To understand the irrationality of U.S. immigration policy–and how the immigration laws actually perpetuate injustice–you have to understand how immigration restrictions intersect with other social barriers–and gender is often blatantly ignored. For many immigrant women, the tightening alliance between immigration and local law enforcement means that when they are victims of crime, they must choose between safety and justice.
Though this film, “The Call,” (by one of our partner organizations, Breakthrough) is fiction, similar scenarios play out frequently in immigrant communities, where “mixed status” families struggle to navigate draconian immigration laws while avoiding contact with the authorities. This pattern is fueled by well-founded fears of programs like the Obama administration’s Secure Communities, which threatens the undocumented with arbitrary arrest and deportation following even minor brushes with the law. Once in detention, women are in some ways especially vulnerable to abuse; there have been reports of sexual assault by staff at detention centers, and detainees often have no real legal recourse.
In a political climate that demonizes immigrants as a faceless threat to society, an untold number of women, youth and families are paralyzed by a fear of the system may undermine their own community’s security. According to researchers, Secure Communities has impacted tens of thousands of families with U.S. citizen household members.
The desire to stay off the government’s radar is also colored by a sense that the police don’t really protect poor communities of color, so much as target and oppress them–a phenomenon recently displayed in the ferocious police crackdowns in Anaheim, California. And some of the fears for women specifically are perpetuated on the policy level–such as the campaign in Congress to shut immigrant women out of certain legal protections in the Violence Against Women Act. As Silvia Casabianca wrote last summer in VOXXI, undocumented women in abusive relationships “aren’t likely to report domestic violence incidents out of fear of being deported, of seeing their families split, and of enraging their partners making violence even worse.” And the cycle continues as partners manipulate women’s fear of being reported to keep them silent.
Yet even in situations where the police aren’t directly harming people, the sheer indifference of police forces to the communities they’re supposed to serve erodes public trust and makes community members feel exactly the way our government intends: like non-people, the invisible, the forgotten. A few years ago in Suffolk County, Long Island, the police’s apparent neglect of racist attacks against Latinos revealed the systematic dehumanization of a growing community; among public servants, that is a level of psychological detachment that must be learned and practiced regularly–kind of like chronic criminal behavior.
The bottom line is that when a crime happens, undocumented immigrants don’t have the choices that many Americans take for granted, nor can they rely on the essential protections to which all human beings are entitled. And so every abuse, violation, and injustice immigrants are forced to suffer in silence is an indictment of the inequity built into our laws. If we want a society with rule of law, we also need a society guided by compassion, and that’s not determined by whether or not you have papers.
Along with the rollout of “The Call,” breakthrough has launched a public campaign for women like the ones depicted in the film. You can add your voice to the “I’m Here” campaign and help make these community struggles visible, real, and undeniable.