Since October of last year, the #MeToo movement took the world by storm. Each day brought out a new headline story. Yet, echoing in the shadows of society, voices have been whispering “Yo También.”
Story by Ashley Nava
Illustration by Carlos Villapudua
On March 7, Deeds Not Words organized a panel at St. Edward's University for an event titled, “MeToo, Yo También: Sexual Violence in Immigrant Communities.” Their focus was to talk about the intersection of immigrant rights and women’s rights through the lens of sexual violence.
The event began with an acknowledgement of the #MeToo movement as revolutionary for increasing awareness and advocacy, but also as problematic in marginalizing some communities by narrowing the discussion on sexual violence. “Tonight we are here to acknowledge the wide range of communities affected by sexual violence,” Laurie Heffron, St. Edward’s University social work professor, says. “While we focus on immigrant women today, sexual violence disproportionately impacts other communities, such as the Afro Latinx, LGBTQ and indigenous communities. We should keep that in the back of our minds.”
For many immigrant women, violence is the root cause of their migration. While escaping the violence they experienced back home, many face more during their precarious journey and once again when they get to the United States.
Heffron has conducted research on violence against women and migration and cited the recent case of Laura Monterrosa, who was sexually assaulted in the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, a detention facility only 30 miles from Austin. “There are women in our community right now experiencing sexual violence while in our government’s custody,” Heffron says. “We ask to be more aware and find ways we can take action.”
Vulnerability and Risk Factors
For immigrant women, there are additional barriers that put them at higher risks of violence and exploitation and decrease their access to safety, information and justice. “I think the greatest shame is that this country has the capacity and resources to help but does very little,” Yuridia Lorea, United We Dream community organizer, says. “The greatest oppression we face is entering [with] undocumented immigrant status and being excluded from these resources.”
Ranging from imbalanced power dynamics in relationships to fear of deportation, panelists spoke on the detrimental effects of their status. “Abuse is tool of power to control people,” Glenaan O’Neil, executive director of Lone Star Victims Advocacy Project, says. “There are a lot different forms of abuse and tools in the abuser toolbox that are particular to immigrants. [It] will keep them from acquiring status, control access to learning the language and knowing what the cultural norms are. [It] can keep them from knowing that domestic violence of certain kinds are crimes in this country, such as marital rape.”
The language for immigrant women can be another barrier since it not only limits the information they can receive, but also limits them in disclosing their experiences. “A lot of times there is no vocabulary for sexual abuse in some languages,” says Zahra Shakur Jamal of Asian Family Support Services of Austin (AFSSA). “Even in cases where there is for sexual violence or assault, there isn’t a language for the perpetrator. It takes longer for folks to identify as a survivor thus delaying the process of them getting help.”
Sociopolitical Climate and Impact of SB4
Panelists referenced the current sociopolitical climate towards immigrants as further driving these communities into the shadows and increasing their vulnerability.
Wendy Davis, founder of Deed Not Words and former representative of District 10, cited Senate Bill 4 (SB4) as a harmful piece of legislation. The bill obligated local law enforcement officials to ask about immigration status during regular contact with civilians, such a routine traffic stops. “It’s a legal condoning of racial profiling that has created a hyper awareness of the immigrant community here in Texas,” Davis says. “The abuser, knowing that this is a unique vulnerability will use [the victim’s] immigration status as a cudgel. Law enforcements in Texas, that previously could look the other way, are now require to follow up in pursuing that as a crime in it of itself.”
In the aftermath of SB4, those same dynamics played out in the border city of El Paso, where an undocumented woman was detained by federal immigration agents at the county courthouse. She was filing a protective order as an alleged victim of domestic violence.
Maricarmen Garza, attorney for the Legal Aid of Survivors of Sexual Assault (LASSA), noted that the El Paso case raised fears of deportations for many of her clients. “After the case, many of our clients were worried and we couldn’t assure them that their fate wouldn’t be the same,” Garza says. “It became difficult to safety plan with them. It's a more challenging environment for immigrants to come forward to address their legal civil needs.”
Many immigrants fail to realize there are systems in place to protect them as victims of crime. U-Visas, created initially to strengthen ties of law enforcement and immigrants by assisting in investigations, are just one of many examples.
While these situations are precarious, the future is not bleak.
For Lorea, an undocumented victim of sexual assault, she seeks relief in organizing. “I found a purpose in fighting for undocumented people, mi gente,” Lorea says. “You realize that you are not alone and your experiences don’t make you weak. Don’t underestimate the power of organizing. It played a huge role in my healing and it still does.”
Deeds Not Words will host two other events to discuss the issues immigrant women face. More information can be found here.
If you have any doubts or questions regarding victim services or you want to know what to do next, call any of the following hotlines:
- SAFE Alliance Austin: Call: 512-267-7233, Text: 737-888-7233
- RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) connects you to your local rape crisis center: 1–800–656–HOPE (4673).
- National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1–800–799–SAFE (7233).
- National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline: 1–888–373–7888.
Información en español se puede encontrar aquí.