Arizona's Anti-Immigrant Law Hits Women the Hardest

The vulnerable socio-economic status of Latina immigrant women makes them more prone to suffer workplace sexual harassment and violence. But they can never report it lest they be arrested.
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Rosa B. was raped at work today. Arizona's anti-immigrant law would also send her to jail if she reports it.

Rosa B.'s story is emblematic of the work that I do with Equal Rights Advocates (ERA), a national women's rights advocacy organization based in San Francisco. Her story also hits close to home. My mother was trained as a nurse in Mexico, yet when she first came to this country, she worked as a migrant worker. She was undocumented and her status forced her to endure unspeakable abuses at the hands of her employers. That was over 30 years ago, but I see her story repeated almost every single day in the stories of women across the country who call ERA in search of assistance. Any progress we have made over the last several decades, as evidenced by my own success, is severely imperiled by the single swoop of Arizona Governor Jan Brewer's pen.

The debate over SB 1070, the Arizona bill signed into law by Governor Brewer, has centered on the race-based anti-immigrant sentiment it will foster. An equally important, and gender-based dynamic, is that the law will disproportionately impact Latinas in Arizona due to their comparatively vulnerable economic status.

Latinas in Arizona are uniquely vulnerable due to the confluence of their race, class, gender and immigration status. Nearly 10% of Arizona's workforce is undocumented. To take one major city in Arizona as an example, 48% of Latina immigrants in Phoenix work outside the home, yet 29% live below the federal poverty line and another 35% live at the federal income level designated as "near poverty." Despite their high numbers in the workforce, Latinas in Phoenix have twice the poverty rate of Phoenix women overall. It is not a far stretch to conclude that the vulnerable socio-economic status of Latina immigrant women makes them more prone to suffer workplace sexual harassment and violence.

The nationwide economic downturn has correlated with employer abuses, particularly an increase in workplace sexual harassment and violence. The number of workplace discrimination complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission jumped 10% from 2007 to 2009. This trend has had a particularly deleterious impact on immigrant Latinas. At ERA, we have seen an overall 62% increase in calls to our nationwide hotline from women complaining of sexual harassment and violence in the workplace from the same time last year, but calls from Latinas complaining of these abuses have increased 100%. SB 1070 ignores this dynamic and will effectively cut the limited safety nets Latina immigrants have to remedy these abuses and allow employers to operate with impunity.

SB 1070 flies in the face of efforts by the federal government to protect this vulnerable population. Up to 10,000 U Visas are granted each year to victims of certain crimes affording them temporary legal status and work eligibility in the United States for up to 4 years. To be granted a U Visa, an immigrant like Rosa B. must have suffered substantial physical or mental abuse due to a criminal activity such as rape. The U Visa is often granted to Latina immigrants who are victims of sexual violence in the workplace. SB 1070 will have a chilling effect on undocumented women working in Arizona who experience harassment and violence on the job because it criminalizes undocumented status and grants law enforcement wide discretion to detain and question people suspected of being in the country illegally. Many Latina immigrants will choose to endure these abusive conditions rather than report them and risk incarceration and deportation.

Undoubtedly, supporters of the law will argue that undocumented Latina immigrants should not be here in the first place or that federal laws are designed to protect United States citizens, not those who are in this country illegally. Those of us opposing the law will argue that this is yet another chapter in the sad saga of racial scapegoating in tough economic times that is a recurring theme in this country's history.

Obscured in this debate will be the fact that women like Rosa B. will continue to endure harassment, assault-and in some cases, even rape -- solely for the sake of making a living to support their families. Perhaps this country should acknowledge its schizophrenic dance with being the land of opportunity for all immigrants and the nightmare that it has become in places like Arizona.

Vitally important is the need to raise awareness regarding the historical and present struggles of women immigrants in Arizona. Even a basic understanding of this history will be impossible given the recent ban on ethnic studies in Arizona public schools. Unless the rest of us speak up, women like Rosa B. will continue to suffer in silence.

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