For immigrant women in U.S., reporting abuse rarely an option

By — July 27, 2012

Imagine living every day with the terror that, at any moment, you might be ripped apart from your family, your home, your job, your livelihood, your friends. Imagine feeling as though you have no choice but to risk all of this to report a case of rape or domestic violence. Such is the dilemma for countless immigrant women in the United States: Either suffer silently—often at the hands of husbands or family members—or go to the police and risk deportation.

For years, women who have emigrated to the U.S. have been trapped in a “precarious and vulnerable position, whether it’s domestic violence, taking their children to school, access to health care, or the ability to report a case of rape,” explained Mallika Dutt, president of an India- and U.S.-based human rights organization called Breakthrough. Their reluctance to report rape or abuse often means that there is no end to the violence, said Claudia Arévalo, an Arizona-based attorney who specializes in immigration issues.  

The Supreme Court’s recent decision on Arizona’s immigration law, SB 1070, only cements this problem. While in Arizona v. United States, the Supreme Court blocked three aspects of the law on the basis that they overstepped the bounds of state governance—a decision that pleased the Obama administration—intrinsic problems remain that affect immigrant women. Arizona’s governor, Jan Brewer, asserted that the “heart” of SB 1070 was “vindicated.” The section to which Brewer referred is what has come to be known as the “show me your papers” provision. It directs local law enforcement to request the immigration papers of anyone they stop or arrest if the officers have “reasonable suspicion” to believe that the stopped person may be in the country illegally.  

Although in theory, Arizona law enforcement can’t ask to see immigration documents without this “reasonable suspicion,” the requirement is one over which lawyers and advocates remain skeptical. They believe the law will pave the way for increased racial profiling and abuse of authority—both of which can affect how readily women will come forward to report allegations of crimes like rape.

The fear of Arizona’s immigration law, SB 1070, is negatively affecting the lives of immigrant women. “They were scared before to report rape and domestic violence, but now they never will,” said one lawyer.

“We just don’t know what this will look like,” Arévalo said. “Yes, Fourth Amendment rights against unlawful search and seizure apply,” she explains. “But my clients are asking, ‘what does reasonable suspicion mean? Can they come into our house at any time?’ The fear [of SB 1070] is increasing and affecting every aspect of their lives. They were scared before to report rape and domestic violence, but now they never will.”

This precise fear silenced Miriam (whose last name we’re not using to protect her identity), a resident of Arizona, who had just turned 12 when a member of her family sexually abused her for the first time. For three years, she did not speak up about the ongoing abuse. She was afraid that once her family knew of it and reported it to the authorities, they would all be deported to Mexico.

“But when he told me that he was going to start going after my little sister, I knew I had to say something,” she told Women Under Siege. Shortly after Miriam told her mother about the abuse, the family made the decision to file a report with the police. Her abuser was eventually detained by Arizona immigration officials and deported to Mexico.

Miriam chose to return to Mexico in order to apply for a U.S. student visa. After a two-year, arduous battle, and with the help of Arévalo, Miriam and her family were able to attain legal status under a U visa, an option for victims of crimes and their families.

But all this happened in 2001—nine years before the passage of SB 1070 and before law enforcement had the authority to inquire about Miriam’s immigration status. Even so, the family was still apprehensive about going to the authorities. Had this happened today, Miriam admitted, her story would be much different.

“If we were that scared then, imagine how scared we would be now with SB 1070,” she said. “I wish I could tell you something different, but, most likely, we wouldn’t have reported the abuse.” She goes on to say that if her family had been forced to return to Mexico, “life would have been miserable.”

Such is the case for many women across the country. Arévalo told Women Under Siege the harrowing story of a woman whose husband repeatedly raped her—sometimes in front of their children. He would tell the kids, “Your mother is a prostitute. That’s what I can do to prostitutes.”

Despite the abuse and the effect it was having on her family, this woman (who asked to remain anonymous to protect her identity) told Arévalo she did not want to report her husband to the authorities because she feared for her safety and believed she would be deported. Arévalo is currently working on obtaining legal status for this woman under a specific provision of the Violence Against Women Act that applies to victims of abuse at the hands of a spouse who is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.  

Claire Thomas, a staff attorney with the African Services Committee, a New York-based organization that provides legal services for people with HIV and for immigrant women who are victims of gender-based violence, works with women in similar situations. Thomas told Women Under Siege about a woman who married her husband in Sierra Leone at the age of 16 and came to the U.S. at 19. Now 30, this woman (who has asked to remain anonymous to protect her identity) has suffered years of domestic violence at the hands of her husband. She said he has raped her consistently since the beginning of their marriage.  

“One time,” this woman told Thomas, “I said no to sex without a condom, and he held his hand over my mouth and continued doing what he was doing…he started touching me and I screamed and he said, ‘This is my house—if you scream no one will hear you.’ I let him do it there on the couch…I didn’t want to scream and have the police come because I don’t have papers and my husband does, so I would be the one arrested.”

Though the local police, who would theoretically respond to a call from this woman, cannot legally ask to see her immigration papers because no such law exists in New York, women like her are still too scared to report violence. The fact that Arizona is two time zones away makes no difference.

“Their reluctance to report is mainly because of this culture of fear and they believe that if it happens in one state, it can happen here,” Thomas said. Laws akin to SB 1070 have also been passed in Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina, and Utah, according to The New York Times.

To many Americans, these problems may seem like sideline issues in the broader “war on women,” Dutt said. But if some women don’t feel safe going to law enforcement, “that is a public safety problem for all of us,” she said. 

Click here for information on Breakthrough’s “I’m Here” campaign in support of immigrant women.