Immigrant Rights are Women’s Rights

23 May 2017 Written by   Celeste Montoya

Celeste Montoya

This spring, four women dropped their domestic abuse cases in Denver shortly after a video emerged showing immigrant enforcement (ICE) agents at a Denver courthouse. A few weeks later, a transgender woman was detained by ICE while securing a protective order at an El Paso, Texas courthouse. In March in Los Angeles, the police chief explained how fear of deportation has dramatically decreased the number of sexual assault and domestic violence reports filed by the city’s Latino residents. These stories raise serious concerns about impact that the Trump administration’s aggressive and indiscriminate approach toward immigration enforcement is having on efforts to combat gendered violence.

While gendered violence affects women across all socio-economic borders, how individual women experience that violence and the prospects for seeking remedy vary. Economic resources and other forms of social capital may not protect women from experiencing violence, but it may influence their ability to leave abusive relationships, access assistance, or pursue justice through the legal system. Race/ethnicity, class, sexuality, ability, and citizenship status are all factors that influence the experiences of victims and survivors of gendered violence.

Celeste Montoya

The precarious position of immigrants (documented or undocumented) has long been acknowledged by advocacy groups and has even been incorporated into major legislation addressing gendered violence. The 1994 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) allowed immigrant women who were married to legal permanent residents or US citizens to self-petition to adjust their immigration status so that it was not tied to their abuser.¹ The 2000 reauthorization expanded protections for immigrant women, including the establishment of special visas for victims of sexual assault and/or trafficking who were willing to assist in the investigation or prosecution of criminal offenses. The 2005 reauthorization allowed these visa holders to seek work, aiding in their ability to gain financial independence. Furthermore, it allowed survivors to file for deportation relief (for those on removal lists) and provided confidentiality protections to address retaliation concerns. The most recent renewal, in 2013, added stalking as a form of violence for which victims could petition for a visa; it also increased the number of visas available.

The partisan debate about the 2013 renewal was the most contentious for VAWA. The expanded provisions for immigrant women, as well as those seeking to address the needs of Native women more effectively and to expand protection to same-sex relationships, raised objections from conservative Republicans. Representative Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), who supported narrower versions of the reauthorization, explained her vote against the final version of the bill: “When you start to make this about other things it becomes an ‘against violence act’ not a targeted focused act . . . I didn’t like the way it was expanded to include other different groups.”

The viewpoint expressed by Rep. Blackburn, in which women from marginalized groups are seen or treated as being different and/or outside those worthy of protection, is far from unique. It captures the lived realities experienced everyday by those outside the mythical norm of white, middle-class, straight, cis-gendered, and able bodied. It is not that the women embodying those norms do not experience violence or obstacles in seeking aid and other forms of remedy, but that the system poses additional challenges when it is not constructed or understood as applying to all women. In the context of an administration that is openly hostile in both rhetoric and policy direction to a number of groups, including immigrants, the implications are serious. Anti-immigrant policies and practices, as well as those that exclude or discriminate against sexual, racial, ethic, and religious communities, increase the dangers to these groups by undermining efforts to combat gendered violence, as evidenced in the stories at the beginning of this post.

Even though VAWA established important protections, a policy is only as good as its implementation. Trump’s executive orders on immigration undermine VAWA provisions aimed at helping immigrant survivors of violence, something made clear in Homeland Security implementation memos: “the Department no longer will exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement.” The recent actions of ICE, not only in Denver and El Paso but in cities across the United States, are also in violation of VAWA provisions that designate courthouses where domestic violence survivors obtain protective orders as prohibited locations for immigration enforcement. The chipping away at VAWA does not stop with the provisions for immigrant women. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who voted against VAWA, has broad authority over its implementation. Already, VAWA grant funding for shelters appears to be on the chopping block. This is just one example of how the rights of immigrants and other marginalized communities are linked intimately with those of women. Advocates working to combat gendered violence have much work ahead of them in coming years; immigrant rights must be an integral part of that agenda.

1. See Garcia. 2014. The Politics of Inclusion: A Case Study of the Violence against Women Act & Foreign Born Latinas in Washington, D.C. for a more thorough analysis of VAWA. Return to text.


Celeste Montoya received her PhD in political science and a graduate certificate in women, gender, and sexuality studies from Washington University in St. Louis. She joined the Department of Women & Gender Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder in 2007. Professor Montoya’s research primarily focuses on the ways in which women and other marginalized groups mobilize to enact change. 

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