So far, French complaints about the ritually humiliating (and admittedly tacky) perp walk aside, the Dominique Strauss-Kahn rape scandal has cast the American system of justice in a flattering light. When alerted to the incident, the New York City police were clever, trustworthy and efficient; the hotel managers reacted as humane and responsible employers; the alleged victim, a Guinean immigrant, showed courage in the most stressful of circumstances and her resolve was rewarded when prosecutors took her claim seriously. As New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote, “It’s an inspiring story about America, where even a maid can have dignity and be listened to when she accuses one of the most powerful men in the world of being a predator.”
But the feeling that it’s inspiring should not blind us to the fact that it is anomalous. Indeed, that a black female immigrant claiming to be the victim of a sex crime would fare so well in the US criminal justice system is one thing that DSK, a smart man, was perhaps not counting on. He would have had good reason to make that judgment. There is evidence that the majority of women immigrants in the United States experience some form of sexual harassment or coercion on the job, and very few of them come forward.
In one recent study of 150 immigrant women working in the food industry conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, titled “Injustice On Our Plates,” every single one—yes, that is 100 percent—reported some kind of workplace sexual harassment, and for the majority, this involved a sexual assault. According to SPLC’s Senior Staff Attorney Mónica Ramirez, most did not know they had any legal recourse. Only a handful dared to report the abuse. Ramirez says of the way the DSK case has been handled, “This is not representative for a couple of reasons. One, the fact that there was a report made—this is not common. Plenty of women who are victimized never come forward. Also, the response by law enforcement, which acted swiftly, and took it seriously, is not the situation most victims face. I am happy that it happened, but it is not the norm.”
One reason for the silence of most immigrant sexual violence victims is the fear, increasingly pervasive, that reporting an incident to police will prompt questions about the victim’s immigration status or that of her family members and friends. The alleged victim in the DSK case, according to her attorney, had been granted asylum and had become a legal permanent resident. But for undocumented women, who are legally entitled to have their claims investigated and prosecuted (and who may be entitled to immigration relief as crime victims), the risks of going to the police are nonetheless real. Even legal immigrants are often concerned about drawing police scrutiny to their family members and friends who do not enjoy legal status. Says my friend Liberty Aldrich, director of domestic violence and sexual assault programs at the Center for Court Innovation, “Many female immigrant victims of gender based violence are reluctant to bring charges to law enforcement for fear of the immigration repercussions for them or their families. This is really a tragedy because immigrant women are disproportionately at risk of being victims of sexual assault and femicide.”
Consider the heartwrenching case of a 13-year-old girl in southern Georgia, who told her family she was raped by an acquaintance in 2007. When lawyers from the SPLC contacted a local prosecutor about the case, he said he would pursue it—but if he discovered the child was undocumented, he would report her to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The family decided not to report the crime.
Under the Obama Administration’s ICE, the coordination between immigration authorities and local law enforcement has been vastly expanded through two programs: 287G, in which local police are actually deployed as immigration law enforcers, and “Secure Communities,” in which local police feed information (such as fingerprints) about offenders to immigration authorities, who can then move to deport them. Despite the declared intentions of these programs, it is not just criminals who are negatively affected. Because immigrant crime victims are disinclined to seek help from police whom they regard as part of the deportation machine, the result for them has been a denial of justice; for perpetrators of crimes against undocumented immigrants, this new regime has created near total impunity—a perk the deposed IMF chief might have enjoyed had his accuser been more vulnerable in status.
The Obama Administration is coming under fire for foisting “Secure Communities” on local governments that want nothing to do with it, concerned about spending resources on detaining innocent people. The way the program (and its even nastier cousin, 287G) has crippled the ability of law enforcement to do its job at all in immigrant communities—not only by discouraging victims from reporting crimes, but also deterring other members of the community from cooperating with police in investigations—has received less attention.
It’s understandable that the DSK rape case, rich as it is in symbolism and international implications, would grab the spotlight. But it does make one wonder: how many other victims remain in the shadows?