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What Immigration Reform Means for Women (Part 2/2)360°ANALYSIS

The US immigration system affects women differently from men. This is the last of a two part series. Read part one here.

Immigrant women face numerous barriers when it comes to escaping, reporting, and getting help when they face domestic violence, sexual assault, or human trafficking. In addition to the fears common to many women — that no one will believe them, that they were somehow to blame, that they will be economically vulnerable or even separated from their children — immigrant women also face the fear of deportation that comes with the decision to contact or cooperate with law enforcement.

Immigration relief is a key to freedom for survivors of these crimes. In 1994, Congress recognized this and created the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which among other things enabled abused immigrant spouses to self-petition for their own legal immigration status, thus eliminating their dependence on an abusive spouse to remain in the United States. In 2000, Congress again recognized the need to provide immigration relief for victims of serious crimes, including rape and human trafficking. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) established the “T” visa and the “U” visa, which allow survivors to receive immigration relief and eventually a green card if they cooperate with law enforcement and meet other legal parameters.

The U visa is a temporary nonimmigrant status that is available to victims of crimes that include rape, stalking, torture, trafficking, kidnapping, and involuntary servitude. There is currently an annual cap of 10,000 for these visas, and sadly we are reaching this cap every year, leaving approximately 1,200-1,300 people to wait precariously in limbo for the next window to apply.

U visas are critical for women. At my organization and at many others, individuals call or come in who have been severely exploited by their employers or defrauded by foreign labor contractors after spending their life savings or going into devastating debt, but their circumstances do not meet the high standard for proving human trafficking. If what they went through isn't classified as a qualifying crime for a U visa, we have to turn them away and refer them to employment justice organizations, most of whom are strapped for resources and often do not have social service components.

The Senate bill would help exploited women by not only increasing the cap on U visas so that no one is left waiting, but also by adding serious violations that happen in the workplace, like exploitation and retaliation, to the list of crimes and violations for which a woman may be eligible for relief. This not only provides the security she needs to escape the situation and report the crime, it also sends a message to abusive employers and recruiters that these practices have been noted and are taken seriously by the US government.

After an immigrant survivor of violence has left the abusive situation, whether it is domestic violence in the home or human trafficking at her workplace, the role of the social and legal service providers is to apply for immigration relief, and help her find emotional and financial stability while she recovers. However, one serious obstacle that survivors frequently face is the inability to work legally in the United States while their visa application is pending. Sometimes the lack of financial resources, especially for women who left their home countries to provide for families left behind, is a factor in choosing to remain and suffer in abusive relationships.

Once a survivor is granted immigration relief and “certified” as a victim, she can obtain an employment authorization document (EAD). Even if she is granted a temporary status known as “continued presence” by an investigating law enforcement officer while her case is being investigated, she could be eligible for certification and an EAD.

One of our clients at my organization had six children, four of whom were in school. The other two were struggling to care for them while my client came to the United States to work as a nanny and send money home. Soon after arriving, she discovered that she had been tricked and was working long, difficult hours with no pay and was unable to leave the home. We helped her escape, and could offer her enough assistance to cover her most basic needs, but we didn’t have the funding to continue the remittances she had been sending home to keep her children fed, clothed, and schooled. Without employment authorization, she had to make a choice: take a risky black-market nanny job, or have her family suffer while she waited for a year for her visa.

The problem is not just on paper, but also in practice. Some law enforcement agents are reluctant (or refuse) to apply for immigration relief for victims, a critical failure that puts people in harm’s way and impedes the survivor’s ability to complete a visa application. But sometimes even completed T or U visa applications can take up to a year for DHS to process. The inability to work legally leaves survivors oftentimes unable to provide fully for themselves and their families, potentially putting them at risk for re-exploitation, or forcing them to return to an abusive partner.

While law enforcement agents dragging their feet on applications is an issue of long-term training, the hardship incurred by processing times was addressed in the bill. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduced an amendment, now incorporated into the legislation, which would allow survivors to gain work authorization at least within six months after submitting an application for VAWA self-petitions, U visas, or T visas.

Also, the Senate bill now contains provisions clarifying that domestic violence survivors can have access to public or assisted housing programs when they qualify for certain VAWA remedies. As survivors often have to choose between remaining with an abuser or facing homelessness, the Senate bill offers critical protections for immigrant survivors fleeing violence.

Addressing Women’s Issues in Immigration Detention

Women detained in immigration facilities are at high risk for sexual abuse, and often do not have adequate access to medical care, in particular gynecological care, or even proper hygiene.

An ACLU report that exposed a horrific pattern of sexual abuse in detention centers outlined the story of a young woman named Raquel, who began receiving death threats after her husband was murdered and she tried to investigate, forcing her to flee to the United States for safety. She was swept up by border control officers and detained in a facility in Texas. When an investigating officer determined that she had a credible case to pursue asylum, she was released on bond. It was during her transport to the airport that she was assaulted.

"[The driver]… motioned for me to lay down on my back. I refused. When he saw that I wasn’t going to cooperate, he went to the back of the van. He pushed my things off the seat in the cage inside the van and gestured for me to get back in. I complied. He followed me into the van. I told him I would report him if he continued to touch me and he pushed me into the van. I was crying and I thought it was the end of my life. I thought he was going to kill me. I thought I should have stayed in my home country if my life was going to end like this because at least I would have had more time with my children. He got in the cage with me and started unzipping his pants and pulling off my clothes. He exposed himself to me. He was angry that I would not take off my clothes. I kept yelling, saying that if he didn’t stop I would tell someone. He finally stopped, got back in the front of the van, and drove fast to the airport. When we got to the airport he opened the door and the cage. I jumped out and I started running. I ran into the airport and I was still crying."

The report from ACLU continues: “While centers in Texas resulted in the largest number of allegations, sexual abuse allegations have come from nearly every state that houses an immigration detention center.” Since this case and many others were brought to national attention by the ACLU and the Women’s Refugee Commission, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has begun making progress in addressing the problems, finding and helping the victims, and requiring detention facilities to abide by new national standards for care of detainees.

However, advocates for immigrant women insist that these are only steps. What is needed is a new frame on detention as a whole: Can we prioritize alternatives to detention given the high risk of assault and mistreatment? Are there real safeguards in place to prevent victims of crime from being detained and thus re-victimized? Are there real safeguards in place to prevent assaults? Is there effective, and mandatory, training for officers and facility employees about how to respond to sexual assault?

For its part, the Senate bill added a measure to ensure that female officers are continuously present during transfer and transport of female detainees, and restricts enforcement actions in sensitive areas like schools, churches, and domestic violence shelters like those of my colleagues from Georgia. In addition to the important protections around children and parents put through by Senator Franken, the Senate bill added language about promoting alternatives to detention restrictions around solitary confinement, and protections for people with mental illnesses. While these will go a long way to solving some of the biggest crises that families face in enforcement, the last minute “border surge” amendment that was added to the bill will certainly be a step backward on the path to a more humane, and less militarized, US policy around immigration.

Where We Go From Here

The current comprehensive immigration reform effort has better reflected the needs of women and families than any previous attempt, but there is a lot of room for progress.

Sadly, advocates expect that when the conservative House takes up the charge, much of the hard-won protections will be scrapped or made contingent on impossible triggers for border security. Even in the Senate bill, the final passage hinged on the last-minute “Corker-Hoeven amendment” which was essentially a replacement of the original bill, but with drastically militarized border and enforcement measures, which will continue to put families in danger. This kind of compromise occurring already in the Senate does not bode well for the future of the final legislation when it comes to the lives of women and families.

*[This article was originally published by FPIF.]

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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