American journalists need to serve immigrant women. But how?

Isadora Varejão
Sep 11, 2019 · 5 min read

We are failing to reach a growing — and vulnerable — community that Trump’s administration turned its back on

Credit: Cristal Gutiérrez / Instagram @cristalgutierrezart

Entrepreneur Paul Graham said that “the way to get startup ideas is not to try to think of startup ideas. It’s to look for problems, preferably problems you have yourself.

A problem brought me to the U.S. In 2015, I decided to take a sabbatical year in New York after eight months of being unemployed in my hometown, Rio de Janeiro. Many Brazilians like me were fleeing the economic recession that would lead to President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016. That year, at least 37,000 Brazilians overstayed their tourist visas and became an “unlawful presence in the country,” according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). In the last four years, I have met many of them.

We were all running from different problems back home, as I reported in this data-oriented piece. What we didn’t know is that we were running into new problems in the U.S.: immigration problems.

I saw how the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown drove Brazilian women whose visas had expired or soon would into making huge life decisions, such as committing marriage fraud. During my first year as a student at the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, I followed a few Brazilian women as they looked for sham spouses, organized their fake weddings and prepared for their interviews with Immigration.

One of them told me she offered her friend money to marry her because going back to Brazil was no longer an option; she had suffered post-traumatic stress disorder a few years back after being mugged in her hometown. A business trip to New York had given her a glimpse of what it is to live in a big city and still feel safe. However, that feeling died the moment she committed marriage fraud.

“The only reason I don’t want to go back to Brazil is because I don’t feel safe there,” she told me. “But it’s kind of the same situation I am living now here because it’s a different type of being scared. Now I am scared of the police, or Immigration.”

I learned from women like her that committing marriage fraud was a long, expensive, draining, and risky process. Latinas in green-card marriages were the first community I researched in my program because I wanted to help them through social journalism. But I discovered they didn’t want to be helped. They were counting the days until they would receive their green cards so they could put that painful experience behind them, along with those ones of being mugged or going through a divorce back home.

Then there were the victims of domestic violence.

While investigating the intersection of gender, immigration and race issues in Trump’s America, I found a few reasons Latinas are a growing community in need of media attention. Here are some statistics from “Status of Women in the States,” a project by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a think tank in Washington:

Immigrant women from Mexico and El Salvador are the least likely to have health insurance (only 44.0 percent and 51.5 percent, respectively.)

Immigrant women from four Latin American countries have the highest poverty rates: the Dominican Republic (30.3 percent), Mexico (30.0 percent), Cuba (22.6 percent) and El Salvador (20.8 percent).

Latina immigrants tend to have less education than immigrants from other parts of the world, as well as limited English proficiency and lack of access to legal immigration status, which limits their work possibilities.

Two Brazilian immigration attorneys working in New York, Stephanie Mulcock and Michelle Viana, told me women in the Latino diaspora, regardless of social class or educational attainment, are vulnerable to domestic violence. They tend to be:

  • Women without legal status who prematurely marry their American (or U.S. permanent-resident) boyfriends and find themselves victims of abuse, or
  • Wives of foreign nationals who hold work visas such as the H1B, which doesn’t allow spouses to work, who find themselves victims of financial manipulation, a form of domestic abuse.
Viana, legal advisor at the Brazilian consulate in New York, told me what domestic violence means for Brazilian immigrant women in New York (watch video.)

At least the U.S. government provides legal tools to help these women, regardless of their immigration status. Through the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), immigrant women abused by spouses who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents may be granted green cards. In 2018, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) processed 11,034 VAWA petitions by spouses. Women abused by undocumented spouses may also be granted U visas after reporting the spouse and collaborating with the police in the investigation. USCIS grants up to 10,000 U visas to principal petitioners each year.

As journalists, we are failing to give these immigrant communities the information they need to stay afloat in America’s hostile waters.

Women often struggle even to acknowledge they are victims of domestic violence. Once they do, language barriers, low morale and a credible fear of deportation will, at times, prevent them from looking for help. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that Latina immigrants suffering domestic violence were less likely than non-immigrants to seek help from institutions (6.9% vs. 14.7%).

Can you blame them? We are living at a time in which immigrants are being arrested outside courtrooms across America, including New York. They are not only vulnerable to crimes like domestic violence, but also afraid to be deported after reporting them. It happened to Maria, a 39-year-old mother from Colombia who had overstayed her visa and reported on her fiancé. After testifying against him in court, she was arrested and deported.

The scenario is discouraging, yet the community keeps growing. Visa overstays from Brazil, for instance, rose to 36,289 in 2018, a 7.5% increase over 2017. Since the DHS started keeping track of visa overstays in 2015, Brazil has accounted for the third-largest number of visa overstays, behind only Canada and Mexico.

Brazil is also a top-ranking country in violence against women in the Americas, with the highest absolute number of femicides in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Gender Equality Observatory, Notes for Equality #27. The United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.

These data made me wonder:

Can people escaping economic problems in Brazil also escape the country’s misogynistic mentality after immigrating to the U.S., where a woman is beaten every nine seconds?

How can journalists serve immigrant women who have been oppressed by both the sexist culture in which they grew up and the anti-immigrant rhetoric of their new home?

These questions are guiding my final project at CUNY. It is urgent that we journalists start thinking of ways to deliver these women the information they need, in their language, in a way that empowers them, and preferably before they find themselves victims of abuse.

We can do our part to help them feel seen and safe in this country, rather than sorry.

W.A.V.E. —  Women Against Violence Experiment

My findings about Latina women who are navigating the…

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Isadora Varejão

Written by

Engagement producer at Retro Report | Creator of W.A.V.E. | CUNY-J graduate | Rio-NYC | twitter @brazooklyn

W.A.V.E. —  Women Against Violence Experiment

My findings about Latina women who are navigating the choppy waters of the U.S. immigration system

Isadora Varejão

Written by

Engagement producer at Retro Report | Creator of W.A.V.E. | CUNY-J graduate | Rio-NYC | twitter @brazooklyn

W.A.V.E. —  Women Against Violence Experiment

My findings about Latina women who are navigating the choppy waters of the U.S. immigration system

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