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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

Fictional ban on interracial unions and abortion in America 2049 becoming all too real today

Games, it turns out, imitate life — sometimes eerily so — just as history so often threatens to repeat itself. This week, Breakthrough’s ongoing Facebook gaming event, America 2049, tackles two major issues that become linked within the narrative of the game: interracial unions and abortion. During gameplay, players encounter the story of Bonnie, a privileged white Southern woman who is pregnant with the child of a black man: the product, that is, of an illegal relationship. But that’s not the only reason she’s in hiding; she’s also at risk of being forced to abort her baby as a “mercy” (”A baby like that wouldn’t know who its own kind is,” her father says), even though abortion too is illegal in this scenario. That’s where class comes in, too: it’s made clear that while families like hers have access to skilled abortion care, women less fortunate — and forced to seek out back-alley providers — die at a rate of 180,000 per year.

Sounds a lot like our pre-Roe v. Wade past, but also, more and more, like our near future. Last month, a Public Policy Polling survey (PDF) found that a majority of Republican voters in Mississippi would support a ban on interracial marriage. Meanwhile, on May 4, all House Republicans and 16 Democrats voted to pass H.R.3, the so-called “No Tax Payer Funding for Abortion Act,” which Ms. Magazine has called “misleading and punitive.” (For one thing, there is no federal funding of abortion.)

The bill will now go to the Senate, which is Democrat-controlled, leading many to believe that it will likely not pass. The Obama administration has also promised to veto the bill if it comes across the President’s desk.

The Mississippi poll results and the H.R.3 passage in the House happened independently, but their timing is apt. The scenario explored in America 2049 connects back to our country’s history of anti-miscegenation laws, which were not repealed until 1967. The story of Bonnie, the character in the game, echoes that of an interracial married couple Richard and Mildred Loving, whose fight for equality led to the historic 1967 decision to legalize interracial unions.

The Lovings are the subject of the new documentary The Loving Story that screened recently at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York and will air on HBO in February 2012. Richard Loving, a white man, met Mildred Jeter, a woman of African and Native American ancestry, in 1951 in a small town in Virginia. When Mildred was 18, she became pregnant. She and Richard went to nearby Washington, D.C. and got married, since Virginia laws at the time prohibited interracial marriage. A few weeks later, back in Virginia, the Lovings were arrested for their union and banished from the state for 25 years. The Lovings reached out to legislators and advocates in Washington, D.C. and, after a long fight, they won their right to be together. On June 12, 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all remaining state anti-miscegenation laws and the Lovings returned to Virginia to live out the rest of their lives. The anniversary of the date, June 12, is now celebrated as “Loving Day“ by some interracial couples and increasing numbers of same-sex couples, who are currently fighting for their own right to marry.

Watch a testimonial by Bonnie, a character in America 2049, who speaks about the danger she is in for being in an interracial relationship and being pregnant with an interracial child:

The right to choose whom to love or marry; the right to control one’s body and future: they’re intimately linked. And at present — with H.R.3 only one of numerous legislative attacks on women’s human rights today — the latter truly hangs in the balance.

As Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, commented:

”True to form, the House majority has cast a wide net in its attack on women’s health and rights — this time, trying to use the tax code to eradicate all insurance coverage for abortion. This move is the height of hypocrisy, because politicians who regularly rail against big government today voted to raise taxes on millions of families and small businesses — merely to stop them from purchasing insurance plans that cover abortion.”

Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, added:

”Despite facing intense public backlash for bringing the government to the brink of shutdown over defunding Planned Parenthood, Speaker Boehner and his allies have resumed their war on women with the passage of H.R.3. This bill is so extreme that it manipulates the tax code to advance anti-choice policies and could spur the IRS to audit rape and incest survivors who choose abortion care.”

The H.R.3 bill also affects the rights of physicians and their freedom to properly care for their patients. While women’s rights are greatly affected by this potential piece of legislation, the providers who would administer the abortions safely will be even more restricted and possibly at greater risk. The Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health (PRCH) is one such group of providers who have committed to providing reproductive medical care, especially to those who with limited financial means. The organization supports the right of their doctors to deliver such care without becoming a target. Last night in New York, the PRCH Abortion Provider Awards recognized the dedication, compassion and tenacity of Dr. Eleanor Drey and Dr. Curtis Boyd. Said Dr. Boyd: “We are now facing the most repressive and aggressive legislation against women that we’ve seen since the 1950s.” How will we treat women and families of all sorts in the 2050s? You decide.

Photo courtesy of america2049.com

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Women and children hardest hit by Arizona law that targets immigrants

As we get dangerously close to the July 29th date of implementation of Arizona’s anti-immigrant legislation SB1070, we become appraised of more and more ways that it will adversely impact different communities in the state of Arizona. Not least of these is the way that it could prove extremely detrimental to women and children.

The new law, by mandating that local police in Arizona enforce immigration law and stop and question anyone that appears “reasonably suspicious” of being undocumented, inevitably creates a climate of fear in the immigrant community and erodes their trust of their local law enforcement officers. While immigration is an issue that impacts both the sexes, it affects men and women in different ways and at times like this, looking at it through a gendered lens is key to understanding its long-term impact on the community. And so, since Governor Jan Brewer signed Senate Bill 1070 into law on April 23rd, there have been a number of articles re-examining the ways immigration is a “women’s issue” and how immigrant women will especially affected by the new law.

According to data from the Census Bureau, 50% of all immigrants are women, and we find that a third of these women are functioning as the primary breadwinners for their families once they arrive in the United States. While immigrant women have been extremely successful in the U.S., working hard and looking after their children, they remain an extremely vulnerable group, being dependent on their husband’s visas, lacking access to adequate reproductive health care, dealing with sexual violence before and after coming to the United States, and being unable to report violence out of fear of local enforcement.  Even without SB1070, we can see the problems that immigrant women have to face. Like the moving story from Gender Across Borders about Blanca-

Blanca had been the victim of domestic violence at the hands of her partner for several years…Blanca never went to the police about the abuse even though she came close to losing her life on several occasions. In many states, including some parts of New York, those who contact the police for help can be questioned about their immigration status. If she had been discovered living in the US without permission, she would have been deported. Her son had been born with a heart defect and received therapy and close monitoring from a doctor in New York. If she had been deported, she would have had to choose between leaving her children in the care of their violent father or bringing them with her and endangering the health, and possibly risking the life, of her son.

And until we get fair and humane comprehensive immigration reform, laws like Arizona’s SB1070 will ensure that immigrant women who are victims and witnesses sexual abuse, partner rape, domestic violence, stalking and assault get pushed further into invisibility as they fear that reporting crimes to the police will result in them being questioned about their immigration status. By requiring that police ask for identification from anyone that comes to their notice that they “suspect” might be here without the right papers, organizations like the National Network to End Violence Against Immigrant Women are extremely concerned that even those that provide services to victims of abuse will now hesitate to extend their services to undocumented immigrants for fear of criminal prosecution. They are working towards halting the implementation of the law by organizing law enforcement opposition to it and collecting stories of those who are already being affected by it.

On May 9th, women’s rights leaders from around the country met to participate in an Emergency Women’s Human Rights Delegation to listen to testimonies about the impact of SB1070 on women and children who were already suffering the repercussions of racial profiling sweeps and raids as a result of 287(g) agreements between Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and local police. Following this, 500 women marched to the State Capitol in Phoenix on Mother’s Day to draw attention to the ways in which they had been affected, including families being separated, physical and psychological abuse from law enforcement officers, racial profiling and deportation without due process.

The testimonies and efforts of organizations such as the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, the National Domestic Worker Alliance, the AFL-CIO, the Family Values at Work Consortium and Jobs with Justice have culminated in an ad-hoc Congressional Hearing of women and children directly affected by SB1070, that will take place in Washington D.C. tomorrow. The hearing will seek to convey the urgency of the situation in which SB1070 has created an environment in which the human rights of women and children are under attack, and will call on President Obama to end immigration enforcement programs that are complicit in such human rights abuses.

When looking at the adverse effects that harsh enforcement practices have on immigrant women, it is impossible to ignore the ways in which they impact the well-being of the millions of children that are implicated in this broken immigration system. These children are our country’s future, and we cannot afford to have our future hang in the balance of a broken system.

Photo courtesy of jezebel.com

Desperate need for oversight as sexual assault is carried out in immigration detention

Despite repeated promises of detention reform from John Morton at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the immigration detention system is under fire once again. A guard at the T. Don Hutto detention facility in Taylor, Texas, has been accused of sexually assaulting female detainees on their way to being deported. As per complaints from the women who had been assaulted, several of them were groped while being patted down on the way to the airport, and one detainee reported being propositioned for sex.

ICE disclosed the information to advocate groups last week. Responding immediately, groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas and Grassroots Leadership expressed their outrage at the alleged sexual assault and called on the federal government to take immediate action to reform the broken detention system. The guard has been fired and Corrections Corporation of America, the private for-profit company that manages the facility under contract from ICE is on probation, until the outcome of the investigation is known. ICE has also ordered the company to effect changes such as not allowing female detainees to be left alone with male guards.

When Morton announced a detailed plan for reform of the immigration detention system last October, he attributed the majority of the detention problems, such as inhumane treatment and lack of medical care for detainees, to an over dependence on contractors like the Corrections Corporations of America and the infamous GEO Group, and the lack of federal oversight to monitor the running of the facilities. As part of the long-term plan for overhaul of the system, Morton had mentioned a smaller network of detention facilities that were monitored and managed by federal personnel and ensured appropriate medical care and transportation protocol. While those long-term goals are being implemented, there had been talk of establishing a representative from ICE at each facility to oversee activities.

This most recent incident of mistreatment of detainees drives home the urgent need for these reform plans to be implemented by ICE. Speaking about the sexual assault case, Bob Libal, Grassroots Leadership’s Texas Campaigns Coordinator said-

We are saddened and shocked by this report of abuse. While we were heartened that the administration took on reforming the U.S. detention system a year ago, this incident illustrates the inherent problems in an immigration detention system with no meaningful oversight. We hope that this latest news of misconduct in an immigrant detention facility will spur President Obama to action. His administration should should immediately take steps to scale back its growing and out-of-control detention system.

While such incidents do not receive the media attention they deserve, this is not the first case of sexual abuse in a detention center in Texas. Also at the T. Don Hutto facility, a different CCA guard was fired in 2007 when he was found having sex with a detainee in her cell. In 2008, a guard employed by the GEO Group at the South Texas Detention facility was charged with impregnating a detainee. As recently as April 2010 a guard at the Port Isabel Detention Facility in Los Fresnos, Texas was sentenced to three years in prison for sexually assaulting female detainees who were being kept in medical isolation. Lisa Graybill, Legal Director for the ACLU of Texas, denounced the inability of the facilities to prevent against such abuse saying-

The continued occurrence of sexual assault in immigration detention facilities demonstrates the need for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to move more aggressively in implementing reforms like improving detention standards, strengthening federal oversight of private providers like GEO and CCA, or better yet, eliminating the use of contract providers altogether.

Advocates have repeatedly stressed the various problems associated with immigration detention being managed by groups like private companies like GEO and CCA. In an article posted on our blog in December, ACLU’s Tracey Hayes reported that the GEO Group has witnessed a long and steady rise in its profits while continuing to cut costs on detainee care. According to an article in the Boston Review-

Over the past eight years, the prison giants CCA ($1.6 billion in annual revenue) and GEO Group ($1.1 billion) have racked up record profits, with jumps in revenue and profits roughly paralleling the rising numbers of detained immigrants…Inmates …are technically in the custody of the federal government, but they are in fact in the custody of corporations with little or no federal supervision. So labyrinthine are the contracting and financing arrangements that there are no clear pathways to determine responsibility and accountability. Yet every contract provides an obvious and unimpeded flow of money to the private industry and consultants.

In a disturbing side note that underscores the implications of private prison companies being in charge of immigration detention and deportation, the Phoenix News Times connected the Corrections Corporation of America to Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer’s campaign. The article says that months before signing SB1070, Gov. Brewer accepted hundreds of dollars in “seed money” from CCA executives and others “with a possible stake in Arizona’s “papers please” legislation becoming law.” While the donations did not go beyond the limits of how much “seed money” can be received for a campaign, it is difficult to ignore the ethical implications of a company that stands to gain from the passage of the law, funding the campaign.The ugly truth of the matter is that the more people that get questions and detained as a result of Arizona’s racist and extreme new law, the more the private detention facilities stand to profit.

It is imperative that the federal Government understands how urgent the need for reform is. And while ICE takes its time to implement the long-term goals for an overhaul of the detention system, more and more people are suffering from inhumane conditions, sexual abuse and even facing death.

Photo courtesy of texasobserver.org

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