Recent Immigration Policies Negatively Affect Women

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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Recent immigration policies, including the separation and detention of families entering at the U.S.-Mexico border and the Attorney General’s decision to deny asylum to victims of domestic violence, reinforce existing inequalities that disproportionately impact immigrant women. As a result of the administration’s policies, around 2,700 families were separated at the U.S.-Mexico border, women have been placed in specialized detention facilities without their children, and the fate of victims of domestic violence, who previously were able to seek asylum, is now very unclear.

photo of globe by Nicole Harrington from Unsplash

Immigration policies in the United States have traditionally turned a blind eye to the gender-specific barriers and obstacles that women face, and the current administration's policies exacerbate this concerning trend. While the number of women seeking to immigrate to the United States exceeds the number of men, based on systemic gender inequalities, many women have fewer options when trying to enter the United States. Visas are prioritized to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) professions, directly disadvantaging women because only 16 percent of females hold a STEM degree, globally. Many women must rely on their husbands to enter the country legally and arrive as dependents who are prohibited from working. While immigrant women are more active in the labor force, without legal status or work authorization, many women work jobs with low or unfair wages and poor conditions.

The majority of the women coming to the border are already victims of sexual and domestic violence, and they typically endure insufferable conditions and obstacles to get themselves and their children to the border. Many women come to the United States desperately trying to escape violence, including domestic violence. Data from Tahirih Justice Center, an organization that works to protect immigrant victims of violence shows that 38% of all asylum seekers they serve suffer from gender-based violence. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, by the year 2013, approximately 21,500 young people from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico were displaced due to gender-based violence. Out of the 21,500 young people displaced, 18,800 were women and about one-third were between the ages of 12 to 17. Countries in Central America, specifically El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala have some of the highest homicide rates in the world. In Mexico, an estimated seven women were killed every day in 2016. It has become a major push factor for women to leave their homelands.

Additionally, approximately 80 percent of female Central American migrants face sexual assault in their process of crossing the border. Sexual assault is often committed by guides, fellow migrants, or government officials. In fact, assaults have become so common, women have resorted to taking contraceptives beforehand as preventative measures.

The administration’s current policies aggravate these existing gender-based injustices and vulnerabilities. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), who visited a federal prison where immigrant women were being held, recalls many women being afraid because they were told by Border Patrol agents that “their ‘families would not exist anymore’ and that they would ‘never see their children again.’” Countless stories describe women being separated from their children. In one case, an infant child was taken away from his mother while being breastfed. ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt recalls toddlers screaming, pleading to not be taken away from their mothers and still being ripped away.

The American Psychological Association said in a statement that separating children “threatens the mental and physical health of both the children and their caregivers.” Experts say the tactic of separating parents and their children mimics a ‘textbook strategy’ of domestic abuse. In addition to limiting asylum options for victims of domestic abuse, the current policy subjects all migrant women, who are often victims of prolonged sexual or domestic abuse, to tactics that mirror that abuse and can be triggering. Subjecting women to this type of trauma can lead to long-term consequences including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety.

We also now know that sexual assaults are being committed by ICE officers themselves. Just this month, two women have come forward with allegations of sexual assault inside ICE detention centers. In a report conducted by ICE, there have been 1,310 claims of sexual abuse against detainees from fiscal years 2013 to 2017. This number causes much concern since roughly 500,000 immigrants go through the detention system each year so the claims are suspected to be significantly higher.

Moreover, insufficient information exists regarding where women and girls are being held and if their needs, such as access to medical attention and feminine hygiene products, are being met. When in detention, girls and young women face unique risks related to pregnancy, sexual assault, menstruation, and psychological trauma. In fact, recent reports have affirmed that women are not obtaining necessary medical attention. An investigation by Buzzfeed disclosed a number of women that were held in immigration facilities under Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) suffered from miscarriages. The report revealed that women in the detention facilities were ignored and experienced abuse. The Office of Refugee Resettlement’s policy is responsible for screening girls for any history or patterns of sexual trafficking, pregnancy, and mental health issues, and to provide certain accommodations such as private rooms/restrooms for at-risk girls and young women. Yet based on existing information, it’s unclear whether these processes are being followed.

Adding insult to injury, last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a decision that overturned an immigration appeals court ruling that granted asylum to a Salvadoran woman who was a victim of domestic violence. The decision went against long standing precedent, concluding that domestic violence and gang violence are not grounds for asylum. This decision poses a new obstacle for women, many of whom are victims of severe forms of sexual or domestic abuse, from seeking asylum in the United States as victims of sexual assault or domestic violence. According to experts in the field, survivors of domestic abuse are being put in grave danger, and it is almost certain that women will be killed as a result of this decision.

Based on these policies and practices, it’s clear that the government now is not only turning a blind eye to women and the unique trauma they face, it is serving as the source of equivalent forms of trauma. The government’s cruel and unfair treatment at the border of people entering our nation contributes to an ongoing pattern of disregard for women.

It is imperative—now more than ever—that policymakers act to combat these appalling developments, not just for children and families, but for women.

Saba Sakhi is a summer intern at Legal Momentum and a student at Hunter College, where she is a JFEW Eleanor Roosevelt Scholar.

Photo by Nicole Harrington on Unsplash.

Contributed by: 

Saba Sakhi