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Sat Dec 20, 2014, 12:11 PM

Immigrant Women and Violence

By Linda Gordon

October 27, 2014

Brazilian immigrant Virginia da Loma worked for a cleaning service in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The owner of the service came to find her one day as she was cleaning an empty house and got her to submit to his rape by threatening to fire her if she said no. Claudia Gomez’s boss at the vegetable packing plant where she worked in Florida began by telling her how attractive she was, that he simply couldn’t resist her; he repeatedly gave her tasks that put her alone with him. Then he threatened not only to fire her if she didn’t submit but also to turn her in to ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency responsible for finding and deporting undocumented immigrants). When Angela Feliz, who cuts and packs lettuce in California, refused her foreman’s advances, he began harassing her by referring to her publicly as a dyke.

U.S. policy toward undocumented immigrants damages women in many ways—by separating them from children, by leaving them without support, by making it harder for them to earn for their families. But one particular set of damages is physical and an immediate threat to bodily life and health, because undocumented women are especially vulnerable to violence and unable to get legal recourse.

The reasons for undocumented women’s lack of recourse are obvious: women who turn to the police or any social service agency are likely to have their lack of legal permission to stay in the U.S. discovered. This is why many police forces—which in the U.S. are run by cities and towns and thus vary widely in their policies—prefer not to inquire about or report on residential status. That is because if immigrants know they can be reported to ICE, they will be reluctant to report crimes or offer any information to police officers.

But with respect to violence, women face a doubled risk, because they are more likely to be harassed and attacked. In California’s corporate agricultural fields, where the vast majority of workers are foreign-born, 90 percent of women farmworkers identified sexual harassment as a major problem. Half of those women workers are undocumented. As a North Carolina farmworker put it, “A man can catch you in the fields where the plants are taller than you.” Another described how the guys would touch themselves, simulate sex with each other and make comments like, “Last night, I dreamed about you; if you only knew how I dreamed about you. How many things I did to you.” In the meatpacking plants in Iowa and Nebraska, which are dangerous for everyone with rushed and tired workers carrying sharp knives, undocumented women workers are everywhere. Historian Deborah Fink reported that exchanging sexual favors for jobs was so standard that it was accepted as a condition of employment.


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