RAICES Panel Focuses on the Female Immigrant Experience

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Women and children who just arrived from Dilley Detention Center walk from San Antonio's Greyhound bus station to Travis Park United Methodist Church in October 2018.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Women and children who just arrived from the Dilley Detention Center walk from San Antonio's Greyhound bus station to their next destination.

Immigrant women face particular dangers and obstacles both when migrating to the United States and after their arrival, said a panel of women who work with migrants and refugees during a discussion Tuesday night. 

The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services hosted the discussion focusing on the female immigrant and refugee experience. The panel featured four women from San Antonio organizations with expertise in immigration issues and covered topics from mental health to issues of sexual violence and domestic abuse in the immigrant community. 

Founded in 1986 and staffed by about 130 attorneys, legal assistants, and support staff, RAICES is a nonprofit organization that provides free legal services to refugees and immigrants entering the United States.

Panelist Laura Molinar, founder and executive director of Sueños Sin Fronteras, which assists asylum seekers from Central America, cited high rates of sexual assault for female migrants. Molinar said that many of the perpetrators of sexual assault against migrants are “people who are supposed to be helping” them as they travel to the U.S. Perpetrators may include smugglers and even sponsors. 

“The risk is even higher for women because they accept the fact that they have to pay [for their journey to the United States] with their bodies,” Molinar said. 

It’s unknown how many women migrating to the U.S. are sexual assault victims, possibly because immigrant women are reluctant to report such instances to authorities, according to panelist and RAICES litigation staff attorney Yvette Changuin. However, a recent New York Times investigation found over 100 documented cases of sexual assault on the border in the past two decades. Women have also reported assault within Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities.

Changuin said immigrant women are not always empowered to speak up and advocate for themselves. This extends beyond underreporting of assault. Immigrant women may also refuse – or refrain from seeking out – emergency contraceptives and other reproductive health services. 

“They come with reservations,” Changuin said. “What is acceptable here is not necessarily acceptable in their home country.” 

The panelists agreed that providing women with resources they need ⁠– such as emergency contraception, health services, and even menstrual hygiene products ⁠– requires tact and privacy. Simple actions such as putting a box of menstrual hygiene products in the bathroom of a facility or having a calm discussion about contraceptive options can go a long way, they said.  

In the same way that women may be quiet about these types of needs, panelists noted, they also may not report instances of domestic violence. 

“In the Latinx community, there is a lot of internalized misogyny and machismo,” Molinar said. “Someone might be afraid of her husband but be afraid to say it. You can see it in her eyes, and you can identify it.” 

Panelist Einas Albadri, who came to the U.S. as a refugee from Iraq in 2010 and serves as the refugee resettlement program director for RAICES, said that “in many countries around the world, women cannot speak up,” partially due to the strict enforcement of religious rules. In the U.S., Albadri said, “the religion is the same but the understanding is different.” Women have more freedom – for example, to get a job and work. 

Yet, as panelist Mariela Jasso pointed out, women recently released from detention centers face numerous obstacles in obtaining work. Jasso, a RAICES project manager, provides orientations to families recently released from detention facilities. She has encountered mothers who need to support a multitude of children but can only work illegally because they lack proper documentation.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

RAICES project manager Mariela Jasso

Jasso said these women also struggle with the perception that they are bad mothers for bringing their children on a dangerous trip north and into a difficult situation, financially and emotionally. However, Jasso maintained that these women should be validated and supported.

“They should think of themselves as warrior moms,” Jasso said, “willing to risk anything for their families.”

The panel discussion occurred the same day that the Department of Homeland Security  (DHS) reported a decrease in the number of people taken into custody at the U.S. border with Mexico. Authorities detained 104,344 people along the border in June, down from 144,278 in May, DHS reported. Still, June marked the fourth consecutive month in which more than 100,000 people were arrested.

Though much of the discussion centered on the problems and fears faced by female immigrants, panelists concluded by encouraging the audience to notice joyful aspects of working with immigrants. 

“Celebrate the fact that they are resilient and powerful,” Molinar said. “Joy and love … That’s what’s going to fuel our work.”

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