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OTI Online
Fall 2008

Anti-Immigrant Fervor Translates to Terror for Women
by Melissa Nalani Ross


In my work on civil and human rights, especially with immigrant populations, I was contacted recently about a woman without documentation who worked at a fruit stand in the northeast. A male customer approached her and asked if she had any waitressing experience, as he needed servers at his restaurant. Seeing this as an opportunity to make a little more money to support herself and her family, the woman agreed to stop by the establishment for an interview. When she arrived, instead of sitting down and discussing a job opportunity, the woman was met by a group of men who took turns raping her. They then told her that if she went to the authorities, they would have her deported.

©Michelle McDonald

Too afraid to go to the police out of fear of being separated from her family and livelihood, she will be left in isolation, with no recourse, no justice and no security. Her tale will not be covered by the mainstream media. The men who raped her will never be brought to justice.

In July, the New York Times published an article about Juana Villegas, a woman stopped for a routine traffic violation by a police officer. Villegas was jailed for six days for violating U.S. immigration laws. An undocumented immigrant, she was nine months pregnant, and, while imprisoned, went into labor. She was handcuffed to the bed during the birthing process, then was separated from her newborn baby and sent back to jail. Authorities would not allow Villegas to bring a breast pump into her cell, leading to a breast infection.

The experiences of these women are frighteningly emblematic of the challenges immigrant women face across the country from immigration enforcement policies gone awry. Villegas and countless other women experience fear, anxiety, degradation and harm on a daily basis. Few of their stories reach the public, but as someone who works with the immigrant community, I hear them regularly.

Anti-immigrant fervor in the United States makes injustice for immigrant women tolerated – even encouraged. As a result, immigrant women are living in situations of sheer terror.

Change in Tactics Targets Women

Both of these women’s stories are the byproduct of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement -- widely known as “ICE” -- and its 287(g) program. Under 287(g), police forces enter into Memorandums of Understanding (MOU) with ICE. Officers are trained and then authorized to enforce federal immigration law. This partnership hands local and state officers “necessary resources and latitude to pursue investigations relating to violent crimes, human smuggling, gang/organized crime activity, sexual-related offenses, narcotics smuggling and money laundering,” according to ICE.

This, however, is not how the program plays out on the ground. Typically, women, whose only real violation of the law is being in the country without documentation, have become, because of their vulnerability, some of the program’s main targets.

Anti-immigrant groups have been pushing this brand of immigration enforcement for years, without care for the human and civil rights violations that follow. Groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which calls itself by the acronym “FAIR,” the nation’s largest and most powerful anti-immigrant organization,
travel the country, advocating for the expansion of the 287(g) program and asking for more police forces to buy-in. FAIR is now listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, alongside the KKK. According to ICE, “more than 60 municipal, county, and state agencies nationwide have requested 287(g) MOUs . . . and more than 400 local and state officers have been trained under the program.”

Now FAIR is also advocating for increased ICE raids in factories and meatpacking plants. While this might not seem like an extreme or unjust measure on its face, the impact it has on local communities is destructive, separating mothers from their children. Some of the largest and most inhumane raids have occurred in the last year in the United States, with little public attention or concern. In May of 2008, ICE conducted the biggest raid up to that time in U.S. history in Postville, Iowa. The small town of 2,300 residents, in one solemn sweep, lost 10% of its population, leaving the community in shock.

Subsequent raids have surpassed – in number of agents, community upheaval and arrests of workers – the one in Postville.

Family members were separated from each other and children were left to fend for themselves. The Postville raid did not just negatively affect those without documentation, described in eyewitness accounts, it also disrupted and devastated the lives of the U.S.-born residents in the community. Principals, teachers and parents reported school children having nightmares and drawing pictures of their families and friends being taken away.

Wrong Policy

Despite the community outrage and the utter terror it brought to the immigrant population, FAIR rallied “in support of ICE's stepped-up enforcement activities.” Susan Tully, FAIR’s National Field Organizer, said,

"The American public has waited far too long for ICE to finally begin taking worksite enforcement seriously and, by our presence in Postville, we hope to demonstrate that we want to see such efforts increased, not ended."

This type of enforcement serves no public good. It does not deter immigration, nor does it solve – or even address – the reasons behind increased migration to the United States. The only real purpose it serves is to create an environment so toxic that immigrant women are forced into the shadows and live in a constant state of fear and anxiety.

FAIR and the anti-immigrant movement are guiding the United States down a path strewn with civil and human rights violations, dehumanization and suffering, especially by women and children. Instead of actually paying any mind to the real causes of migration to the U.S. -- such as the North and Central American trade agreements, NAFTA and CAFTA -- the focus has largely been on its consequences. The root issues of immigration, for this reason, will never actually be dealt with, creating a situation where there are no humane or real solutions. By only pushing for enforcement, more raids and more 287(g) buy-in, more women will be subjugated and live in terror.

Immigration is a Women’s Issue

The violence and abuse immigrant women face on a daily basis in the United States are challenged, mostly in solitude, by the immigrant rights movement. By and large, the women’s movement has failed to stand in solidarity with the women who suffer under anti-immigrant activity. Why haven’t more women leaders and women’s organizations added their voices to the national dialogue and opposed the push for stricter immigration enforcement practices and the dehumanization they portend?

Part of the problem is that the gender aspects of harmful immigration policies go unrecognized and unacknowledged. The women’s rights movement over the last several decades has largely been about equal rights and equal treatment But women, always on the frontline, are the most deeply and intimately impacted by systems and institutions wrought with injustice. The tragedies suffered by Juana Villegas and other immigrant women are intolerable in a just society, yet without women of conscience taking a stand, these violent practices will undoubtedly continue.

Efforts around the country are beginning to address the problems caused by both enforcement tactics and policies that are guided by groups like FAIR. The Campaign for a United America is a collaborative effort by anti-racism, religious, labor, immigrant-rights and grassroots groups to promote a fair, values-based discussion around immigration, free of bigotry and sexism.

As evidenced by the terror that immigrant women face in the United States, the struggle for women’s rights is not over. It will take the efforts of women throughout the country to ensure that all women, whatever their “status,” live in a safe and just environment.


Melissa Nalani Ross is the Director of the Campaign for a United America, a national initiative of the Center for New Community in Chicago to push back against the racism of the anti-immigrant movement with organizing, strategic research, investigation and analysis. Melissa previously worked at the Invisible Institute, a Chicago-based social justice company, focusing on police brutality and violence against women, and served as an AmeriCorps VISTA at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law.

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