Immigrant women's lives: Weaving garment work and legislative policy

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Social Sciences


Diane Murphy


garment industry, women immigrants

Subject Categories

Ethnic Studies | Sociology | Women's Studies


This dissertation addresses the intersection of immigrant women's work in the garment industry, their immigrant experience, and federal legislation that directly impacts their lives and choices. A brief history of immigration legislation and garment industry work set the historical context for the discussion. An understanding of the context of immigrant women's participation in the work force was explored, both in their native country and here in the United States.

This research is based on qualitative interviews and participant observation over a fifteen month period at the Learbury garment factory in Syracuse, New York. A feminist framework for data collection and analysis was used. Twenty immigrant women from Europe, South Asia and Southeast Asia were formally interviewed, as well as many others on an informal basis. A cross cultural analysis utilizing the symbolic interactionist theory base guided the research.

The women described their experiences as immigrants, employment situations and current work in their interviews. A description of the immigration process is given and issues of citizenship are discussed. It was found that many of the women had worked previously in their home country, but that they lost job status when they immigrated to the United States. Half of the women now "had" to work because of financial need that did not exist in their home country. Work on the factory floor had both good and bad aspects. Issues of English fluency, a family atmosphere, and support for cross cultural exchanges are dealt with in a positive manner. Negative aspects include injuries, power structures, harassment, unions, work availability, and the wages earned.

Described is how immigrant women are affected by federal legislation and the continuing impact it has on their lives. Analysis of the Family Reunification bills presented in 1993 and 1994, as well as the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Act are given. Immigration legislation is found to be cyclical and currently moving towards an anti-immigrant stance. As the United States faces economic uncertainties, public opinion shifts towards exclusionary policies. A more complete understanding of an immigrant's life, experiences, and choices is needed to effectively evaluate the policies legislated.


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