A briefing paper prepared by Maria Cecilia Hwang, Rice University; Carolyn Choi, University of Southern California; and Rhacel Parreñas, University of Southern California, for the Council on Contemporary Families’ Gender Matters Online Symposium (.pdf).

The Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant children from their parents has generated wide public opposition, with the United Nations condemning the practice as a violation of the rights of a child. Yet family separation is a central feature of international temporary labor migration policies that promote the recruitment of migrant workers but bar them from migrating with their families.

As we explain in the Handbook of the Sociology of Gender in “Women on the Move: Stalled Gender Revolution in Global Migration,” family separation across international borders and vast distances has become the norm for many migrant workers across the globe. In the Philippines, around 25 percent of children live apart from one or both parents while in Moldova, approximately 31 percent of children under the age of 15 are left behind by both parents. Temporary migrant workers make up half the world’s migrant population, but most are classified as “unskilled” and therefore often categorically disqualified from sponsoring their families. This policy affects temporary migrants globally, including construction workers in the Middle East; farm workers in Canada, United States, and European countries; factory workers in South Korea and Taiwan; and domestic workers across the Middle East and Asia. As a result, in the absence of jobs back home, temporary migrant workers are forced to leave their children in order to earn a living for their families.

When Moms Migrate

Globally, men and women migrate at almost the same rate, but family separation affects women in distinctive ways that reinforce gender inequality. Because societies idealize mothers as the primary caretakers of their children, migrant mothers are often vilified for abandoning their children. For instance, New York Times article described the migration of Romanian women as a “national tragedy,” blaming women for the demise of the Romanian family and children’s delinquency.

In addition, the responsibility for maintaining transnational families often rests on women. Even when fathers are left behind with children as mothers seek employment in other countries, it is generally an extended network of women, including female kin and local domestic workers, who provide most of the childcare back home. As a result, family separation creates what has been called the international division of reproductive labor, meaning the global transfer of reproductive labor from one group of women to another group of women with lesser means. As depicted in the documentary Chain of Love, women from developing countries such as the Philippines leave their own children in order to financially provide for their families by assuming the childcare responsibilities of women in more affluent developed countries; in turn, older daughters, extended female relatives, or paid local domestic workers in the home country care for children who are left behind. This transfer of care not only reinforces gender inequality but also exacerbates hierarchies among women.

Finally, maintaining split-apart families from a long distance is a double burden for women. Not only are they expected to provide financially for their families even while paying for their own subsistence in the host countries, but advancements in telecommunication technologies have also created greater expectations for migrant mothers to provide emotional care and affirm selfless commitment to their children’s well-being from afar through telephone calls, SMS messages, and Skype calls. This can be especially difficult given time zone differences. These caregiving expectations do not generally apply to migrant fathers, whose responsibilities to their children continue to be judged by their ability to financially provide for their families.

No End in Sight                                                                                

The separation of migrant families is likely to continue. The International Organization for Migration has called for the global expansion of temporary labor migration programs, championing these programs as “win-win-win” situations. Supposedly, migrant workers gain higher earnings, destination countries fill labor deficits in areas of work shunned by their citizens, and origin countries ease their unemployment problem and benefit from remittances. Ironically, this triple “win” will result in more children being separated from their parents and increased gender inequality, as women are still expected to care for transnational families. Women will continue to be burdened with the responsibility of mothering from a distance and in a different time zone, while women who stay in the home country must devote more time in providing care for left-behind children.


Maria Cecilia Hwang, Henry Luce Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow in Southeast Asian Studies, Rice University, maria.c.hwang@rice.edu. Carolyn Choi, PhD Candidate, University of Southern California, carolysc@usc.edu. Rhacel Parreñas, Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies, University of Southern California, parrenas@usc.edu. They are authors of “Women on the Move: Stalled Gender Revolution in Global Migration” in the Handbook of the Sociology of Gender.