Immigrant Women and Violence


Brazilian immigrant Virginia da Loma worked for a cleaning service in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The owner of the service came to find her one day as she was cleaning an empty house and got her to submit to his rape by threatening to fire her if she said no. Claudia Gomez’s boss at the vegetable packing plant where she worked in Florida began by telling her how attractive she was, that he simply couldn’t resist her; he repeatedly gave her tasks that put her alone with him. Then he threatened not only to fire her if she didn’t submit but also to turn her in to ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency responsible for finding and deporting undocumented immigrants). When Angela Feliz, who cuts and packs lettuce in California, refused her foreman’s advances, he began harassing her by referring to her publicly as a dyke.

U.S. policy toward undocumented immigrants damages women in many ways—by separating them from children, by leaving them without support, by making it harder for them to earn for their families. But one particular set of damages is physical and an immediate threat to bodily life and health, because undocumented women are especially vulnerable to violence and unable to get legal recourse.

The reasons for undocumented women’s lack of recourse are obvious: women who turn to the police or any social service agency are likely to have their lack of legal permission to stay in the U.S. discovered. This is why many police forces—which in the U.S. are run by cities and towns and thus vary widely in their policies—prefer not to inquire about or report on residential status. That is because if immigrants know they can be reported to ICE, they will be reluctant to report crimes or offer any information to police officers.

But with respect to violence, women face a doubled risk, because they are more likely to be harassed and attacked. In California’s corporate agricultural fields, where the vast majority of workers are foreign-born, 90 percent of women farmworkers identified sexual harassment as a major problem. Half of those women workers are undocumented. As a North Carolina farmworker put it, “A man can catch you in the fields where the plants are taller than you.” Another described how the guys would touch themselves, simulate sex with each other and make comments like, “Last night, I dreamed about you; if you only knew how I dreamed about you. How many things I did to you.” In the meatpacking plants in Iowa and Nebraska, which are dangerous for everyone with rushed and tired workers carrying sharp knives, undocumented women workers are everywhere. Historian Deborah Fink reported that exchanging sexual favors for jobs was so standard that it was accepted as a condition of employment.

Just as tough is the situation of undocumented women victimized by their own partners. Forty-eight percent of Latinas in the U.S. say their partner’s violence against them has increased since they came to the U.S. Sometimes the violence escalates because the men are more stressed; sometimes because the women have their own jobs and can’t stay home, or because women have more money and adopt more independent attitudes; and sometimes because the male partners also know that the women don’t dare complain. Sixty percent of Korean-born women reported being battered by husbands. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene reported in 2004 that the majority of women killed by their partners in New York City were immigrants. The reasons women stay with abusive partners are well known, notably that they are economically dependent on these men—and the U.S. provides little economic support for women alone with children. Now imagine those reasons multiplied by fear of ICE: fear not only of being deported and possibly separated from one’s children, but fear also that one’s partner will be deported. And of course undocumented immigrants are not eligible to receive most federal government forms of aid. They are not even eligible for medical insurance under the Affordable Car Act (otherwise known as Obamacare).

Feminist advocates tried to help with these problems and persuaded Congress to pass the Violence Against Women Act of 1994. That law allows a victim of violence to petition for a legal immigrant visa, and to do so without the knowledge of the abuser. When the law was being re-authorized in 2013, Republican legislators proposed their own version. It would have required the women petitioners to notify their abusers that they were requesting a visa—an obvious spur to yet more violence; allowed the abuser to file a statement opposing his victim’s visa application; and offered the victim only a temporary reprieve from deportation. At the same time the Republican version also targeted the abusers, by allowing them to be deported on the basis of an uncorroborated accusation. The Republicans in Congress, of course, were looking for any way to increase deportations. Luckily, the Republican bill was defeated, and the Violence Against Women Act was reauthorized. But it offers help to a small minority of undocumented women who suffer violence and harassment. As long as police and social service agencies report to ICE, the threat of deportation will keep the undocumented in a shadow, where they have no access to justice. And as long as they are excluded from even the meager support programs that enable workers to quit a job where they are harassed and attacked, they will find it harder to refuse and escape abuse.

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Linda Gordon is a feminist, historian, and co-author, with Rosalyn Baxandall, of Dear Sisters: Dispatches from the Women’s Liberation Movement.