Sexual Abuse Fueled by Abusive Immigration Language
by Amanda Marcotte

Women – particularly women of color – have often experienced violence at the hands of authorities who are supposed to offer “protection”. During the 2006 uprising in Oaxaca, women gathered to denounce the use of rape by authorities against female protesters. They held mirrors up in front of the rows of state police that reflected their images back underneath the phrase “somos violadores” (“we are rapists”). Their precarious position may prevent immigrant women from staging equally bold actions. Photo: Barucha Calamity Peller

In all the furor over rising immigration rates in the US - often disguised as concern over "illegal" immigration - one story in particular demonstrates that contrary to scare stories about the effect of immigration on this country, the reality is that this country is often a scary and oppressive place for immigrants. Immigrant women, having drawn the double whammy card, are especially vulnerable. A 22-year-old immigrant from Colombia exposed that her immigration agent used the threat of deportation to rape her - she used her cell phone to tape the assault. Unfortunately, as is all too common with these sorts of stories, most reports describe the event as sex, even while making it clear that the sex in question was coerced, and should be more accurately described as rape.

The story has hooks most likely because it's about how a common crime - sexual blackmail against immigrants and other women marginalized in society - became more difficult to hide and ignore because of new technologies. But despite the dubious reasons for which this story hit the mainstream news, the activist community can still seize this opportunity to make two very important points: 1) immigration is a feminist issue, and 2) the distinction between "legal" and "illegal" immigrants is a red herring to distract from the fact that it's immigrants, full stop, who face oppression under a tidal wave of anti-immigration sentiment.

Using Labels to Dehumanize Immigrants
This woman's story demonstrates the way that the cut-and-dry distinctions between illegal and legal immigrants touted by the Lou Dobbs of the world tend to turn shades of gray when examined closely. Or actually, shades of paperwork. The rape victim entered the US legally on a tourist visa and overstayed, but managed to enter the system to get her green card by marrying a citizen, which all but the most anti-immigrant accept as a legitimate way to get a green card. Her story shows why it's front-loaded and racist to describe a human being as "illegal," especially when her illegal actions were misdemeanors such that they didn't even raise the ire of the law when she got her paperwork in order. I've managed to drive a car after letting my inspection lapse, and then got the ticket straightened out by renewing my inspection sticker, an equivalent crime. No one describes my very being as illegal. Though rape, on the other hand, is not a minor crime and is earth-shattering enough that it's acceptable to describe the people who commit these crimes as "rapists," I suspect that rapists get called by that moniker less often than immigrants without their paperwork in order get called "illegals."

Words like "illegals" dehumanize immigrants, whether or not they have their paperwork in order, and that dehumanization makes immigrant women juicy targets for assorted sexist oppressors, from anti-choicers to wife beaters to rapists, as this woman's story shows. One Honduran immigrant faced charges after trying to self-abort with an ulcer medication - an attempt that failed to induce abortion but was linked to her giving birth to a premature infant who passed away. The same article notes that a 22-year-old Mexican immigrant living in South Carolina was put in jail for inducing her own abortion with the medication at home. That immigrant women often resort to self-abortion should surprise no one. Not only is safe, legal abortion financially daunting for a number of women, the atmosphere of dehumanization of immigrants makes many women understandably eager to reduce their encounters with authority figures of any type, including doctors.

Green Cards and Domestic Violence
Green card manipulation isn't just a trick practiced by immigration officials wanting to control and dominate women, either. According to the Family Violence Prevention Fund (PDF), many domestic abusers use threats about immigration status to keep women in relationships with them. Whether married to citizens or non-citizens, the quasi-legal status assigned to immigrants means that many victims of domestic violence fear seeking help; consequently, the rates of domestic violence are significantly higher for immigrant women than women at large. Congress stepped in to create the International Marriage Brokers Regulation Act (IMBRA), which gives immigrant women the right to leave abusive marriages without being deported. It also requires men who go through "marriage broker" services to disclose their domestic violence histories to potential brides.

If you ever want to despair of the human condition, do an Internet search on the term "IMBRA". The vast majority of the results returned are authored by men outraged at these entirely reasonable measures that keep men from beating their immigrant wives and using green cards as leverage to perpetuate the violence. Strangely, few of these websites argue that men should be given the direct right to beat women. It's hard to imagine what other worldview they could be operating under, when they think that it should be perfectly legal for a man to threaten his wife with deportation if she leaves him after a round of beating. If you are under the incorrect impression that sexism is dead and feminism isn't needed anymore, I recommend listening to the howls of men who think the government owes them the right to treat immigrant women like a population available for their punching bag and sexual assault needs. That goes double if you've ever sneered at the term "intersections of oppression," because I can't think of a better example myself.

This article was originally published on April 7, 2008 at <>.
If you are interested in immigrant rights, the local Detention Taskforce meets every Friday morning (see calendar for details).

Amanda Marcotte co-writes the popular blog Pandagon. She is also the author of It's a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments.