For Immigrant Women, Crossing the Border Doesn’t End Their Struggle

For Immigrant Women, Crossing the Border Doesn’t End Their Struggle

For Immigrant Women, Crossing the Border Doesn’t End Their Struggle

Women fleeing trauma in their home countries are being harassed and detained in this one.


Many women crossing the border into the United States today are fleeing unimaginable trauma in their home countries, but they’re finding no relief once they make it here. Seeking refuge, they’re instead plunged into the black hole of Trump’s terrifying bureaucracy.

The advocacy group Tahirih’s report on the state of migrant women in this country reveals the struggles of people who are both continually forgotten and constantly targeted. Forgotten because immigrant women live with exploitation and abuse every day, although their frequently unpaid labor forms the backbone of a shadow economy. They’re targeted by the constant threat of deportation, for anything from a traffic violation to having their rape story disbelieved by a skeptical immigration officer.

“When someone arrives at our borders and legally asks for asylum…and that request is met with detention in a prison setting, [that] in and of itself is very traumatizing,” says Katharina Obser of Women’s Refugee Commission. But that trauma continues when women are subjected to abuse and violent attacks while incarcerated. Research and service providers’ reports have repeatedly documented “pervasive” abuse in immigration detention, despite detention’s being technically considered to be not a punitive but a civil legal measure.

Many migrant women who make it to the United States are still dealing with the aftermath of past violations that go unacknowledged in court, including sexual assault and gang attacks. And the nightmare continues when they end up both detained and separated from loved ones. Often, Obser adds, “asylum-seeking parents and others who have traveled with their family members are traumatized because they’ve been separated from their families…and don’t know where their children are, or don’t know where their spouses are,” and the prolonged separation “can also impact their ability to make their case, if their cases are linked to one another.”

Simply appearing before an immigration judge could prove risky, as the outcome is often heavily dependent on which court reviews the case. Deportation orders are granted at rates ranging from near zero to near 100 percent, depending on the judge or jurisdiction. Access to counsel is also critical: for asylum seekers in custody, chances for a successful judgment swings from 11 to 44 percent with a lawyer. Nationwide, however, just one in seven detainees can secure legal counsel.

Even the process of applying for humanitarian relief is wildly arbitrary, since petitions for asylum could take years of waiting and reams of confusing paperwork. One woman seeking to resettle her husband recalled having her application delayed due to a spelling discrepancy between her husband’s birth-certificate and passport names: “From a legal standpoint it makes sense [to have strict requirements], but from the perspective of someone trying to save her husband from a dangerous country, it is too much.”

Then there are the hardships migrant women, whatever their legal status, deal with in everyday life outside detention. While their prospects for living safely together are improved outside of detention, living in the community means dodging other paths to separation: Children are routinely wrenched from parents on the basis of neglect by child-protective services, shunting many children unnecessarily into foster care—and potentially permanent separation if parents are deported. Under Obama, an estimated 5,000 children of immigrant parents entered foster care after their parents were detained or deported.

Countless migrant mothers are also on the verge of homelessness every day, Tahirih reports: “The complexities of our housing system are daunting, and immigrant women are especially vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous landlords. Women end up renting overpriced single rooms” and then “living in squalid, subhuman conditions with no recourse.” Tahirih, which specializes in women facing domestic abuse, says many migrant women may now opt simply to remain with their abusers to avoid exposing themselves to even more danger. Under the Trump administration’s policies, some abuse survivors may even be arrested in court buildings, when seeking basic orders of protection. One advocate recalled that the chaos and delays that now plague the legal process result in an “ongoing, sustained state of vulnerability for women and families–women cannot legally work or access public benefits and are vulnerable to re-victimization due to their dependency.”

Refugees, despite having legal status and modest access to aid, also face complex legal hurdles to permanent residency, as refugee-processing centers, which collaborate with local service providers, are set to be shuttered. Amid even heavier rising backlogs of applicants and paperwork burdens, staff layoffs and budget cuts are threatening to further devastate community groups delivering critical, deeply underfunded support services for resettlement, from refugee school programs to psychiatric care. Becca Heller of the International Refugee Assistance Project in New York told NPR, “Taking down the [independent contractors] is a means to destroy the refugee program.”

Yet there may soon be fewer refugees to serve. The administration recently halved the annual refugee-admissions cap. Women are particularly at risk because of new restrictions on so-called “chain migration,” or extended-family reunification, potentially leaving more mothers and daughters stranded alone, more grandparents barred from rejoining family members they relied on for support. Trump’s latest budget proposal, which expands “border security” while scaling back international aid, ensures that more refugees will emerge from the world’s most violent and deprived regions, and more women will be abused, raped, and tortured, forced to flee under increasingly desperate circumstances. And those who are “lucky” enough to cross the border will find not refuge, but more difficulties.

So the assault on migrant women neither stops nor starts on the border. As Tahirih’s Chief of Policy Archi Pyati states, the systematic trauma inflicted on women in the name of “security” shows that “this administration continues to scapegoat immigrants under the guise of concern for public safety, when, in fact, victims of crime are losing out.”

The real consequence of the Trump administration’s “border protection” isn’t keeping America safe; it’s just part of the myriad harassers and abusers that confront migrant women: That includes not just violent boyfriends, exploitative smugglers, and brutal police, but also the president himself.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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