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Immigration and Detention: Women’s Human Rights Across Borders

Cross- posted from our Bell Bajao blog. Written by Eesha Pandit, Breakthrough’s Women’s Rights Manager

As she went into labor Juana Villegas was shackled to her hospital bed. Living in Tennessee, she gave birth while in custody. She had been pulled over while driving and taken to jail when the officer discovered that she did not have a valid drivers license as was undocumented. She went to prison, where she went into labor. Her ankles were cuffed together on the ride to the hospital and once there, Juana begged the sheriff to let her have at least one hand free while in labor. She was denied.

Watch Juana’s story:

In another instance, Maria, also undocumented, was more than 8 months pregnant and on the road with her husband and two US born children when they were pulled over by a police officer in Tuscon, Arizona.

Tuscon police spokesmen claimed in an interview with the Huffington Post, that the family had been stopped as part of a “random license plate check,” which indicated that insurance on the vehicle was suspended. When Maria’s husband did not have a valid driver’s license and admitted to being in the United States without documentation, the authorities called the Border Patrol.

Maria asserts that her water broke when she was roughly pushed into a Border Patrol car. She soon went into labor and was not allowed to be with her husband as she gave birth and he was deported within the week. Inside her delivery room with her were two armed Border Patrol agents.

Watch Maria’s story:

These women, living miles apart, share an experience of giving birth while in custody. It is an experience shared by more and more women in the United States and around the world. In the US specifically, incarcerated women, particularly those who are undocumented, face a vast set of barriers to accessing health care, as do their children and families. What do Maria’s and Juana’s experiences show us?

They show the additional points of vulnerability faced by women who are immigrants and refugees. They are at greater risk to experience violation of their human rights either at the hands of others in the community or at the hands of the state, because they often live outside the protections afforded by citizenship. Yet another border is created around them. This border keeps civil society protections just out of reach. Their very identity is criminalized leaving them no recourse for justice.

In another illuminating example, immigrant and refugee women, like all women, face the risk of domestic violence. But their status as immigrants or refugees often means that they face a tougher time escaping abuse.  They often feel trapped in abusive relationships because of immigration laws, language barriers, social isolation, and lack of financial resources. They worry about what will happen if they go to the police. Will they be sent away? Will their families be torn apart? Will they have any financial resources available to them? How will they survive?

These challenges facing immigrant women are particularly acute for women who are undocumented. How can an undocumented woman who is considered a criminal by simply being in the US appeal the government to uphold her human rights? As it turns out, this is exactly the tough spot that we put undocumented people in. And it is exactly the reason that human rights should be afforded to everyone regardless of their citizenship status, in the US and everywhere else in the world.

No one should have to deliver their child while cuffed to a hospital bed, or be forced to deliver their baby in the presence of armed guards. Yet this is what happened to Juana and Maria, and countless other women in the US and around the world. Their stories show us something very important: Borders shift. Citizenship policies change. But human rights must remain constant.

Take action! Encourage your representatives to support the International Violence Against Women Act, which calls for a comprehensive U.S. response to end violence against women and girls globally.
Photo courtesy of bellbajao.org

The DSK case sheds light on violence against immigrant women and the role of men

From our B-listed blog:

Earlier last week, Nafissatou Diallo, the accuser in the Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) rape case, came forward to share tell her version of what happened in May at the Sofitel Hotel in New York City in a print interview with Newsweek and also on television with ABC News.

On July 29, she gave a press conference sharing more of her story.

We believe strongly in due process and that DSK is indeed innocent until proven guilty. However, the way this story has unfolded thus far and the way Ms. Diallo has been discussed in the media, both before and after she came forward with her account gives us an opportunity to talk about violence against women, especially those who are immigrants to the US.

We are less concerned with trying to prove that Mr. Strauss-Kahn is innocent/guilty or whether Ms. Diallo is honest/not telling the truth. What’s illuminating is the way that the media and our culture have responded to this woman, to her accusation of sexual assault made against a powerful man. Furthermore, let’s pay attention to how those responses changed when details about her identity were revealed. Who is Nafissatou Diallo? She is a 32-year-old immigrant woman from Guinea who sought asylum in the United States, who is raising her 15-year-old daughter, and has been working at the Sofitel Hotel in New York since 2008.

The first batch of reporting on the story portrayed Ms. Diallo as a hardworking immigrant in search of the American dream. Soon enough, that story changed. The majority of aspersions on the legitimacy of the case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) are based on attacking the credibility of the woman who has accused him of sexual assault. Some feminists have eloquently brought our attention to the fact that her case against DSK is based on her being seen as a legitimate victim – perfect in all other aspects of her life, unimpeachable in her character. How many people like that do YOU know?

This is a common occurrence in sexual assault cases and a well-documented fact. From a roundtable sponsored by The United States Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women, The White House Council on Women and Girls, and The White House Advisor on Violence Against Women:

One in six women and one in 33 men will be sexually assaulted during the course of their lifetime. However incidents of sexual violence remain the most underreported crimes in the United States, and survivors who disclose their victimization—whether to law enforcement or to family and friends—often encounter more adversity than support.

So what are the women’s human rights lessons in this story?

For one, it enables us to highlight the rapidly growing issue of sexual assault among immigrant women here in the US. Secondly, we get the chance to assess the ways in which we must change our immigration policies that impact women, like Ms. Diallo, who experience domestic violence in other countries and seek asylum in the United States. It can also serve as a reminder that undocumented women remain more vulnerable to violence and abuse.

Also, we can take this chance to remind everyone how important it is to engage men and boys on the issue of stopping violence against women. Where are the outraged men, who are constantly being dragged into the mud by those who coerce and assault women? Will we hear from male world leaders on the issue of violence against women? Some have spoken out, but many more need to join their ranks.

Ultimately, Ms. Diallo’s willingness to come forward, and share her story should remind us that there are many women who face detention and consequent violence if they come forth about their experiences of violence and assault. The risks are great, especially for those women who are immigrants and/or undocumented. They face potential deportation, losing their children, financial struggles, potential language barriers, and a very convoluted and complicated legal system.

But, as always, there’s something you can DO to make things better!

To counter these challenges you can encourage your elected officials to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which will come before congress this year. Among other provisions to protect immigrant women who face lack of eligibility and difficulty accessing services and support. To learn more about VAWA and what’s at stake this year, click here.

To learn about the campaign to pass an International Violence Against Women Act (HR 4594/S 2982) see here. This legislation would make stopping violence against women and girls a priority in American diplomacy and foreign aid. Let your representatives know that you care about stopping violence against women in the US and abroad.

Learn about our Bell Bajao campaign that calls on men and boys to bring domestic violence to a halt.

Photo courtesy of cbsnews.com