Sexual Violence Against Undocumented Women in the Food and Farming Industry
By Alexis Phillips
“People can take advantage because they know that you don’t know the language, and they know that as an illegal, we’re afraid.”
To be an undocumented immigrant woman in the United States is to be in a state of perpetual vulnerability. In addition to financial, legal, and domestic pressures, these women must contend with feelings of disempowerment and invisibility. Undocumented women in the farming and food processing industries are in a particularly dismal predicament: beside working in backbreaking, thankless jobs under dangerous conditions, they are also under constant threat of sexual harassment and violence.
It is estimated that 60% of farm workers are undocumented immigrants, though this percentage is undoubtedly far higher, and 25% of farm workers are women. Among these women, rape and sexual violence is so prevalent that it is said to come with the job. In a 2010 study of 150 Mexican women in California’s Central Valley, 80% said that they were victims of some form of sexual violence or harassment; almost all said that sexist words or behaviors were directed towards them.
After an attack, these women are faced with a difficult choice— they may report and risk retribution, or remain silent and risk being victimized again. Olivia, a meatpacking worker, recalls being brutally raped by a supervisor. “I saw that my pants had a lot of blood. My mom asked what it was, but I didn’t want to tell her. I went to bed and didn’t say anything. I don’t even what to remember it.” Despite sustaining terrible injuries, she refused to report the attack, saying, “I was scared of the police, and I was scared of [the attacker].”
For reasons ranging from fear of blame and retribution, to mistrust of authorities, to extreme poverty, some women elect to suffer in order to continue providing for their families. Carmen, a farmworker from upstate New York, says, “You feel a lot of stress because [the abuser] is someone who has authority…If I tell him this, what if he does something so I get fired?” Added to these already weighty factors is a language barrier that makes it harder for victims to access to information about their legal rights. These women often feel powerless to seek help out of fear that alerting the authorities will cause them to be deported and separated from their families.
There is a very real, factual basis for those fears.
Although, on a federal level, these women are entitled to the protection from sexual violence and harassment provided by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, local authorities often do not enforce or emphasize these protective measures. In addition, some local officials abuse federal immigration provision 287(g), which allows officers to check the immigration status of criminals and turn them over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Because of this provision, there have been several cases in which female victims of violence and trafficking have been prosecuted or deported upon alerting the authorities to their conditions.
There are several steps that can be taken toward preventing sexual violence among undocumented workers and aiding victims:
- Allowing greater female representation in supervisory positions in the food processing and farm industries.
- Educating undocumented women about their rights as immigrants, women, and workers (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for instance).
- Enforcing fair wage laws for immigrants, in order to reduce the economic pressures that cause women to submit to mistreatment for fear of financial retribution.
- Stipulating that federal provision 287(g) cannot be used against victims of crime, including victims of sexual violence.
Local and federal governments have an obligation to protect victims of sexual violence and gender discrimination, regardless of immigration status. By refusing to hear their complaints and prosecute attackers, we place superficial national boundaries above the human right to live freely and without fear.