Immigrant Women, Workplace Sexual Harassment, and Domestic Violence in the United States

In 1995, the UN declared “violence against women as a violation of human rights” (Menjívar and Salcido 899).  Yet, in 2015, about 8.7 million women in the United States were abused by their male partner (Reina and Lohman 479).  Immigrant women, while originating from various places around the globe with different cultures and lifestyles, share basic elements of the immigrant experience that leave them more vulnerable to domestic violence than their native-born counterparts (Gonçalves and Mato 698).  Such shared factors that increase vulnerability include high levels of social isolation, uncertain immigration status, and xenophobic stereotypes (Raj and Silverman 369).  Moreover, this anti-immigrant sentiment combined with sexism and high rates of poverty leave immigrant women at a high risk of suffering sexual harassment in the workplace (Waugh 238).  Furthermore, language and legal barriers prevent these women from seeking or receiving help when faced with domestic violence and sexual harassment (Reina and Lohman 480).

Xenophobia and the class and gender of immigrant women intersect and leave them more vulnerable to workplace hazards such as sexual harassment.  In the United States, “immigrants are more likely than the general population to live in poverty” (Young et al. 206).  Xenophobia contributes to the high rates of poverty among immigrants.  For example, the growing resentment of immigrants in the United States reduces immigrants’ access to government programs and ability to find employment (207).  For example, fear of deportation often prevents immigrants from applying for “health care and government assistance” (Waugh 239).  The high rates of poverty suffered by immigrant women limits them to low-paying jobs “near the bottom of the labor market” (Waugh 237) and exempt from government regulation (Panikkar et al.) and company policies concerning sexual harassment (Waugh 237).  Sexual harassment, already estimated to affect half of working women in the U.S. (Waugh 240), occurs at even higher rates among people who hold lower income jobs (Murphy et al.).  One explanation proposed for this phenomenon is the high level of control supervisors have over laborers (Arcury et al. 2448).  When combined with employers’ knowledge that immigrants are reluctant to speak out for fear of retaliation (Hylton 105), immigrant woman are disproportionately at risk of suffering from sexual harassment at work (Reina and Lohman 486).

Economic instability and legal status often block immigrant women from reporting sexual harassment.  For example, female Mexican immigrant farm workers in California “reported engaging in tactics including ignoring or even pretending to consent to harassment, worried that reporting the behavior would lead to losing their jobs” (Murphy et al.).  Enduring sexual harassment is a common part of female immigrants’ work experiences, as they are heavily dependent on these jobs for financial support (Murphy et al).  Additionally, reporting sexual harassment to law enforcement or human resources can feel too risky, particularly for women who do not speak English fluently and those with unsure legal status (Covert 16).

The current political climate makes it increasingly perilous for immigrant women to speak out against workplace harassment (Vásquez et al.).  President Donald Trump’s policies on enforcing deportation of immigrants resulted in a “psychological warfare” against immigrants and people of color.  Since President Trump is realistically unable to deport all undocumented immigrants from the United States due to costs and economic dependence upon immigrant labor, he instead instilled a strategy of self-deportation.  By threatening, and in some cases implementing, draconian immigration policies, Trump hopes to push “people further into the shadows – or out of the country all together” by instilling intense fear in immigrants across the nation (Goodman 152).  As the “threats of deportation” intensify, more women feel the need to not draw attention to themselves and thus remain silent about workplace harassment in an attempt to both maintain their jobs and place in the country (Vásquez et al.).

Immigrant women are also at higher risk of suffering from domestic violence, yet face similar barriers when attempting to seek help (Decker 499).  In the United States, law enforcement and the general populace often believe that domestic violence is an ingrained cultural aspect among immigrants, and thus fail to take sufficient action to address the issue (Menjívar and Salcido 901).  For example, “police officers viewed arrests in domestic violence situations among immigrants…as a waste of time” because they believed the stereotype of ethnically distinct domestic violence (Menjívar and Salcido 901).  While it is true that domestic violence rates are “higher among immigrant women” (Decker et al. 498), this is due to situational stressors, such as uncertain legal status, language issues, xenophobia, and common external factors such as work, school and financial difficulties (Menjívar and Salcido 902).  These stressors are particularly exacerbated with regards to immigrants’ high-stress lifestyle, resulting in higher rates of domestic violence (Menjívar and Salcido 901).  This is not to insinuate that culture does not play part in contributing to the higher levels of domestic violence.  However, a societal tendency to blame a specific culture for domestic violence is narrow-minded and fails to address the root of the problem.

Isolation of immigrant women is a major contributing factor to their increased vulnerability to domestic violence.  As immigrants, these women “enter a foreign environment where they may not know the language, culture, or physical geographic area and may recognize only a few familiar faces” (Menjívar and Salcido 904).  For example, more than 50% of South Asian immigrant women have no family in the United States, illustrating the extent to which immigrant women often feel alone.   In general, women who enter the United States with no family present in the country are 3 times more likely to be physically abused (Kallivayalil 789).  Furthermore, an abuser will often isolate women further by cutting them off from any friends or family back home (Raj and Silverman 371-77).  Women also often enter the United States with the help of their husbands, who act as a legal sponsor.  This prevents immigrant women from being financially independent and are thus unable to leave their husband in the event of domestic violence (Kulwicki et al. 729).  In such cases when a woman’s immigration status depends on her husband, 77% of women are victims of domestic violence (Clark 38).

Language barriers also contribute to immigrant women’s isolation and prevents them from seeking help.  For instance, police officers that intervene in a situation may be unable to properly communicate with the victim, resulting in the “inappropriate arrest or release of the perpetrator (Kulwicki et al. 729).  Furthermore, there are few translators that work within the criminal justice system, leaving women with no way to communicate with the police (Clark 41).  Immigrant women who do not speak English may also be unable to reach out to help centers, social services (Kulwicki et al. 729), or crisis call lines (Clark 41).  This further exacerbates the feelings of isolation resulting from life in a new place and continually instilled by the abuser (Clark 41).

Legal status is a major barrier to a woman seeking help as “the victim of abuse may be reluctant to file a civil protection order against her spouse because of fear of being deported from the country” (Conyers 458).  This fear is especially relevant when considering the women who enter the United States each year as the wife of a “U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident” (Raj and Silverman 375).  This vulnerability was addressed in the Violence Against Women and Department of Justice Reauthorization Act of 2005 which included distinct provisions in order to “prevent the use of immigration status as a tool of control” used by abusers (Conyers 457).  Unfortunately, few immigrant women are aware of their ability to receive protection under the Act (Raj and Silverman 375).  In some cases, even when women sought help, their “social service providers failed to offer information…regarding policy protections” that they would be able to utilize (Reina and Lohman 480).

When considering immigrant women’s increased risk of suffering from sexual harassment in the workplace and domestic violence, it is crucial to also consider xenophobia, socioeconomic status, and legal position.  These factors are closely correlated with immigrant women’s vulnerability at home and at work and impact their ability to seek or receive help.  Additionally, it is crucial that the United States not treat domestic violence as solely a cultural issue.  This mentality, combined with language barriers and economic chasms, prevent immigrant women from getting sufficient legal and social help with regards to domestic violence.  Furthermore, current policies have effectively silenced immigrant women and obstructed their ability to speak out about sexual harassment.  While domestic violence and sexual harassment at work are not specific to any one group of people, immigrant women in the United States are disproportionately vulnerable.












Works Cited

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April 30, 2018