In September 2014, Fusion reported that eighty percent of migrant women from Central America are raped while en route to the United States. Migrant women traveling without official documents are especially vulnerable to abuse and exploitation by smugglers, employers and gangs.
But reaching the U.S. does not guarantee migrant women safety and protection from abuse. Rather than safe sanctuary, migrant women often find that they are still at risk of being raped, abused and exploited. Threatened by employers, immigration and detention workers and members of their own communities, undocumented women are at particularly high risk, as fears of deportation often prevent them from reporting rape and assaults.
“Women who lack legal status are at risk for and experience tremendous exploitation and abuse,” said Natalie D. Camastra, a policy analyst at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. Women “working in fields, restaurants, domestic work — their status is used against them and is used to empower their abusers.”
ThinkProgress painted a particularly grim picture, reporting that migrant women are signficantly more likely to be sexually assaulted and beaten than men. At every point along their journey, women face threats of violence.
Inadequate legal protection
Sexual violence has become an increasingly prominent issue in the U.S., as more people are demanding support and protection for rape victims, and public condemnation of abuse is on the rise. Yet millions of immigrant women are at grave risk every day, unlikely to benefit from that righteous outcry and anti-violence movements, because the laws often seem stacked against them.
There are some measures in place to support undocumented women who are violent crime victims, but these are inadequate and limited in the number of people they can help.
The U visa is meant to protect undocumented immigrants who are victims of violent crimes. If a U visa application is successful, the victim receives official documentation and can begin working toward citizenship, in exchange for helping law enforcement in the investigation. In theory, the visa should be a godsend to vulnerable migrant workers. In practice, it doesn’t always work out that way.
“If you suffer a serious crime such as sexual assault, you should be able to come forward and report the crime, work with law enforcement, and not be deported,” said Meghan Rhoad, a researcher in Human Rights Watch’s Womens Rights Division. However, the program maxes out at 10,000 petitions a year, which Rhoad said is inadequate for ensuring that everyone who qualifies is getting protection.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website says that those applicants excluded from the program due to the cap are placed on a waiting list until visas become available again, and are directed to other resources to help them in the meantime.
As Reuters reported in 2013, crime victims who apply for U visas must get the local police department to sign off on their application, confirming that they have been cooperating with an investigation. Victims are at the mercy of the police department, and approval rates vary dramatically in different cities. The inconsistency of the process makes it difficult and disheartening for people who have already been traumatized and made vulerable to the system, as both crime victims and undocumented immigrants.
The U visa is “not a permanent solution, it’s just a chance for undocumented folks to stabilize their status,” said Grace Huang of the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “Just verifying their status makes it easier for them to come forward. [Not having] regular immigration status is a huge barrier.”
Provisions in the Violence Against Women Act were also designed to help women who are victims of domestic abuse. According to Rhoad, the law is meant to help women whose legal status is dependent on an abusive spouse — a woman who is undocumented or has tenuous immigration status on her own may feel she cannot leave a documented partner. VAWA is supposed to provide relief to such women, helping them gain legal status independent of an abusive husband.
Medical resources can also be in short supply for immigrant women. Rape victims who are reluctant to go to a hospital or report the crime for fear of deportation may struggle to afford over-the-counter medications or the Plan B emergency contraception pill, Rhoad said. Not all pharmacies carry the pill, and poor women with few financial resources may not be able to access it anyway.
A network of migrant health centers does exist, but these are often underutilized, Camastra said. Undocumented workers may not be aware of the medical resources available to them, or they may be afraid of going to hospitals or places where they fear running into border patrol agents and immigration officials.
Huang said victim advocates are needed in immigration centers and in communities with large immigrant populations. People who speak the victims’ language and understand cultural barriers to reporting abuse can help educate people about their rights and how to find vital support.
As local and federal law enforcement agencies become increasingly intertwined with immigration concerns, even fewer abuse victims may feel comfortable coming forward, creating a nearly invisible epidemic of violence and intimidation against extremely vulnerable people. Having clear legislation that prioritizes support for rape and abuse victims over quickly deporting them or scrutinizing their immigration status would make for a more humane system that takes abuse seriously.
“In part it is this question of making sure that immigration matters stay separate from regular criminal policing matters, so people do have access to local law enforcement when there’s a problem, making it possible for victims to seek accountability when something like that happens,” said Rhoad said. The U.S. needs legislation that makes migrant workers “less vulnerable going forward,” she said.