Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Immigration as a feminist issue

Working in the UC Davis Immigration Law Clinic forced me to confront issues too easily ignored—too easily ignored by the United States, by mainstream feminism, and by me. 

Before the Immigration Law Clinic, I had no idea how many immigrants the U.S. government detains, or more accurately put, imprisons.  For example, did you know that Congress mandates that the Department of Homeland Security maintains at least 34,000 beds in immigration detention centers across the country?  Or that 9 out of the 10 largest immigration detention centers are operated by private, for-profit companies?  Or that the largest of these private, for-profit detention centers is intended to detain only women and children?

The more I learn, the more I’m disgusted. But the more I’m also aware of feminism's and immigration's intersectionality—an intersection that if recognized gives me hope for positive change and better immigration policies.

As a woman and feminist, it’s sometimes difficult understanding my obligation to women in other countries.  Given concerns about cultural relativism, “helping” women on an international scale sometimes enters into an uncomfortable gray area, harkening back to a colonial past.  But when our national policies are directly responsible for the danger faced by women and their communities around the globe, feminists have a duty to recognize this reality and take action.

The American government’s crackdown on Central American migration is one such example.  In 2014, there was a surge in the number of women and unaccompanied children traveling from the Northern Triangle (Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala) to seek asylum in the United States. Women in the Northern Triangle face some of the highest rates of gendered violence—specifically gender-motivated killings—in the world.  In the presence of such violence, tens of thousands of migrants fled to the United States, seeking protection within its borders.

The United States responded not with open arms, but with policies meant to deter further migration. The Department of Homeland Security began detaining more asylum seekers with the specific purpose of deterring their migration.  Previously, women and children who sought asylum would be quickly released on bond.  But after the influx, migrants were instead detained—often by private, for-profit corporations.  (This practice of denying bond was illegal and later enjoined to enforce a two decades-old settlement.)

Under pressure from, and with the support of, the American government the Mexican government also stepped up its own border enforcement, particularly at its southern border.  As reported by NPR, this crackdown has created incredibly dangerous conditions for migrants.  For example, migrants previously relied on a train system called La Bestia, a transportation network providing relatively inexpensive and quick transportation to the U.S. border.  After the crackdown, migrants were banned from using these trains.  As a result, migrants are increasingly forced to rely on smugglers, travel by foot, and to take longer and more perilous routes to the United States.  Migrants now face a greater risk of robbery, rape, abduction, and even death. Female migrants speak of being forced to sleep with smugglers in exchange for protection and assistance in border crossings.  The NYTimes also reports that migrants have experienced torture, forced prostitution, organ harvesting, and other unimaginably horrendous forms of exploitation—all a direct consequence of American immigration policies.

Recognizing the intersection of feminism and immigration might help address these ineffective and inhumane policies—policies that often harm women in disproportionate ways.  Part of our feminist duty is to recognize the impact of immigration policies as sources of harm and oppression.  Only with this recognition will we seek meaningful solutions.


Liz said...

Amanda, I agree with you that immigration is a feminist issue. As part of King Hall's immigration clinic I have had to look into Honduras' country conditions and am surprised to learn that the U.N.'s special rapporteur declare that specifically women in Honduras are experiencing widespread violence at the hands of corrupt police and violent gangs especially when it comes to women witnessing crimes.

I also think that the U.S. is unfairly detaining immigrant Latin American women. The response to hold women and children in detention centers is inhumane as they don't pose any danger to the rest of U.S. society. Unfortunately, the U.S.'s immigration policies have not been created with the intent to aid all immigrants who face gendered violence in their home countries. It is sad to see our country treats Central American women differently from other immigrant refugee women from Syria. It is obvious that the U.S.'s Equal Protection rights are not extended to immigrant women.

India Powell said...

The plight of immigrant women in the United States (and those trying to get to the United States) is a horrific reality. In conducting international research last year on violence against women worldwide, I was stunned to find out how low international legal obligations really are when it comes to gendered violence. It blows my mind that in the face of increasing violence against women, the US has added MORE locks to its doors. What does it mean for us, as a developed and "progressive" nation, that our government is actively trying to keep out women who have been victims of systematic violence? No matter what, it can't be good...