Trump agenda spells increased violence for immigrant women

PERSPECTIVE | The administration’s war on immigrants will find undocumented women squarely in its sights

A high school junior talking to other students in the hallway at her Long Island school. A scene both as unremarkable and as innocuous as it is common.

Yet for one soft-spoken 16-year-old girl, referred to in media reports only as “Vanessa,” it led to a month in a New Jersey county jail in immigration detention.

Police officers stationed at her school believed the teens she was talking to were members of the MS13 gang — a primary target of President Trump’s intensifying immigration enforcement efforts. That speculation alone led the officers to label her as a “gang member,” and contact immigration authorities. “That was her pattern of criminal gang activity,” says Sarah Gonzalez, who examined the evidence in the case and reported on the story for WNYC.

A judge who heard Vanessa’s case found that speaking to classmates who might be gang members was not enough to hold her in detention. The teenager is still facing deportation, having walked, unaccompanied, for over a month from El Salvador to the U.S.

Vanessa’s story illuminates the dangerous intersections of highly subjective and discriminatory “gang policing,” increased presence of police in schools, and growing collaboration between local police and immigration authorities. As research and recently filed lawsuits point out, individuals, including young women of color, are labeled as gang members on the flimsiest of evidence — wearing particular clothing of a particular color (or, in the case of young women, wearing clothing read as “masculine”), doodling an area code in a notebook, wearing a Chicago Bulls shirt — without any notice or opportunity to contest the designation.

Often “known associates” of people listed in police “gang databases” — like family members, girlfriends, children, neighbors, and, like Vanessa, people merely observed in their presence — are also branded by police as “gang members,” with devastating immigration and criminal consequences.

As the federal government prepares to launch massive raids targeting thousands of immigrants, and Democrats are expressing willingness to trade protections for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)recipients for increased immigration enforcement, women like Vanessa are more and more likely to be caught in the expanding dragnet.

Northern Virginia Gang Task Force officers partner with ICE officers to arrest MS-13 gang members in Manassas, Virginia (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Forty-one thousand immigrants were arrested in the first quarter of the current administration, an increase of 40 percent compared to 2016. With up to 15,000 new immigration and Border Patrol officers and a $1.5 billion increase in federal funds for enforcement efforts looming on the horizon, these numbers only stand to increase.

Arrests of immigrant women of color often fall under the “collateral damage” of enforcement efforts primarily targeting men labeled as “violent criminals.” But according to one estimate, approximately 70 percent of arrests in the most recent U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement operation were “collateral arrests” — individuals who came to the attention of immigration officials targeting others.

Immigrant women of color are facing the prospect of increased violence at the hands of law enforcement agents. In addition to ripping families apart and separating mothers from their children, immigration enforcement is rife with abuses of women by police, immigration, customs and Border Patrol officers.

Five years after Rodney King’s 1991 beating by Los Angeles police officers flooded our television screens, another roadside beating was televised live from Los Angeles. This time the target was Alicia Sotero Vásquez, who was traveling in a pickup truck with 19 other undocumented immigrants when immigration officers began following them.

“She was clubbed … pulled by the hair and shoved violently against the truck in an incident that triggered outrage here and in her native Mexico,” said a 1996 L.A. Times article on the incident.

Sotero Vásquez’s story is a cautionary tale for these times. Virulently anti-immigrant rhetoric pervades political discourse and the acting head of ICE has proudly said “the handcuffs are off” and “anyone is a target.” Militarization of the southern border is intensifying, collaboration between immigration and local law enforcement is aggressively promoted through threats to deny funding to sanctuary cities, and states like Texas attempt to make it a crime for local law enforcement to refuse to collaborate with immigration authorities.

In addition to the kinds of brutal physical violence Sotero Vásquez endured, there is the threat of sexual violence. Immigration raids are often accompanied by sexual harassment and degrading strip searches. Extortion of sex by immigration officers in exchange for leniency was described by one immigration official testifying before Congress in 2006 as “rampant.”

Sexual abuse of women by Border Patrol agents has also been documented over decades — in one particularly egregious 2014 case, an agent picked up a woman and her two daughters near the Rio Grande, raped the woman and slashed her wrists, sexually assaulted her 14 year-old daughter before attempting to break her neck, and then kidnapped and raped the second daughter.

Juanita Valdez Cox of community group La Union del Pueblo was quoted at the time saying “While some may say it is an isolated case, there are too many of these isolated cases of abuse by Border Patrol agents, and Border Patrol has done too little to address the problem.” Immigrant women fare no better in the interior, serving as prime targets of sexual violence by local law enforcement agents using the threat of deportation to prey on them. In one 2011 incident, a Georgia deputy kidnapped an undocumented Salvadorean woman, threatened to deport her, and then raped her. One Los Angeles study found that a quarter of Latina trans women surveyed, the majority of whom were undocumented, reported sexual assault by law enforcement agents.

These realities add up to one clear conclusion: despite the rhetorical focus on mythical “bad hombres,” the current administration’s declared war on immigrants will find immigrant women squarely in its sights. And as violence against women is casually and strategically thrown about as purported justification for everything from a Muslim ban to a border wall, abuses of immigrant women by U.S. law enforcement agents calls into question who the real “bad hombres” are.

There is much more that can be done to protect immigrant women. A report released last week by the Ms. Foundation and the National Black Women’s Justice Initiative — focused on black women, who are frequently left out of conversations about both policing and immigration enforcement — outlines specific measures communities, institutions, municipalities can take to increase protections for immigrant women.

For example, Los Angeles recently decriminalized offenses relating to street vending, an informal economy undocumented women frequently participate in and where they frequently experience abuse. As one woman once testified at an Amnesty International hearing, “They tell us that we are illegal, that we have to back to Mexico, that we don’t have rights. They also threaten us to take away our children…they have used excessive force.”

Municipalities can also eliminate policies mandating an arrest when police respond to domestic violence, which keep many immigrant victims from reaching out for help for fear that they themselves, or their family members, will be arrested and placed into deportation proceedings. They could also take steps to keep immigration officers away from courthouses, hospitals and health care facilities, childcare centers, public housing and other locations where immigrant women may seek services.

Ultimately, preventing widespread violence against immigrant women requires us to both resist the rising anti-immigrant rhetoric and intensifying enforcement that drive it at the federal level, and to build protections for immigrant women at the local level. It also requires us to hold firm in the face of bargains that would have us expose one group of immigrants, including women of color like Vanessa, Alicia, and the countless women who have been subject to sexual abuse by immigration agents to increased violence, detention and deportation, in order to save another.

Women have led much of the resistance to the Trump agenda — from assaults on reproductive autonomy to the fight for accessible and affordable health care. Let’s make sure that protecting immigrant women is at the center of ours.

Andrea J. Ritchie is a black lesbian immigrant, a lawyer, researcher in residence on race, gender, sexuality and criminalization at the Barnard Center for Research on Women, and the author of “Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color,” recently published by Beacon Press.