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Monday, February 8, 2016
- Today marks the first of “16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence”, a campaign launched in 1991 to insist that ‘women’s rights are human rights’. Bookended by the Nov. 25 International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and the Dec. 10 International Human Rights Day, the 16 Days campaign sinks its gender justice roots deep into scores of countries around the world, where women and their allies are still battling lower wages, sexual abuse, rape as a weapon of war, female genital mutilation and cutting, intimate partner violence, sex-selective abortions, breast ironing, infanticide and much more.
In the U.S., this symbolic day is perhaps most relevant for immigrant women, who daily face a three- tiered system of oppression that attacks not only their race and gender but also their legal status, making them one of the most exploited and vulnerable populations in the country, second only to Native American women.
Fifty percent of the world’s 214 million immigrants are women, a statistic bolstered by the fact that 70 percent of the planet’s 1.2 billion impoverished people are women.
In this country, undocumented immigrant women work on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder: they clean the bathrooms, serve the food, sow and harvest fresh produce and process and package the meat, yet they exist on the very edges of society, where their bodies and their labour are often invisible.
Among the many destructive outcomes of anti-immigration efforts such as ICE’s Secure Communities (S-Comm) Program – such as record-level deportations, hate crimes and racial profiling – perhaps the most troubling is the complete breakdown of trust between law enforcement and survivors of domestic violence, robbing women of their chance to seek help in situations of physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
“Local police are increasingly tasked with enforcing immigration law and with detaining non-citizens, so when women call police to report domestic violence and abuse they (unwittingly) spur the process of their own detention and deportation,” Seth Wessler, lead author of the Applied Research Centre (ARC)’s recent report “Shattered Families” told IPS.
“Undocumented victims of abuse and violence are thus put into a particularly horrible situation of being given a false choice: to either remain with an abuser to avoid a negative legal outcome, or risk being detained or deported and potentially losing their own children.”
“Dozens of women in numerous detention centres around the country told me this false choice puts them at risk of serious injury or of spending extended periods of time in violent relationships out of fear of the alternative,” Wessler said.
ICE’s infiltration into all aspects of family and community life itself serves as a source of strength for abusers and perpetrators of violence.
“Abusers often threaten to report their partners to ICE if they dare to speak about their abuse,” Jaime Farrant, executive director of Ayuda, a Washington DC-based social support center for low-income immigrants, told IPS. “This is a tool that abusers use to cast fear and doubt into the minds of their victims and ensure their own impunity.”
Immigrant women partnered with white males face this threat most frequently.
“Even in the courts I have experienced numerous cases where lawyers of the perpetrators will openly make the argument that victims are undocumented, to turn judges and juries against victims,” Farrant added.
“We have also dealt with court situations where the authorities make derogatory comments to women about their legal status.”
“Women are afraid to come forward – is this justice?” he asked. “On paper, our constitution asserts everyone’s basic rights, regardless of immigration status. In reality, we have a multi-tiered system, where the kind of justice you get depends on your status.”
Not only women but children too are ensnared in this imbalanced justice system. If neighbours or loved ones urge police to intervene in domestic violence cases, women are often arrested along with their abusers, leaving children in the care of child protection services (CPS).
The first comprehensive study on children of immigrants in the foster system, Shattered Families, found over 5,000 youth across the country facing extended or permanent separation from their families. Though they have committed no crime, or done anything to merit such harsh treatment, many will never see their mothers or fathers again.
ARC recently gained access to federal data showing that the U.S. government deported 46,000 mothers and fathers of U.S. citizen children during the first six months of 2011.
If current trends continue, 15,000 more youth will be separated from their detained or deported parents over the next half-decade. Countless reported cases of deported parents attempting to reunite with their children have fallen on deaf ears.
CPS often insists that deported parents show proof of employment in their home countries before their children are returned to them, ignoring the structural inequalities and joblessness that drive immigration in the first place.
“A disturbing number of women who I met, particularly in detention centres in Arizona and Texas, said the reason they left their home countries in the first place was to escape gender based violence and domestic violence,” Wessler told IPS.
“Some were even applying for asylum on that basis. These stories highlighted the devastating cycle of violence that undocumented immigrants and especially women face in their own countries, during their journey out of them, and then again here in the U.S.,” he said.