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Can A Person Be Illegal?

Date: 2008-04-04

In all the furor over rising immigration rates in the U.S. -- often
disguised as concern over "illegal" immigration -- one story in particular
demonstrates that contrary to scare stories about the effect of immigration
on this country, the reality is that this country is often a scary and
oppressive place for immigrants. And immigrant women, having drawn the
double whammy card, are especially vulnerable. A 22-year-old immigrant from
Colombia exposed her immigration agent using the threat of deportation to
rape her, using her cell phone to tape the assault. Unfortunately, as is all
too common with these sorts of stories, most reports describe the event as
sex, even while making it clear that the sex is question was coerced, and
should be more accurately described as rape.

The story has hooks most likely because it's about how a common crime --
sexual blackmail against immigrants and other women marginalized in
society -- became more difficult to hide and ignore because of new
technologies. But despite the dubious reasons why this story hit the
mainstream news, the activist community can still seize this opportunity to
make two very important points: 1) Immigration is a feminist issue and 2)
The distinctions between "legal" and "illegal" immigrants is red herring to
distract from the fact that it's immigrants, full stop, who face oppression
under a tidal wave of anti-immigration sentiment.

This woman's story demonstrates the way that the cut-and-dry distinctions
between illegal and legal immigrants touted by the Lou Dobbses of the world
tend to turn shades of gray when examined closely. Or actually, shades of
paperwork. The rape victim entered the U.S. legally on a tourist visa and
overstayed, but managed to enter the system to get her green card by
marrying a citizen, which all but the worst mouth-breathers accept as a
legitimate way to get a green card. Her story shows why it's front-loaded
and racist to describe a human being as "illegal," especially when her
illegal actions were misdemeanors such that they didn't even raise the ire
of the law when she got her paperwork in order. I've managed to drive a car
before after letting my inspection lapse, and then got the ticket
straightened out by renewing my inspection sticker, an equivalent crime. No
one describes my very being as illegal, though. Though rape, on the other
hand, is not a minor crime and is earth-shattering enough that it's
acceptable to describe the people who commit that crimes as "rapists," I
suspect that rapists get called by that moniker less often than immigrants
without their paperwork in order get called "illegals."

Words like "illegals" dehumanize immigrants, whether or not they have their
paperwork in order, and that dehumanization makes immigrant women juicy
targets for assorted sexist oppressors, from anti-choicers to wife beaters
to rapists, as this woman's story shows. One Honduran immigrant faced
charges after trying to self-abort with an ulcer medication, an attempt that
failed to induce abortion, but was linked to her giving birth to a premature
infant who passed away. The same article notes that a 22-year-old Mexican
immigrant living in South Carolina was put in jail for inducing her own
abortion with the medication at home. That immigrant women often resort to
self-abortion should surprise no one. Not only is safe, legal abortion
financially daunting for a number of women, the atmosphere of dehumanization
of immigrants makes many women understandably eager to reduce their
encounters with authority figures of any type, including doctors.

Green card manipulation isn't just a trick practiced by immigration
officials wanting to control and dominate women, either. According to the
Family Violence Prevention Fund (PDF), many domestic abusers use threats
about immigration status to keep women in relationships with them. Whether
married to citizens or non-citizens, the quasi-legal status assigned to
immigrants means that many victims of domestic violence fear seeking help;
consequently, the rates of domestic violence are significantly higher for
immigrant women than women at large. Congress stepped in to create the
International Marriage Brokers Regulation Act, which gives immigrant women
the right to leave abusive marriages without being deported. It also
requires that men who go through "marriage broker" services to disclose
their domestic violence histories to potential brides.

If you ever want to despair of the human condition, Google the term
"IMBRA" -- the vast majority of the results returned are authored by men
outraged at these entirely reasonable measures that keep men from beating
their immigrant wives and using green cards as leverage to perpetuate the
violence. Strangely, few of these websites argue that men should be given
the direct right to beat women, but it's hard to imagine what other
worldview they could be operating under, when they think that it should be
perfectly legal for a man to threaten his wife with deportation if she
leaves him after a round of beating. If you are under the incorrect
impression that sexism is dead and feminism isn't needed anymore, I
recommend listening to the howls of men who think the government owes them
the right to treat immigrant women like a population available for their
punching bag and sexual assault needs. That goes double for you if you've
ever sneered at the term "intersections of oppression," because I can't
think of a better example myself.


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