Gender, Global, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees, North America

US: Battered Bodies, Broken Families: Remembering Immigrant Women

Kanya D'Almeida

The global campaign "16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence" begins Nov. 25. Credit:  UN Photo/Martine Perret

The global campaign "16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence" begins Nov. 25. Credit: UN Photo/Martine Perret

WASHINGTON, Nov 25 2011 (IPS) - 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’.

The global campaign "16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence" begins Nov. 25. Credit:  UN Photo/Martine Perret

The global campaign "16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence" begins Nov. 25. Credit: UN Photo/Martine Perret

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.

Futures Without Violence?

Grassroots organizations are working furiously to develop policies, provide assistance and break the chain of violence and silence around domestic abuse. Having worked for many years on the intersection between immigration and intimate partner violence, Leni Marin, senior vice president for Futures Without Violence, told IPS about two landmark policies to support women in need. First is inclusion in the 1994 Violence Against Women (VAW) Act of provisions for women to gain legal status without the sponsorship of abuses spouses, partners or employers.

This pathway to residency or citizenship helps to shatter the shackles of dependency. Another option has been the U-visa, through which victims of gender-based crimes such as sexual assault or rape can make inroads into citizenship, thus moving away from abusers. However, she added that efforts such as S-Comm have had a chilling impact on women, negatively affecting people's access to such services by creating a pervasive anti-immigrant climate. "Many efforts to combat (domestic violence) have been compromised, particularly by developments in Arizona, Georgia and Alabama; people who want to report crimes or get on a path towards independence are deterred by the consequences of their interactions with law enforcement," Marin told IPS. "By entangling two completely different branches of the justice system, policies like S- Comm have actually made our communities more unsafe and vulnerable, especially for women," she added. "Unless such programs are suspended, we're going to see a continuation of these kinds of abuses," Wessler told IPS, added that the long-term effects of the foster care system on youth was well-documented, highlighting the cyclical impacts of violence, poverty and homelessness on children placed in the "care" of the state.

As a result, tackling domestic violence in immigrant communities is a hugely complicated issue, made worse by this year’s fresh wave of anti-immigration legislation that began with Senate Bill 1070 in Arizona and spread quickly to hundreds of counties and states across the U.S.

These punitive new laws have resulted in the historic merger of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) with local and state police and other law enforcement agencies, essentially creating a well-oiled pipeline from local jails to immigration detention centres and injecting fear into immigrant communities.

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.

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