As much as Republicans wish that this election was only about the economy and what Obama has or hasn’t done, immigration reform and women’s rights are very much front and center. But those issues aren’t mutually exclusive, and it’s time that the rights of immigrant women specifically were a part of the national conversation.
Immigrant women in the United States face challenges that those of us who were born and raised here can only marginally identify with and understand. Yes, many of us experience domestic violence, sexual harassment, unequal pay, and other such injustices, or at least know someone who has. But while I’m championing the provisions in Obama’s health care law that provide most of us with increased access to birth control, immigrant women are facing much higher levels of serious and life-threatening challenges that no one is talking about.
Enter Breakthrough and the #ImHere for Immigrant Women campaign. In their own words, Breakthrough is an organization that uses innovative media & technology to change the world: producing video games, music videos, animations, and films for human rights. Operating in both the United States and India, Breakthrough campaigns to raise public awareness and advocate for the most vulnerable among us have won awards and changed the way we think and operate.
Their newest campaign is an inspiration and a gamechanger. There are so many ways in which immigrant women have been – and are – invisible to us. Invisible to our politics, to our public policies, to all the conversations our community is having about feminism and gender equality and social justice. But they can’t be. They can’t be invisible, and we can’t allow them any longer to live in fear in the shadows. Here are just a few situations immigrant women are facing:
Unequal Pay: Many immigrant women are sole breadwinners for their families, particularly in this economy. But they earn 13 percent less than their male counterparts and 14 percent less than female U.S. citizens.
Sexual Assault and Harassment in the Workplace: Immigrants trying to eke out a living here in the U.S. often operate in the shadows of employment law. Women who work as factory workers, sweatshop laborers, nannies, home care workers, and so many other low-paid positions are frequent, easy targets for sexual predators. As women in the United States have slowly but surely entered the workforce and climbed the career ladder, leaving their homes and earning degrees to provide them with better paying jobs, a vacuum has emerged, to be filled with immigrant women. Immigrant women have now replaced white, more educated women in the homes and in low-wage jobs around the country. (It’s worth noting that as recently as 2010, New York passed the very first Domestic Workers Right law in the nation that spelled out protections for workers such as elderly care givers, housekeepers, and nannies).
Agriculture is a field in which female workers are particularly vulnerable. A report issued by Human Rights Watch just this past May concluded that immigrant farm workers face high risk of sexual assault and harassment in the form of rape, stalking, unwanted touching, exhibitionism, and more by their employers, supervisors, and others in positions of power. An estimated 630,000 of the 3 million people who perform migrant and seasonal farm work are women, and the federal government estimates that 60 percent of them are undocumented immigrants. Some reports indicate that up to half have experienced some form of sexual assault or harassment.
Domestic Violence: Immigration status is just an additional tool used by abusive spouses or partners to control their victims and exert power over their lives. If the abuser has legal status in the United States, he can use that status to his victim’s disadvantage, often by threatening to report her to authorities or refusing to file the petitions and paperwork that would give the victim legal status in the U.S.
The Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) compromise brokered in the Senate this past spring included increased opportunities for undocumented immigrants facing domestic violence to apply for U visas (a specific type of visa given to victims of specific types of crimes that gives them temporary legal status and work eligibility for up to 4 years). However, this provision (along with many others) did not make it into the version voted on by the House of Representatives. While immigrant women stay in homes that remain a threat to their life and safety, under the control of abusive spouses or partners, the Violence Against Women Act has stalled in Congress due to Republican opposition.
It’s not surprising that Breakthrough is taking on this issue. Their past work for immigrant rights includes the video games ICED (ICEDgame.com), America 2049 (America2049.com), and Homeland Guantanamos (homelandgitmo.com), through which 25 million people worldwide have seen the importance of understanding the injustices and abuse that is rife in our immigration system. Breakthrough is also well-known for its long standing work on advocating an end to violence against women: their longest-running campaign, Bell Bajao (“Ring the Bell”), has called millions of men and boys to stand up against domestic violence and trained more than 75,000 young people across India to advocate for equality in their own homes and communities.
Now, Breakthrough is spotlighting its innovative media work on the intersection between these two social justice issues: the plight of immigrant women.
Breakthrough is the work of CEO and Founder, Mallika Dutt. I had the chance to talk with Mallika last May, when she was awarded an honorary degree from our shared alma mater, Mount Holyoke College. We talked about the future of feminism and the role that young women like me and the Fem2 community are playing in the fight for women’s rights.
She cautioned me not to get too caught up in the long-held accusation that US feminism has always been a wealthy, white women’s world. Understanding the complexities of feminism means understanding the complexities of culture, of wealth, of family and community perception. It means not just seeking more diversity and the input of more women of color and diverse experiences, but also actively addressing the needs of individual communities of women who face unique challenges. Challenges such as those facing immigrant women – both those who are here in the United States legally and those who are undocumented.
The truth is, all of us are either immigrant women or descendent from immigrant women. Women’s issues aren’t just about blanket social justice reform and equal rights – we need to recognize, acknowledge, and bring to light the unique communities of women in this country and take active steps to ensure that human rights are their rights, and their rights are human rights.
The 2012 election is just 71 days away, and we need to ensure that the plight of immigrant women is finally heard. Now is the time to show widespread, public support for true justice and all the people who reside within our borders.
Here’s how you can join the #ImHere campaign:
1) Take a photo of yourself holding a sign that says “I’m here.”
2) Go to the #ImHere Tumblr’s “submit” page.
3) Upload your picture, write a caption, and confirm.
4) SHARE AND SPREAD THE WORD! Post your photo and caption to your Facebook wall and be sure to tag @Breakthrough. Then, tweet: #ImHere to support the rights of immigrant women. Are you? http://ow.ly/bKlar #waronwomen @breakthrough.
Mallika Dutt reminds us: “The women facing these fears daily aren’t in Juarez or Kabul. They are here.”
And that means that as their neighbors, colleagues, and friends, we need to stand with them. Will you?
Photo Credit: Associated Press, 2011.