Among the numerous unique and compelling stories of immigration that our nation has witnessed in its rich history comes another one; one that is disturbing and moving in equal part. On May 14, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK), was arrested as he was about to catch a flight from New York’s JFK Airport to Paris. A 32-year-old housekeeper had courageously come forward to report that she was sexually assaulted by DSK during his stay in the midtown Manhattan Sofitel hotel. As the media storm around DSK’s scandal and his political future intensified, the woman (her identity is being kept secret) who accused him remained well away from the media glare, protecting her identity and dignity amidst an increasingly messy situation. However, as a recent New York Times portrait of her life revealed, her story is extremely unique- in an environment that is increasingly hostile towards immigrants, it is rare that immigrant women who are victims of sexual and physical abuse (and there are many), are able to find the courage to report the crimes they face.
The woman was born in a tiny hamlet in the West African country of Guinea, a 13-hour drive from the nation’s capital Conakry. While she was in her early teens, she was married off to a distant cousin, gave birth to her daughter, and was widowed soon after. While in her early 20s, she immigrated to the United States, seeking a better life for herself and her daughter, and began working at a small African restaurant in the Bronx. In 2008, she got a job as a maid at the Sofitel New York, a high-end hotel in the heart of Manhattan. Her lawyers confirmed that by this time she had documentation and legal status. Then on May 14, her world was suddenly thrust into the public eye as she became the center of an international scandal involving high-level diplomacy.
Her brother, Mamoudou, commented on her character-
She is a village girl who didn’t go to school to learn English, Greek, Portuguese, what have you…All she learned was the Koran. Can you imagine how on earth she is suffering through this ordeal?…Before she left here, nobody even knew if she could speak up for herself. She never got into any arguments, with anybody.
While DSK has been charged with the crime, the trial is still underway and no verdict has yet been reached. However, the story of his alleged victim highlights the rapidly growing issue of sexual assault among immigrant women, and indirectly points to the fact that undocumented women remain the most vulnerable to abuse, as they are especially afraid to report the crime for fear of being pulled into the detention and deportation dragnet. The housekeeper in DSK’s case has legal status, not to mention incredible courage, that enabled her to report the crime to the local police. But her courage seeks to remind us that there are many women who face violence, both at home and in their work, who continue to be exploited and are unable to seek help because of immigration status and their fear of being criminalized themselves.
Last week, many women – mostly hotel housekeeping staff from around the city – gathered outside DSK’s court hearing to protest against his alleged crime, claiming that many of them have been victims in similar incidents but are often afraid to speak out. One of the protesters, Ada Vélez Escalera, a housekeeper at the Hilton who had moved from Puerto Rico when she was 16, said-
A lot of us don’t speak up. You’re embarrassed or have a family to support and you know if it will be you or the guest who’s believed. In this case she was brave enough to scream for help…I’m proud of being a room attendant and when guests come to our hotels they need to respect us and know we are there to make their rooms clean and comfortable, not for private service…I had to leave my education because I had a sick child. But the money I’ve earned as a room attendant helped me have a house, a decent life and put my son and daughter through college.
The issue raised by the housekeepers is a growing concern among the immigrant community. It is worsened further by damaging statements made by political officials that essentially discourage the reporting of sexual assault crimes by immigrant women. In Massachusetts, State Rep. Ryan Fattman (R-Sutton) has been part of a group of regional GOP representatives uniting against Governor Deval L. Patrick’s decision not to join the controversial Secure Communities program (S-Comm). When asked if he would be concerned if a woman with undocumented status is raped and then is afraid to report the crime for fear of deportation, Fattman replied, “My thought is that if someone is here illegally, they should be afraid to come forward…If you do it the right way, you don’t have to be concerned about these things.” His comment brought him sharp criticism, and when contacted for further clarification, Fattman attempted to contextualize it with an even more troublesome allegory-
If someone got into a car accident, it’s obviously a tragic event. But if they’re drunk and they crash, it’s a crime. If that person was drunk and survived the accident they would be afraid to come forward. I think if someone is here illegally they should be afraid to come forward because they should be afraid to be deported…But if you weren’t here, the crime wouldn’t happen.
Such brash disregard for basic human rights, such as the right to be safe from harm and the right to due process and justice, is alarming. Rep. Fattman’s statements signal a dangerous situation in the country if victims of violence and sexual assault are afraid to report the crime for fear of being deported instead. This roundabout way of blaming the victim is incredibly damaging to our society, encouraging violent crime and making our communities less secure.
The harsh anti-immigrant enforcement laws that are being enacted in states around the country only seek to add to the environment of hostility and fear that makes it harder for local law enforcement to effectively protect communities. Last week Alabama Governor Bentley signed into law HB 56, the harshest anti-immigrant bill to be passed by any state thus far. The bill, inspired by Arizona’s notorious SB 1070, imposes even stricter requirements on virtually all institutions in the state to conduct immigration checks. In a statement reacting to the bill, Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, said-
Today, Alabama effectively turned state workers, peace officers, and school teachers into de facto immigration agents. Immigrants and people of color will be subjected to additional, unconstitutional scrutiny when they take their children to school or interact with local law enforcement officers. Friends and family members of undocumented immigrants will face criminal charges simply for driving them to church or to the grocery store. By passing HB 56, Alabama’s legislators have deemed an entire class of people not worthy of the most fundamental rights, which were carefully prescribed to all people by our Founding Fathers. This law effectively makes immigrants the latest group of people to suffer a legalization of discriminatory behavior against them, and threatens to turn back the clock on our hard-won civil rights.
Alabama’s HB 56 adds to the growing number of states that have set in motion some sort of harsh anti-immigrant laws (see PDF map from the National Immigration Law Center for the latest Arizona-inspired legislation). These sweeping anti-immigrant legislations are not only unconstitutional and in violation of basic human rights, but they will also negatively impact the economies of the states that implement them. Most of all, communities will lose faith in their local law enforcement, always living in the fear of being racially profiled and arrested for deportation under the pretense of a minor offense.
With less than 18 months until the next presidential election, Democrats and Republicans are busy shaping their immigration policies to woo voters. At this time it is important that they focus on preventing draconian state-level anti-immigration laws from being enacted and instead, working towards comprehensive immigration reform that is enacted on a federal level. Statements such as those by Rep. Fattman only undermine the principles of freedom, justice and due process upon which our country is built. Victims of violence, such as sexual assault and rape, must be supported and made to feel safe and secure and given the justice they deserve, instead of being intimidated into silence. Denying basic human rights to one group will inevitably affect all our freedoms.
Sign the petition asking for Mass. Rep. Fattman to apologize for his comments and for the State House to publicly denounce his stance.
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Photo courtesy of nij.gov.