Last December, President Barack Obama announced an executive order that benefited up to 5 million undocumented immigrants. While this action made small strides for the nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the U.S., his administration has also done incredible harm to one of its most vulnerable populations: immigrant women.
Though it’s true that most of those deported have been men (93 percent, to be exact), women make up 51 percent of immigrants in the United States. It is these women who are left behind to act as sole providers for their families while managing the trauma — theirs and their children’s — when a male family member is deported. By failing to make administrative relief as broad as possible, women are separated from their families — and their contributions inside the home, as well as the often unregulated nature of their work outside the home, leave them without protection or support. But it gets worse.
Immigrant women are three to six times more likely to experience domestic violence than U.S.-born women. According to the immigrant rights organization We Belong Together, only a quarter of all employment visas are given to women as principal holders, meaning that two-thirds of immigrant women in the employment-visa category enter as dependents on their spouse's visa, with no ability to work themselves. This makes them more vulnerable to an abusive partner.
A bulk of the women and children are fleeing gang violence, organized crime or domestic violence in their home countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. It has been reported that a growing number of the unaccompanied children are girls; there has also been an increase in the number of mothers and pregnant women detained. Women and children are particularly vulnerable to abuse, both during the dangerous journey to the U.S. and while held in detention centers.
Those who show up on the U.S.’ doorstep seeking refuge from conditions we helped create are met with detainment that profits from their imprisonment, subjects them to sexual assault, sometimes ends in suicide and almost always results in family separation. The 2013 expansion of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) has been critically important, and has helped to save immigrant women from persecution and deportation. But what will save immigrant women from being brutalized by the U.S. criminal legal system?
Nothing illustrated our broken immigration system and the way it further victimizes domestic violence survivors quite like the recent case of Nan-Hui Jo, a Korean immigrant and domestic violence survivor who was found guilty of child abduction charges filed by her child’s father and alleged abuser, a U.S. citizen.
When Jo escaped her abusive relationship with her young daughter in tow, she was arrested and held without bail for nine months and her daughter was returned to Jo’s abuser. Jo, who was entitled to protection under VAWA but was not informed of this fact, was convicted of child abduction and sentenced to a misdemeanor and credited with time served. Upon her release from jail, Immigration and Customs Enforcement immediately took her into custody. Jo was released after three months in immigration detention, but could still be deported and permanently separated from her daughter.
Cases such as Jo’s only push abused immigrant women further into the shadows, sending the clear message that the risk of deportation is very real, even when reporting domestic violence. While U non-immigrant visas, intended to “strengthen the ability of law enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute cases of domestic violence and sexual assault,” provide a pathway to citizenship for those willing to cooperate with investigators, many women are still afraid to approach law enforcement officials. As undocumented activist and sexual abuse survivor Angy Rivera expressed in a PBS documentary about her life, “No Le Digas a Nadie” (“Don’t Tell Anyone”), it’s terrible that despite a person’s contributions, family ties and number of years in the U.S., they’re not considered “valid” — and aren’t afforded the protections that domestic-abuse survivors who are U.S. citizens receive.
Those fleeing abuse in their countries of origin should not encounter more at the hands of this country’s broken immigration system. When Obama vows to “end” domestic violence, that promise should extend to the millions of undocumented women currently residing in the U.S., who are statistically more likely to experience violence from intimate partners.
October is domestic violence awareness month. We should take this opportunity to remind ourselves that mothers and their children shouldn’t be imprisoned for seeking refuge. But as I remember how busloads of immigrant children were called “illegal” and told to go home, how complaints of sexual abuse in detention centers have been reported since 2007 with no public outcry, and how a man’s hate speech toward undocumented immigrants is improving his chances of becoming our next president, I can only plead that we demand more for immigrant women, in the same ways that we demand more for women who are American citizens. We must recognize their humanity and see them as worthy of protecting.