Gendered Nuances Attached to The Immigrant Experience for Women Fleeing Violence from Latin America

Introduction

As walls continue to be built and immigrant women are simultaneously victimized and villainized, the world’s hope hinges on the ability to read, acknowledge, and act upon the following question raised by Jane Fonda and Karen Musalo in a New York Times Opinion Piece entitled “Her Husband Beat Her and Raped Her. Jeff Sessions Might Deport Her”:

At a time when violence against women and girls is a global crisis, a decision to deny protection to women who flee gender violence, including domestic violence, would be a grave mistake. This is a moment of truth of our country. Will we remain a beacon of hope for women worldwide whose lives are on the line because of domestic violence, and whose governments cannot or will not protect them?

The following words, sentences, and paragraphs use this inquiry as a roadmap. Meaning, at each stage of examination, this text hopes to not merely consider this current historical moment as a diving board off which analysis may follow, but as a puzzle begging to be solved, if only intentioned individuals dare to take a second glance. The aim of this research excursion is to answer the overarching question of, “How do gendered relationships and issues foster an oppressive environment for immigrant women from Latin America coming into The United States?” Following an intersectional framework – one that actively incorporates race, gender, age, religion, sexuality, and other identities – this work incorporates legal, statistical, anecdotal, and anthropological evidence to probe into the ways in which racist, xenophobic, and sexist actions shape the lives of immigrant women from Latin America. The main areas covered herein include, but are not limited to, gender, sexual exploitation, immigration, the journey to the United States, Donald Trump, political climates in general, legislation, media, and institutions.

Borrowing from news articles, academic pieces, books, testimonies, legal resources, think-tanks, and other sources, the reader will find research which is at once macro and micro, fractally dissecting large scale phenomenon in a digestible fashion. In order to do such, linear and non-linear connections are made between sociocultural actualities and real life events. In other words, by intertwining qualitative and quantitative data, one unearths conclusions which lack neither depth nor validity. As with nearly all research journeys, this piece met trials and tribulations along the way. To begin, distance is not friendly to a project which desires to talk to people as they go about their immigration. In this way, not being able to be on the ground in these countries, next to these women, watching phenomena unfold, limited the amount of first-hand accounts available, an important aspect of encompassed research. Nevertheless, in the process of attempting to bridge the gaps made by distance, the enclosed assertions reaches as far as can be longed for, given the situationality of the project.

With the above noted, it is vital to obtain a background level of information regarding immigrant women from Latin America, and their story of coming, or attempting to come, to the United States. Currently, Mexicans are still the largest foreign-born group in the country, accounting for 25 percent of the 44.5 million immigrants as of 2017, according to The Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C. – based think tank established in 2001 by Kathleen Newland and Demetrios G. Papademetriou. Further, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, an organization which conducts rigorous research and disseminates its findings to address the needs of women, promote public dialog, and strengthen families, communities, and societies, 30.3%, 30%, 22.6%, and 20% of women live in poverty from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Cuba, and El Salvador, respectively; and those are just statistics about women who have made it to the United States and were let it. A heartbreaking amount of women do not make it that far. As reported by the United Nations, domestic abuse, and the inability to obtain protection from local authorities, is a major factor driving women to migrate from Central America. These are just a few of the humbling statistics laying the foundation for the apathetic reality that these women find themselves within. With this stated, the conversation should then become one on definitions, disclaimers, and overall guiding principles for reading this text. Therefore, listed below are some key terms that will color the following pages. It cannot be overstressed how important it is to establish a set definitions for certain concepts overflowing with denotations, connotations, and some combinations of the two.

Immigrant: Identifies someone who is living in a country besides their country of birth or citizenship, according to The University of Chicago.

Immigration: A process by which non-nationals move into a country for the purpose of settlement, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Asylum: A protection granted to foreign nationals already in the United States or at the border who meet the international law definition of a “refugee,” according to the American Immigration Council.

Latin America: 20 sovereign states and several territories make up Latin America, comprising nearly 13% of the Earth’s total land surface area, according to World Atlas.

Gender: The behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex. Gender exists on a spectrum and should not be synonymized with sex, according to a compiling of sources.

Women: An inclusive term, referencing all individuals who identify as femmes, according to a compiling of sources.

Gendered Violence: any form of violence inflicted against a person based on their gender identity or condition, whether male or female [or gender non-conforming], both in the private and public domains. Women are often the main victims of this violence, due to the situations of inequality and discrimination in which they live.

Domestic Violence: is violence perpetrated by a man or woman solely in private, usually in the home where the victim/survivor lives or resides. The special feature of this category is the private confines in which this violence is inflicted, in all its manifestations, and regardless of whether it is inflicted among families, relatives or politicians, or among people who without being family, live in the same home, same household, according to the United Nations.

Femicide: The murder of women, according to a simplification of several definitions.

Research Findings

SQ1: What group of people is the most impacted by gendered issues in Latin America?

While there are gendered issues around the world that impact men, women, and gender non-conforming individuals at different gradients of intensity, in the case of Latin American migration to the United States, gendered issues are concentrated in women’s communities. Before continuing, it must be flagged that men, and other people, face persecution on the grounds of gender as well – hypermasculinity, homophobia, etc.. Yet again, Latin America is often highlighted as one of the epicenters for sexual, domestic, and gendered violence against women of all ages. A report by UN Women, The United Nations entity for gender equality and the empowerment of women, wrote on Wednesday, February 15, 2017:

In Latin America, we have a culture of high tolerance towards violence against women and girls. You see it in the media all the time—crimes against women are exhibited with very crude images and nobody seems to care about it. Violence becomes normalized; it is seen as a part of life for women.

They continued on to explain,

In some countries of the region, the domestic violence rates are as high as 50 percent. But violence against women also happens on the bus, in the streets and in the workplace. We know that women often do not report violence, but even when they do, many crimes against women are not thoroughly investigated.

The above verbiage, as well as hundreds of other similar assertions, make the situation in Latin America a little more translucent for those on the outside. In this way, it can be reasonably argued that women are most likely to be victims of gendered violence in Latin America.

Now that this is established, however, it is imperative to unpack what that violence actually looks like on a day to day basis. It is one thing to call a spade a spade, yet another thing entirely to hold the card in your hand and feel the weight it holds in the game. To be a woman in Latin America facing gendered violence, as shared through stories and statistical evidence, is to know two things: fear and resilience.

The former is an understandable manifestation of being halted by violence based solely on gender at seemingly every turn. Whether it be, as alluded to above, on the bus, in the park, or in your home, simply being can be seen as a revolutionary act. The main threats of violence are rape, abuse, or murder, put succinctly. In a more verbose sense, there is real and tangible terror instilled in women that their own being – body and soul – are up for commodification, vulnerable to the next awaiting assailant. Because of this ever-present intimidation, women are secluded to their own cycles of anxiety. One may raise the question of law enforcement, accountability, and justice. While it is equally problematic to overgeneralize all of Latin America as a lawless land of crime – for such stereotypes perpetuate hateful rhetoric towards those genuinely fleeing certain death or persecution – it has been cited that Latin American law enforcement is, to say the least, apathetic towards women who report gendered violence. In fact, a study conducted by The World Health Organization, entitled “Violence Against Women in Latin America and the Caribbean: a comparative analysis of population-based data from 12 countries,” examined this insensitivity. They found that while between 17% and 53% of women interviewed reported having suffered physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner, between 28% and 64% did not seek help or speak to anyone about their experience of violence.

SQ2: What are the main causes of immigration for women from Latin America?

Unfortunately, there are boundless reasons why women face fear and imminent violence and immigrate to the United States from Latin America. For analytical purposes, three broad categories will be used to constitute the main causes of immigration for these women. This stated, the three categories – domestic violence, other sexual or gendered exploitation, and gang violence – often intermingle and should be viewed as more of a venn diagram than mutually exclusive variables.

First, domestic violence is an invasive, crushing, and altering form of assault towards women. One so treacherous, that the outcome is too often leave or be killed by someone you are, or have been, in an intimate relationship with. UN Women and the UN Development Programme recently shared a report in Panama which asserted that Latin America is one of the most dangerous places to be a woman in the entire world. They found, “24 of the 33 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have laws against domestic violence, but only nine of them have passed legislation that tackles a range of forms of other violence against women in public or private.” What this often means, in action, is domestic violence being passed as other, legally accepted, forms of persecution, if it is even reported at all, an occurrence which is far from routine, as explained above.

Next, the general discrimination and fear faced by women because of their gender or sex is viewed as cause for asylum by global analysts more than two-thirds of the time. These afflictions usually manifest in rape, other forms of sexual assault, or sexual harassment, due to women’s positioning as open markets, always in a perpetual state of yes. Put differently, because of the systemic ways by which women are viewed as things to be used and not intricate beings who deserve consent, the acceptability of aggressive acts of violence is not only above the tide, but flooding the lives of millions of women. Statistically speaking, according to data released by the Small Arms Survey, El Salvador and Honduras were among the 10 countries not currently involved in armed conflict with the highest rates of femicide, in 2016. The Washington Office on Latin America, an American non-governmental organization whose stated goal is to promote human rights, democracy and social and economic justice in Latin America and the Caribbean, compiled information for journalists, migrants, and advocates alike in their piece “Fact Sheet: U.S. Immigration and Central American Asylum Seekers.” Within its bounds, they reiterated:

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) analysis of the screenings conducted by U.S. asylum officers, over 80 percent of women from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico who were screened on arrival at the U.S. border “were found to have a significant possibility of establishing eligibility for asylum or protection under the Convention against Torture.”

Lastly, an exploration which does not include the horrific role that gang violence plays in the lives of Latin American women would be a grave disservice. In short, largely due to U.S. involvement, during the past fifteen years, gang violence has become a gargantuan problem in Latin America, and one that directly impacts women hourly. As spelled out in Tina Zedginidze’s piece “Domestic Abuse and Gang Violence against Women: Expanding the Particular Social Group Finding in Matter of A-R-C-G- to Grant Asylum to Women Persecuted by Gangs,” she lays out “Women’s subordinate status in many Central American societies makes them easy targets for gang persecution.” Yet, what does this look like in practice? Well, as Zedginidze pointed out:

As members of gangs, women have different roles and suffer different harms from men. First, initiation rituals for women are different. In order to join a gang, members must complete certain tasks assigned to them by gang leaders. While men receive beatings for their initiations, women are usually given a choice: receive a beating or be raped by several gang leaders. Such treatment both reflects and reinforces the gender dynamic in machismo culture. Further, gangs are increasingly using women to commit crimes traditionally carried out by men, which has escalated female gang recruitment. And although gangs are increasingly using women to commit these crimes, the male dominant gang structure continues to assign women tasks confined to traditional gender roles. Furthermore, gangs employ women in ways that take advantage of their physical attractiveness and their image of innocence in order to avoid arousing the suspicion of victims or the police.

SQ3: What does the journey to The United States look like for women from Latin America?

Local and international NGOs report that 6 in every 10 women are raped and as many as 80% of female Central American migrants are sexually assaulted during the tumultuous journey to the United States, according to Witness for Peace, a U.S.-based activist organization founded in 1983 that opposed the Reagan administration’s support of the Nicaraguan Contras. A study conducted at the Iztapalapa Detention Centre disclosed that “Twenty-three women reported experiencing some kind of violence, including sexual violence. Of these, 13 stated the person responsible was a state official.”

This is a key nuance. Not only are these women being persecuted – literally step by step – it is also at the hands of the State. Riddle this: How can women be expected to report violence to the very people assaulting them? Because of this double edged sword, women often bring along methods of birth control or termination medicine to protect themselves from perpetrators. Indeed, sexual violence is so normalized that several immigrant women consider rape and other institutionalized sexual violence as a mere price to pay, according to Fermina Rodriguez of the Fray Matias de Cordova Human Rights Center. Heartbreakingly, rape is too frequently seen as a mode of currency by which assailants charge their victims.

As if these perils were not enough, during the weeks, months, or years-long trek, Latin American women immigrating to the U.S. are at a high risk of being targeted by sex-traffickers who abduct them during their path and draw them into their houses with romantic gestures and promises, as well as employment opportunity, although neither are likely to come to fruition. Multiple theorists ascribe blame to the government’s militarized avenues of fighting against the drug war. They find that these actions simply push marginalized individuals toward other illegitimate forms of income, such as human trafficking and forced prostitution. Further, aggressors also prey on these women due to their illegality. Meaning, if they were to go missing or be senselessly killed, there would be no paper trail – a harsh consequence of a system which values borders and status over tangible human life.

SQ4: How does Donald Trump’s treatment of women in the U.S. translate to his immigration policies?

Following a hypothetical paradigm, if an outsider, lacking knowledgeable regarding the United States, Donald Trump, global politics, or the interactions between such, was given two comprehensive lists – side by side – of everything Mr. Trump has said about women and immigrants, a well-supported assertion would be made that he is racist, xenophobic, and sexist. Trump’s quotes alone, not even considering his blatant and pervasive actions, show that he does not care about women. He unreservedly does not value U.S. women, and somehow vilifies immigrant women exponentially more. The same man who said the following about women:

“You know, it doesn’t really matter what [they] write as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of a**.”

“I have days where, if I come home — and I don’t want to sound too much like a chauvinist, but when I come home and dinner’s not ready, I go through the roof.”

“26,000 unreported sexual assaults in the military-only 238 convictions. What did these geniuses expect when they put men & women together?”

“Can you imagine that, the face of our next next President? I mean, she’s a woman, and I’m not supposed to say bad things, but really, folks, come on. Are we serious?”

Is the same man who offhandedly said these comments about immigrants:

“Many Gang Members and some very bad people are mixed into the Caravan heading to our Southern Border. Please go back, you will not be admitted into the United States unless you go through the legal process. This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!”

“Our military is being mobilized at the Southern Border. Many more troops coming. We will NOT let these Caravans, which are also made up of some very bad thugs and gang members, into the U.S. Our Border is sacred, must come in legally. TURN AROUND!”

“Isn’t it ironic that large Caravans of people are marching to our border wanting U.S.A. asylum because they are fearful of being in their country – yet they are proudly waving their country’s flag. Can this be possible? Yes, because it is all a BIG CON, and the American taxpayer is paying for it!”

“Catch and Release is an obsolete term. It is now Catch and Detain. Illegal Immigrants trying to come into the U.S.A., often proudly flying the flag of their nation as they ask for U.S. Asylum, will be detained or turned away. Dems must approve Border Security & Wall NOW!”

An immigrant woman finds herself at the intersection of Mr. Trump’s hate, stuck at every turn, unable to reach around his fiery grasp of abhorrence.

SQ5: How are women from Latin America treated if they are allowed into the U.S.?

Contrary to popular beliefs, often held by white, right winged Americans, once an immigrant enters into the U.S., it is not all rainbows, sunshine, and smooth-sailing. The reality holds that immigrants, most commonly immigrants of color, are persecuted daily in a idiosyncratic and controlling way. On top of this discrimination, women immigrants face additional layers, due to their gender identity. Stated differently, women immigrants of color coming from Latin America to the U.S. are subject to omnipresent persecution, an ironic fate for a population fleeing violence.

It is impossible to expound upon all the avenues down which immigrant women face inequitable situations in the U.S.. That admitted, below are a few of the many, according to Existe Ayuda, a project whose mission is to produce and disseminate replicable Spanish-language outreach materials to help improve the cultural competence of service providers and the accessibility of services for Spanish-speaking victims of sexual violence:

  • Latina girls reported that they were likely to stop attending school activities and sports to avoid sexual harassment.
  • Married Latinas were less likely than other women to immediately define their experiences of forced sex by their spouses as “rape” and terminate their relationships; some viewed sex as a marital obligation.
  • According to a report released by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an American nonprofit legal advocacy organization specializing in civil rights and public interest litigation, 77 percent of the Latinas surveyed said that sexual harassment was a major problem in the workplace.
  • Immigrant Latina domestic workers are especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation because they depend on their employers for their livelihood, live in constant fear of being deported, suffer social isolation, and are vulnerable to their employer’s demands.

The above are but a few of the daily nuances inherent in being a Latin American immigrant woman. While in no way a comprehensive list, the aforementioned examples are present to bring, at the very least, a fraction of the awareness that this community rightfully deserves.

SQ6: Which organizations, institutions, and media support of oppose women from Latin America?

Because this is a world where nations do not adequately care for the basic human rights of all its peoples, regardless of nationality, status, race, gender, religion, or sexuality, outside individuals, groups, or nations choose to step up to the plate, willing to keep their eyes on the humanitarian ball. Some of the several, as reported by Jezebel, include but are not limited to: The Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project who provide services to non-citizens detained in Arizona; The Immigrant Defense Project who uses impact litigation, advocacy, and public education to fight to stop mass deportations and an unjust immigration system: The Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC), which is a national resource center that helps train immigration lawyers and advocates, as well as communities to advocate for the rights of immigrants; Make the Road New York who uses policy advocacy, organizing, education, and survival services – including workforce training and adult education – to improve the lives of immigrants – in particular Latino and working class communities – in New York City; The National Immigrant Women’s Advocacy Project who addresses the needs of immigrant women, immigrant children, and immigrant victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and other crimes by advocating for reforms in law, policy, and practice.

On the other hand, The United States Federal Government, conservative officials in border states, 27 percent of American people; Immigration and Customs Enforcement, more often than not, white upper class people, right-wing news organizations – such as Fox News, Breitbart, and The Washington Examiner – The Heritage Foundation, and Federation for American Immigration Reform sing a different tune. The forenamed individuals, groups, or organizations represent a sliver of the much larger population of individuals consistently apathetic towards the ills of gendered violence and the immigration imperative birthed from such. Although this hate manifestis in different ways – denying employment, targeting the vulnerable, and asserting rhetorical falsehoods – there exists a common thread: Genuine fear that an outsider invasion is coming, and that the consequences are frightful. A phobia that is, frankly, not statistically sound. The subsequent facts were compiled by UnidosUS, the nation’s largest Latino civil rights and advocacy organization:

FACT: IMMIGRANTS CONTRIBUTE TO JOB CREATION.
A report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found little to no effect on the wages and employment of native-born workers in the long-term by undocumented immigrants. Immigrants are also entrepreneurs who create jobs.

FACT: UNDOCUMENTED IMMIGRANTS ARE PAYING TAXES.
Undocumented immigrants pay an average of $11.64 billion in state and local taxes a year. On average, an undocumented individual has about 8% of their income go to taxes. Moreover, all immigrants—regardless of status—will contribute approximately $80,000 more in taxes than government services used over their lifetime.

FACT: IMMIGRANTS ARE HELPING TO SUSTAIN THE SOCIAL SECURITY TRUST FUND.
In 2010, undocumented individuals paid $13 billion into retirement accounts and only received $1 billion in return. Indeed, over the years, immigrants have contributed up to $300 billion to the Social Security Trust Fund. Without the contributions of immigrants going into the system, it is estimated that full benefits would not be able to be paid out beyond the year 2037.

FACT: THE NUMBER OF UNDOCUMENTED IMMIGRANTS IN THE UNITED STATES HAS REMAINED THE SAME IN RECENT YEARS.
In 2014, there were 11 million undocumented individuals in the United States. This number has remained unchanged from 2009, and represents a decline from 12.2 million undocumented individuals who resided in the United States in 2007.

FACT: DACA RECIPIENTS ARE CONTRIBUTING TO THE ECONOMY.
DACA recipients—people who came to the United States at a young age and applied for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals—paid a $465 fee with their applications, meaning that the program has not cost taxpayers a single cent.

FACT: IMMIGRATION REFORM WOULD REDUCE THE DEFICIT.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, the bipartisan immigration bill that passed in the Senate in 2014 would have helped reduce the deficit by $197 billion, increased investment by 2%, and increased overall employment by 3.5% by the year 2023.

FACT: IMMIGRANTS ARE LESS LIKELY TO COMMIT CRIMES THAN NATIVE-BORN AMERICANS.
Studies have confirmed that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans and they are associated with lower crime rates. Additionally, in counties that have put in place policies to limit cooperation with immigration enforcement and to uphold the Fourth Amendment, there are lower crime rates than in counties without “sanctuary policies.”

All of these “FACTS” are a convoluted way to say this: For a nation that benefits so overwhelmingly from immigrants, their support is not evidently present at the highest tables of power in the U.S.. On a brighter note, new governmental representatives, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Lucia Kay McBath, and Sharice Davids, are fighting for a more just system for women of color entering through the southern border. As Ocasio-Cortez held, “If anything, the stories of our ancestry give us windows of opportunity to lean into others, to seek them out, and see ourselves, our histories, and our futures, tightly knit with other communities in a way we perhaps never before thought possible.”

III. Conclusion

In essence, as an immigrant woman fleeing violence from Latin America, you are vilified two-fold. First, you experience gendered abuse in your home country due to oppressive inequitable social structures. Then, after fleeing said cruelty and trekking across dangerous terrain, you are met at the border with a further assault, rather than the refuge you deserve. This journey epitomizes the ways in which women, especially immigrant women of color, are simultaneously devalued and blamed for the brutality they are forced to withstand across transnational temporal and geographical spheres.

Personally, in response to the title question, “How does gender impact immigrant women from Latin America,” my answer is bound to an empathetic acknowledgment that I have the privilege to present this information at all. Immigrant women of color are demeaned, assaulted, and washed over too often in this nation and around the world. Where a celebration of difference and perseverance should be found, they are met instead with the cold hand of misogynistic Nationalism – an American favorite. While it is too simplistic to say that racism, sexism, and xenophobia are negatively impacting the lives of these tenacious women, to not say so is a disservice. However, to take the analysis a step further, I will say this: To persist against a system within which your very being is marked as Other, to fight for yourself and your loved ones in a world where everything you love can be stripped from you in a moment, and to still imagine a more just society, is the triad at the epicenter of the immigrant woman of color’s experience.

To end, I find it important to divulge how my findings have shaped my own understandings, my professional preparation, and will shape intergroup relations, as well as the place and groups that I studied. To begin, my findings and research has supplemented the knowledge I had previously amassed through my own personal interest and internship endeavours. I found that knowing data coming into the research project positively impacted my overall outcome. In addition, I plan to use the information conglomerated above in my everyday life as a foreign correspondent journalist. In an age where facts are viewed as fragile and human beings are too often left outside of the journalistic playbook, I am expectant and excited to see how my experience conducting academic research will translate into accurate and emotive articles. Concerning the intergroup relations at the Southern border and beyond, I hope that my words laid out here, if put in the hands of those on the front-lines of both advocacy and hate, are heavy and responsible enough to enact change in the heart and mind of every individual perpetuating a violent state for immigrant women. If this text were to land at the feet of an immigrant women herself, it is my desire that she would be overcome with the incredible feeling of being heard. That there was – to put it in the most human of terms – someone out there with ears, only wanting to listen.

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Dickerson, Caitlin. “Hundreds of Immigrant Children Have Been Taken From Parents at U.S. Border.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 Apr. 2018, http://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/20/us/immigrant-children-separation-ice.html.