent); those without a spouse linked to them or with previously allocated marital status (but not current) have been excluded. Weighting was performed on a PERWT basis as proportions of the respective subpopulation just described for each subgraph. Subgraph 1 (top left) shows separate columns for three different employment status classifications as per census data for the years 1930 through 2000 employed (in blue), unemployed (in orange), and not in labour force (in green). Bars on the top half of the graph (above the midline) represent data for immigrant females, while bars on the bottom half represent data for non-immigrant females. The y-axis represents percentage of total subgroup population, either immigrant or non-immigrant females with related subfamily. Subgraph 2 (top right) shows stacked columns depicting proportions of females with related subfamily who are also unpaid family workers; immigrants in red, non-immigrants in purple. Value along the y-axis for each stack represents the percentage proportion value with respect to the total number of people in the subpopulation for either immigrants or non-immigrants. Subgraph 3 (bottom left) shows column graphs with line plot overlay depicting number of spouses accounted for in the census data for females with related subfamily for the years 1940, 1950, 1970 and 1980. The y-axis represents percentage of total subpopulation, as defined for the first two subgraphs. The column graphs represent data for immigrant females–pink for those who have only been married once; brown for those who have been married multiple times. The line plot (in red) represents data for non-immigrant females who have been married multiple times only, for comparison. Those who have never been married, or with unavailable data for marital status or number of marriages in the census, have been excluded. This specific information was not collected after 1980; thus, years later than 1980 could not be visualized on the graph. Subgraph 4 (bottom right) shows a set of horizontal bar plots depicting percentage of total subpopulation who were either not linked to a spouse, or linked to a spouse as a follower or precedent of the spouse in census data (both via adjacent and non-adjacent linkage combined), for the years 1940 through 2000. Left half of the subgraph (i.e. left to the vertical axis) represents data for non-immigrant females, whereas bars on the right half represent data for data for immigrant females. The y-axis represents census year and the x-axis represents percentage of total subpopulation for either immigrant or non-immigrant females; length of bars along the horizontal axis is thus proportional to the subpopulation percentage value. Grey bars represent those with no spouse linked; green bars represent those who have been linked as following their spouse; and blue bars represent those who have been linked as preceding their spouse in the census form.

Racial and ethnic categorizations formed through the interplay of the census and American society reduces and otherizes the immigrant female by imposing confines of American womanhood and racial identities that are not endogenous to their individual narratives (Pearce, Clifford and Tandon 2011). Based on this hypothesis, my third visualization aims to examine how racial categories specific to American society and history act to further alienate immigrant females; specifically, I will study the correlation of race and birthplace for both immigrant and non-immigrant females of colour and visualize whether immigrant females find themselves identifying as and conforming to the single race and ethnic category boxes constructed by the American census as frequently and as comfortably as their non-immigrant counterparts.

(Code to generate Data Visualization 2 can be found here.)

Figure 3 consists of a pair of chord diagrams, produced using the R package circlize. The chord diagrams depict the relationships between racial identification in the US census for the years 1930 through 2000 and place of birth as indicated in census data for immigrant non-white females and non-immigrant non-white females, respectively. The diagram on top corresponds to data for immigrant non-white females, whereas the diagram on the bottom corresponds to their non-immigrant counterparts. The circumference of the circular plots represent both race and place of birth variables from IPUMS, with each variable denoted by a distinguishable coloured segment on the graph and marked with its corresponding clockwise label of identification. The length of each segment is corresponding to its occurrence in the dataset; thus, for example, a racial category has a longer segment associated with it than a birthplace since it is more likely to be a common variable among more individuals in the data than a particular birthplace. Race and birthplace variables were recoded using crosswalk between numeric values and corresponding IPUMS codebook identifications. Raw data was obtained from IPUMS 1% samples by pre-excluding males as well as anyone identified as white from the preliminary data extract. Data for each racial category and the corresponding birthplace of the individual was first aggregated on a PERWT basis, and then processed to produce an adjacency matrix–a data format commonly used to represent and quantify relations. In such a matrix, value in i-th row and j-th column represents the relation from element in the i-th row and the element in the j-th column. The relationship between the two data variables is bidirectional; as such, the chord diagrams constitute a form of directed graphing. The absolute value corresponding to the relationship between each i and j value–in this case, the number of incidences in which a race category and birthplace were incidental–measures the strength of the relation, which in turn is represented as area of coverage by the linking region between a particular race segment and a birth country segment. The width of the bezier curve for each connection, or more precisely, the area of each curve, represents the number of times an individual of the particular racial categorization has also been identified to have the place of birth linked to from the race category segment by the curve. Thus, the width or the area of the connecting linker between each segment of race and birthplace is proportional to the overall correlation or linkage of those two data points in the same individual’s data for the total population of either immigrant or non-immigrant non-white females in the United States–the wider the curve (the greater the area of coloured coverage between a race and a birthplace variable), the higher the correlation between the two connected variables.

(Code to generate Data Visualization 3 can be found here.)


From the density distribution graphs in Figure 1, it is apparent that immigrant females have the lowest population density values at the tail end of the distribution curve, i.e. out of the three groups, they are the least likely to have been assigned a Nam-Powers-Boyd score on the highest end of the scale (i.e. far-right end along the y-axis). For example, for Nam-Powers-Boyd scores 90 and above, immigrant females of color have an average score range of 0.3  – 0.03 across the years, whereas their non-immigrant counterparts have a range of 0.4 – 0.15, and non-white males have a score range of 0.35 – 0.1. Fascinatingly enough, this figure provides a straightforward means of visualizing the relative magnitudes of impact by the isolated variables of race and sex on educational and occupational status achievement. Until the 1950s, non-white males and non-white immigrant females were represented in identical frequencies for Nam-Powers-Boyd scores 90 and above, i.e. an average of 0.01% for both. However, a gap starts emerging in the 1970s on the basis of immigrant status that drastically widens over the next three decades–the average gap in density for scores 90 and above consistently widens from approximately 0.05% at each score 90 and above to 0.07% at each score. The numbers appear miniscule in isolation; however, its cumulative effect when we consider integrating it over the entire control area while the difference accumulates is far from marginal even in the quantitative sense. Thus, there is strong evidence that while educational and occupational achievement are no doubt still dictated by sexism, the negative impact in terms of barriers to achievement due to immigrant vs non-immigrant status may consistently be several folds higher than due to sex differences. These results largely correspond with what scholarship has hypothesized in theory. Immigrant non-white females are at a particular disadvantage since they are entering an intersectionally segmented labour market foreign to them in more ways than one. Educational and occupational sectors in the United States are “structured largely along gendered lines”, where flux processes of globalization and immigration “muddy these binary distinctions in interesting ways”. Holding true to the theme of patriarchy, the higher the status associated with an occupation, the more the occupation is associated with masculinity, and the more a female who is also an immigrant “may be resented for infringing on male territory”. It is important to note that while traditional imagination of the docile immigrant female has shifted the burden of limited achievement on internalized submissive tendencies only; however, these scholars also conclude from analysis that since females “immigrating from societies with more rigid gender roles now move outside those boundaries [] may make them more open to challenging the norms”, citing so as a driving reason for the significantly higher number of immigrant females than non-immigrant ones in “gender-atypical occupations”. Unfortunately, this puts them at a further disadvantage in a market that is subtly yet rigidly segmented along scripted gender lines. In a humanized analysis, Pearce et. al. conclude that being “one of many” as an immigrant and “one of few” as a woman in a gender-atypical occupation, an immigrant woman may be resented doubly—both for being a woman and for being an immigrant.

Non-immigrant females, surprisingly enough, consistently hold higher presence for scores 90 and above; however, it should be noted that since the score assigns equal weight to education level and occupational status, it does not account for sex differences in occupational status achieved between males and females for equivalent educational degrees. Hence, it is highly plausible that distribution on the higher end consists of both people who have achieved high occupational status with moderate levels of education, as well as those who have achieved extremely high levels of education and yet barred from the highest echelons of the workforce due to discrimination.

My visualization and analysis in the graphs for spousal and sub-society effects in Figure 2 sought to study the assertion by scholarship regarding the enmeshment of female immigrants in systemic influences that take shape within the smaller communities that they take part in. It has been argued that female immigrants not only negotiate identity within the overarching American society and the hierarchical structures that are nested in it (Gold 2003), but also within the tacit sub-societies that may resemble remnants of their birthplace. In the first subgraph, percentages of immigrant and non-immigrant females who are either employed or not in the labour force at all remain consistently near-identical throughout the timeline. However, observing the relative lengths of orange bars reveals a persistently higher percentage of immigrant females who are unemployed compared to their non-immigrant counterparts. This aligns and expands on analytical conclusion already confirmed by economists–labour force participation rate for females has a U-shaped curve across economic development–the faster the economic and technological growth in a nation, the lesser the participation rate for females (Golding 1995). While this would impact both categories of being unemployed and not in the labour force, it is highly probable that the factor has significant effect on unemployment rates for immigrant females. Particularly given that Figure 1 has already indicated exacerbation of employment barriers due to sex by immigrant status as well as the fact that the gap in unemployment increases visibly over the years with economic growth (and that the gap is the narrowest from 1930 through 1950, i.e. throughout the economic downturn due to the Great Depression and World War II), being an immigrant would likely deepen the trough of the curve further. The pressures of “segmented assimilation”, where faithful performance aligning with the national and domestic expectation of all three socially constructed images of sex, race and immigrant status work in favour of a combination of higher acceptance and integration into workplaces and society at large with domestic harmony, function as additional barriers of complexity to higher employment rates (Le Espiritu 2003; Menjívar 2003). Contrary to what would be expected, a much higher percentage of non-immigrant females living with related subfamily were identified as unpaid family workers than immigrant females for all years except 1980, where an anomalously larger proportion of immigrant females constituted this worker-class demographic than non-immigrants. The caveat here is that this graph is incapable of reflecting realities of worker class identification and how they may be influenced by cultural stigma and pressure enforced by the resident subfamily. For example, in many households with a subfamily–particularly in-laws–it may be taboo for the daughter-in-law to verbally identify as  “working WITHOUT PAY in family business or farm”, which is the exact wording of the census questionnaire for this category; moreover, the immigrant female may even be barred from holding the authority of a worker in family business at all. Since the 1950s, non-immigrant females have unambiguously married more than once in larger proportions than immigrant females. Marital liberty is often associated with female autonomy; thus, higher barriers to being able to marry once aligns with the analysis that female immigrants have to juggle negotiating identity within the hierarchical structures of American society as well as limitations set in place by the sub-societies and cultural communities (such as enclaves) which they are obliged to navigate (Le Espiritu, 2003). Interestingly, the fourth subgraph reflects a trend being recently observed by intersectional scholars–that the stereotypical image of the docile and domesticated immigrant female has rapidly shifted over the past few decades (Arnold 2011). While longer bars for having no spouse linked could either mean increased liberty or decreased opportunities to form long-term relationships in the United States, if we observe bars for the years after interracial marriage was deemed legal, the rate of decrease of immigrant females who were linked to a spouse in census data as following the spouse has been visibly higher than non-immigrants. Conversely, although females are drastically less likely to be linked on a census form with a spouse as their follower across the board, blue bars in the past three decades show an emerging trend of increasing in length for immigrants than for non-immigrants.

Perhaps the starkest contrast appears in the chord diagram visualizations in Figure 3. The purpose of this comparison was to test the hypothesis whether racial categories specific to American society act to further alienate immigrant females. It may be rather fitting that as I am about to segue into a figurative discussion about American racialization and its otherizing effect on immigrant females, visualization of the data confirms the hypothesis in a blatantly literal way; bezier curves connecting immigrant females with birthplaces all across the globe find their tail end at the racial segment for the census category “Other”. Indeed, the “other” category has held relatively volatile definition in census terms; however, noticeable itself is the comparison with data for non-white females who are not immigrants. What appeared to be wide expanses of area coverage between the “Other” category and immigrant females reduces to a faint, almost one-dimensional line for non-immigrant females of color. The second largest area for immigrants is covered by the Asian or Pacific Islander category; this may have several root causes ranging from the model minority dilemma to the nuanced ways in which immigrant networks from the region form and shape rigid community-based identities in the United States. To confirm the perplexity American racialization may pose for the immigrant female, I note here a general conclusive trend–the non-immigrant female of color, whether born here or abroad, is almost certainly likely to identify with a single pre-defined racial category in the census (thus, the predominance of bezier curve region connecting single race variables with immigrants from various birthplaces) while the reverse is true for the immigrant non-white female. The other plural-race category, i.e. multiple races, also sees a much larger total area of linkage between the variable and immigrants from different birthplaces than it does for non-immigrants. Sampled narratives in mixed-methods analysis is rather telling of how racial and ethnic categorizations of the American census act to alienate immigrants by imposing an expectation to participate in an idealized notion of community belonging–which, ironically, can not only invoke images of the trauma inflicted by community infrastructure (Villalon 2010), but also impose a tacit obligation of assimilating to the American imagination of the racial community and perform the racialized category ascribed to them collectively by the census and American society (Pearce, Clifford and Tandon 2011). An entirely different layer of complexity is added by the fact that census data has historically shaped the evolution of race and ethnicity by laying its roots in the establishment of colonialism (Kertzer and Arel 2001). Undoubtedly, racialization would serve as a significant source of trauma and additional imperialistic oppression to negotiate with for the immigrant female who may have once lived in a formerly colonized nation before transitioning to a country that has historically been the colonizer.


Mainstream narrative of female immigration has taken place around each of her multiple and heterogeneous identities as an isolated, homogenized subject of study under the conceptual assumption of ceteris paribus. In reality, as implicated by the work reviewed here, such an assumption is rendered null where variables and institutions such as sex, race and immigration not only coalesce but also function to symbiotically construct and mold each other within a globalized yet locally-situated social ecosystem in a multivariate manner. The results of my research, in conclusion, confirm a number of characteristics to be true for immigrant females–that their various sociological identities are deeply intersectional with nuanced impacts on other variables; that the identity of the female immigrant is both publicly created and privately enforced; and that their identities are far too individual–far too human–to be homogeneous or influenced solely by a single economic or sociopolitical institution.

[1] “Integrated Occupation and Industry Codes and Occupational Standing Variables in the IPUMS.” IPUMS-USA. User Guide, University of Minnesota, n.d. Web.

[2]  “Family Interrelationships.” IPUMS-USA. User Guide, University of Minnesota, n.d. Web.

Works Cited

Pearce, S., Clifford, E. & Tandon, R.. Immigration and Women: Understanding the American Experience. New York: NYU Press, 2011.

Villalon, R..Violence Against Latina Immigrants: Citizenship, Inequality, and Community. New York: NYU Press, 2010.

Hondagneu-Sotelo, Pierrette, and Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, editors. “Gender and Immigration: A Retrospective and Introduction.” Gender and U.S. Immigration: Contemporary Trends, 1st ed., University of California Press, 2003, pp. 3–19,

Gold, Steven J. “Israeli and Russian Jews: Gendered Perspectives on Settlement and Return Migration.” In Gender and U.S. Immigration: Contemporary Trends. Edited by Hondagneu-Sotelo, P. 127-148. University of California Press, 2003.

Kertzer, David I., and Dominique Arel. (2001), The politics of race, ethnicity, and language in national census. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Goldin C. The U-Shaped Female Labor Force Function in Economic Development and Economic History. In: Schultz TP Investment in Women’s Human Capital and Economic Development. University of Chicago Press ; 1995. pp. 61-90.

Le Espiritu, Yen. “Gender and Labor in Asian Immigrant Families.” Gender and U.S. Immigration: Contemporary Trends, Edited by Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, 1st ed., University of California Press, 2003, pp. 81–100,

Menjívar, Cecilia. “The Intersection of Work and Gender: Central American Immigrant Women and Employment in California.” Gender and U.S. Immigration: Contemporary Trends, Edited by Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, 1st ed., University of California Press, 2003, pp. 101–126,

Le Espiritu, Yen. “‘We Don’t Sleep Around Like White Girls Do’: Family, Culture, and Gender in Filipina American Lives.” Gender and U.S. Immigration: Contemporary Trends, Edited by Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, 1st ed., University of California Press, 2003, pp. 263–284,

Arnold, Kathleen R. American Immigration After 1996: The Shifting Ground of Political Inclusion. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011,