UNDOCUMENTED, UNWELCOME AND UNSAFE: Why Immigration Is Also A Women's Issue

In light of all the risks and challenges facing undocumented women, I’m not sure the decision to come here can be viewed as a choice at all, but as the only means of survival.
Publish date:
August 28, 2014
sexual assault, undocumented immigrants, undocumented women

In 1984, my family came to America legally, thanks to my father’s job as a banking professional. My parents moved here with a dream of having their kids make something of themselves. The language, the laws, and the customs were all very different, but we all adapted and landed on our feet. We didn’t have it easy, but we had the benefit of a lot of support within our immediate family unit, our extended family, the families of other bank employees, and state-sponsored benefits in the form of scholarships and access to state university programs.

We all eventually became citizens and successful professionals. Ours is an American success story, due in part to hard work, good luck, and good support systems.

For over 11 million undocumented immigrants, however, the journey here -- and the fight to have this country claim them as one of its own -- is fraught with harsh realities, high risk, and few resources. Undocumented immigrants include people who came here legally but overstayed their visas, people who crossed the border without proper documentation, and people who arrived here using false papers.

Recently, there has been a lot of debate on the issue of undocumented and unaccompanied children crossing the border. The image of children is a compelling one to promote discussion and social change, but the focus may result in leaving other similarly vulnerable populations at risk – women.

Most people picture undocumented immigrants as single males looking to make a quick buck as day laborers. In fact, women make up about 40% of the undocumented population. The story of many undocumented women from Central America starts with a desire to escape dangerous places with some of the world’s highest murder and kidnapping rates. Many are following in the footsteps of family members, usually male, who went before them to lay the groundwork for the whole family migrating.

One of the early obstacles such women face in undertaking the move is rampant misinformation about U.S. immigration policies, the risks associated with crossing the border and getting caught, using false papers, and how they are putting themselves at risk for sex trafficking. There is also a chance of fraud in that the middlemen arranging for such transactions may simply abscond with their money.

If caught, they also face their family being separated, with kids being able to stay in the country but families being deported. Women and their children also risk interim detainment at a family detention center until their hearing date. Such facilities are meant to house families while they await hearings about their status, but they face serious criticism concerning the living conditions. There is an industrial complex supporting the institution of such facilities, as correction facility operators stand to make quite a bit of money off such centers.

Still, assuming these women successfully manage to cross the border without getting caught, there’s no rainbow waiting for them on this side. Regardless of their educational background or professional training, there are very few employment options for them and the risk of discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace is high. Most of these women generally end up working in low-paying jobs as nannies, housekeepers, or fast food restaurant employees.

While many undocumented men work as day laborers in public spaces, women tend to work in isolation, such as in private residences or in the agricultural sector, and face an increased risk of physical and sexual abuse, with perpetrators and victims believing the women will have no legal recourse for anything done to them. Additionally, because many of the positions pay cash under the table, the women have trouble showing a documented employment history. So now they’re here, but working in menial jobs, being underpaid, and potential targets of physical, sexual, and verbal abuse.

These women also face a constant risk of detainment/deportation. With every job they take, every person they confide in, they risk being outed and blackmailed. There is no real sense of security and a huge risk of exposure.

Furthermore, even if such women manage to get into the country, find employment, and avoid abuse and deportation (and that's quite a lot of assumptions), they still face barriers in accessing healthcare and other state-sponsored benefits. Undocumented immigrants are ineligible for Medicare and have very limited access to Medicaid. If they happen to live in a state with healthcare initiatives to help them, they may still face challenges in learning about them or applying for them because of language access issues or the inability to get time off from their jobs.

In light of all the risks and challenges facing undocumented women, I’m not sure the decision to come here can be viewed as a choice at all, but as the only means of survival. That such women are willing to face such conditions speaks volumes about the conditions they must have left behind. This isn’t a choice made by the fainthearted or lazy, but a gamble to make a better life. The reward for all the risk-taking is a low paying job, potential abuse, separation of family, and constant fear that everything they worked so hard for may unravel at a moment’s notice.

My family’s story is a simple one in comparison. I cannot imagine a life of so much fear and risk.

The challenges faced by undocumented women are real, but many Americans seem unwilling to empathize with the plight of such immigrants, fearing that benevolent policy changes will result in fewer jobs, more strain on public assistance programs, and more trouble in general. The legal wrangling on immigration policies and what to do with undocumented immigrants will continue for a long time, but awareness about the harsh realities facing undocumented women is integral in instituting meaningful reform and long-term policies that are just and prudent.

With advocates, lobbyists, and politicians fighting it out, and plenty of media coverage to boot, the good news is that the recent spotlight may actually result in meaningful reforms and legislative changes. In the interim, there are a growing number of resources for undocumented immigrants, a few of which are highlighted below:

  • There may be state-sponsored or faith-based/ethnicity-based organizations offering support and information concerning healthcare and education options and support and information for victims of sexual violence. For example, in New York, the New York Immigration Coalition and the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault are great starting points for vulnerable populations looking for information and organizations offering support to undocumented immigrants.
  • The National Immigration Law Center (NILC) offers some basic know-your-rights materials for immigrants.
  • The Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review has an Office of Legal Access Programs which lists free legal service providers as well as a number of programs meant to make information about the immigration process and court proceedings more accessible and incentivize attorneys and law students to take on pro-bono representation of immigrants.

This is not just an issue of immigration policy but a human rights issue, and should be treated as such. The reality of limited resources necessitates that we admit that we cannot fully honor the ideal stated within the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty of universally welcoming the “poor,” the “tired,” the “huddled masses,” “the wretched refuse,” “the homeless,” and the “tempest-tost.”

But neither can we realistically insist on the return of 11 million folks to where they came from, the majority of whom have been in the country for over a decade and have become a part of America even without the appropriate documentation.

A special thanks to Jayesh Rathod, Associate Professor of Law at American University Washington College of Law and founding Director of the law school’s Immigrant Justice Clinic, for sharing his knowledge and insights concerning this issue.