Today I read Miriam Zoila Pérez’s essay, “When Sexual Autonomy Isn’t Enough: Sexual Violence Against Immigrant Women in the United States” for day eleven of the Blogging “Yes” project. You may know Miriam from Feministing, or from her own blog, Radical Doula. She’s one of my favorite bloggers out there, and in this essay she sheds light on an important issue, namely sexual violence faced by immigrant women. I also want to recommend a related blog post on Feministe written by brownfemipower, Confronting Citizenship in Sexual Assault.
The blog post specifically addresses citizenship privilege, a kind of privilege that often goes ignored by those of us who take our driver’s licenses and social security cards for granted, and talks about rape reporting fears in immigrant communities, a problem that Pérez also touches on in her essay. This is a fear I encountered indirectly when I was reading about U.S. immigration law and about trafficking while in law school.
Though the current immigration laws do offer some visa options for women, most notably the T and U visas for trafficking victims and victims of crimes including domestic violence, much more is needed to stem the abuses Pérez and brownfemipower discuss. Women who are eligible for these visas may not be aware of their existence, or know how to apply. In my work with an immigration clinic, I found that many immigrants are understandably nervous about contacting any lawyers or government officials regarding their status, especially if they crossed the border in violation of immigration laws and are undocumented. Resources are absolutely needed to spread information about these visas within immigrant communities, to assist women in applying for the visas, and to provide support for women in their transition to LPR (legal) status.
Another problem with these visas is that they do require immigrant women to cooperate with the authorities in prosecuting cases against their abusers or traffickers. Often smuggling and trafficking operations are extremely interconnected in the origin country, and women may fear retribution against their families or peers if they cooperate. They may also reasonably be unsure whether the government will offer sufficient protection against a rapist or abuser. As brownfemipower points out, the officials hold all the cards, and many immigrants understandably fear and distrust officials. Even if a woman is not deported and does not suffer further abuse after working with the authorities, she still has to make a life in this country, in most cases with extremely limited resources.
As with many feminist issues that deal with women of color and immigrant women, this problem is systematic and broad. Some of the elements of the problem include restrictive immigration laws and militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border that have made crossing more dangerous and women susceptible to sexual violence; poverty, sexism, and racism in the U.S. that make it difficult for immigrant women to find work and perpetuate trafficking situations; the police abuse and harassment of immigrants and people of color generally that make officials someone to fear rather than someone to trust; and the rape culture that teaches women that rape is normal or not serious enough an offense to report. All these issues have to be addressed, rather than simply looking at the problem’s surface.
In the meantime, lawyers and others can volunteer their time with organizations that assist immigrant women and domestic violence and trafficking victims. Spanish-speakers and speakers of Asian languages are especially needed in many communities to assist at shelters and with legal aid groups. These groups can be found online and often through churches and community centers in immigrant communities. Those trained in the law can search for local “Know Your Rights” presentations geared towards immigrant women, or start a program.