Confronting Citizenship in Sexual Assault

This guest post is a part of the Feministe series on Sexual Assault Awareness Month. brownfemipower blogs at Flip Flopping Joy.

Trigger Warning

What does it mean to be a citizen? What does it mean to you to be a citizen of whatever country you were born in?

As a citizen of the US, the Constitution states my rights. I have the right to vote, to have a gun, etc. But I also have the right to a driver’s license, and thus a job. I have the right to a social security number, and again, thus a job. I have the right to welfare, to disability and unemployment.

And even more pointedly, I have the right to drive, to rent a house, to call the police.

I’m sure we can all think of more rights–but the point here is not so much to gather a list of every privilege citizenship grants us, but rather to expose or shine a spotlight on a rarely talked about identity: citizenship.

I read this story about a young woman who was more than likely raped at a university party with no small level of disgust. Although there was a lot of evidence that indicated that a rape probably happened, no rape kit was preformed for her and she didn’t even get a proper exam to deal with the obvious signs of poisoning (whether by alcohol or date rape drugs is beside the point) or the sore rectum and leg she spoke of. The article rightly notes about the case: “You’re not a rape victim unless the police say you are.”

You’re not a rape victim unless the police say you are.

Let’s take a minute to sit with the ramifications of this sentence. It means something huge for all rape survivors–but it means something very specific in terms of citizenship. If it takes the nation/state to confirm a rape happened–what does it mean when states require local police to check the immigration status of anybody who “reasonably” looks “illegal“?

In a racist, heteropatriarchal society, who “looks” illegal? What bodies are “illegal” just by existing? And what happens when one of those “illegal” bodies are violated?

Citizenship brings many protections with it–we do not have to worry about “looking illegal” for the most part because we have the protection of our drivers licenses. But at the same time, with a little examination, it’s easy to see how the ‘borders’ of citizenship are impermeable and flexible. And how the lack of solidity brings with it disastrous consequences for immigrants and citizens alike.

The questions are endless:

How many survivors of sexual violence don’t report their abuser to the police or go to the hospital–not because they dealing with survivor shame, guilt, and fear–but because the nation/state has made it illegal for even health care providers to help people without checking their status? How many survivors are not getting help because they know that to go to the government means not only deportation–but being refused treatment (only citizens get that) and/or being violated again? How many survivors are not reporting violence because they know to do so means not only their imprisonment and deportation–but the imprisonment and deportation of their loved ones?

Sexual violence is under reported in communities where citizenship is a solid birth right for the majority of the community. What is it in communities where the pressure to be silent is not only enormous, but a necessary condition for survival?

There are so many questions, but so few answers. Everybody knows things are bad, everybody knows that it’s only going to get worse–and everybody also knows that talking to researchers or activists or even to your neighbor can reign sweeping ICE raids down on your community. So although there are statistics and research on violence within various immigrant communities, in many ways that research is flawed from the start. How many people are really going to talk? And what recommendations can the researchers possibly suggest that would ever be implemented–when sexual violence isn’t really sexual violence for citizens–unless the police say it is?

None of these questions even begins to address the issue of whether or not culturally specific help (such as: Is there someone who speaks the language of the survivor with her? Is there someone who understands the cultural implications of her speaking out? Are there materials given to her in her own language?) is available to the survivor. And they only just barely attempts to explore what sexual violence is to begin with. Is it a woman losing custody of her baby because she was swept up in a work place raid? Is it a trans woman being housed in male or segregated detention centers? Is it being forced to give birth while shackled?

What do immigrant women do when the ‘perp’ is the same entity that is supposed to decide if what they experienced was violence?

I know I’ve painted a very grim picture for immigrant sexual assault survivors in the US.* But there is some hope. Lots of it, in fact. Legal organizations like the ACLU and Human Right’s Watch have been immensely important helping sexual assault survivors attain some sort of relief. And survivors themselves are also organizing. For example, as Cara noted here, domestic workers have been particularly successful in organizing for improved (i.e. an end to sexual violence) work place conditions.

The one organizing tactic I really wanted to point out though, was the one of survivors giving “testimonios.” Testimonios are ‘testimonies’ that survivors of all sorts of trauma give as a way to politicize, document, and testify their experiences. They may not get their day in court, but they do get to speak. Although testimonios have been specifically utilized as a concept by Latin@s, it is something I think all cultures understand and even do. A documentary is often little more than a way to document a testimonio.

For an immigrant woman, a testimonio is often the only justice she’ll ever see. She generally gives her testimonio when a trusted organization in the community collects video data of people after a community wide trauma like workplace raids. The woman can control what she says, how she says it, as well as how she is represented within the video. I’ve seen testimonios where women are never visible on screen, where a part of their face is blacked out, and where nothing is hidden at all.

In mainstream media, and even in activist media, often times the stories of survivors are presented in very exploitative ways–for example, nobody tells the woman that the intimate details that she speaks of will be available permanently on the internet. Testimonios are different in that they are driven by the needs of the survivor and are made within the context of a movement. In other words, there is no single shot of a woman crying about how much her husband beats her and that is that.

The woman tells her story in her own way in an attempt to answer the question, “What could be done?” She testifies. Explains why things happened. What she thought should’ve happened. What she’d like to see happen.

What it means to her to be one of the people in this world that no police will ever agree has been raped.

You have to look for testimonios. They aren’t like government or university research, that gets picked up by the media. They are generally collected by pro-immigrant activist organizations or indy media/media justice activists. But it’s important to look for them–and essential that they are viewed and passed around. They show how terribly inadequate the ‘solution’ to immigration proposed by mainstream pro-immigration organizations (legalization) is for dealing with things like sexual violence. They demand space be opened up for those immigrants that don’t fit the “good immigrant” narrative so many mainstream (especially) Latin@ organizations have latched onto.

But most importantly, testimonios give voice to those who have been abused in some of the most horrific ways possible and they force us to be accountable to those voices. They tell other survivors that their words are important, they are important, and we are so happy, so thankful that they survived.

There are no easy answers for survivors of sexual assault in the immigrant community–and there are no easy ways to help. Yes, you can “click here to support,” and that surely does help–but the “fixing” kind of help, the “ending sexual violence” kind of help, is not that easy. It will require taking a good long hard look at what many feminists are deeply invested in: a nation/state response to sexual violence. Or, waiting for the police to finally decide, was it rape?

It’s time for those of us with citizenship privileges to ask ourselves important questions about our own politics. What would it mean for citizen and non-citizen alike, if the police no longer had the power to decide who is a survivor?

The following are examples of testimonios. I don’t have transcripts, but most of the first one has captions for translation, and the second one is completely translated.

VIDEO: several testimonios given after a work place raid in New Bedford Massachusetts.

VIDEO: a single testimonio given after the same work place raid.

*(it should be noted that there are similar conditions for immigrant sexual assault survivors in other countries as well for example: In Canada, the Canadian Border Services Agency attempted to arrest an immigrant woman at a domestic violence shelter.)


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18 comments for “Confronting Citizenship in Sexual Assault

  1. Sailorman
    April 14, 2010 at 11:16 am

    I have the right to vote, to have a gun, etc. But I also have the right to a driver’s license, and thus a job. I have the right to a social security number, and again, thus a job. I have the right to welfare, to disability and unemployment.

    Minor but important correction: We have a limited number of Constitutional rights, almost all of which can be defined using the wording “the government cannot prevent me from ______” and almost none of which can be defined using the wording “the government is obliged to provide me with____.”

    The other things you describe are privileges or benefits, not rights; you have many more of those. You don’t have a right to welfare, disability, unemployment, a driver’s license, a job, a car, or even to food and emergency medical treatment. Those are provided through laws, but they’re not rights: If Congress wanted to, it could take all of those things away.

    But in the end, you should know that there is a strong base of people (and government officials) who believe in providing full legal protections to all irrespective of citizenship. I have numerous clients who are not here legally. I am able to enforce their rights through the U.S. court system (including but not limited to getting the help of the attorney general, police, and/or prosecutor as needed) without imperiling their immigration status. Some of those suits involve reliance on the power of the state to help illegal immigrants: for example, they are entitled to minimum wage and OT, and can sue if those things are denied.

    And that makes sense: the cost of allowing a single person to remain in the country illegally (turning a blind eye toward their legal status) is much less than the social cost of allowing someone to commit crimes without repercussions, and it is much less than the social cost of creating an entire class of people who can legally be trampled on without recourse.

    It’s time for those of us with citizenship privileges to ask ourselves important questions about our own politics. What would it mean for citizen and non-citizen alike, if the police no longer had the power to decide who is a survivor?

    Good question. Although the process is flawed, someone needs to be making the determination of what conduct is (or is likely to be) criminal, i.e. what conduct is likely to result in a criminal conviction. Those people–at the base level–are currently the police. I suppose you could give that power to someone else, but the result would not be much different, IMO. It still involves discretion.

    Remember though that this discretion only applies to criminal charges, which are “crimes against the state.” If you’re talking about what conduct is wrong (as opposed to criminal) then you can sue in civil court, with or without the help of the police. Assault, battery, emotional distress…. these are civil torts which permit people to get their day in court with or without prosecutorial help. And unlike the criminal process, there is no “reasonable doubt” in civil court, only “more likely than not.” If you can convince a jury that you’re 51% right, you win. You can’t get jail in civil court, but you can get money, restraining orders, and vindication.

  2. April 14, 2010 at 11:51 am

    Thank you so much for this! Beautifully written — and your compassion (for self, for other) shines through so clearly.

    I was just talking with my partner last night, who asked, “How do feminists actually organize? Not just publish, but organize?” We discussed some current W/TOC movements, and one of the strongest (most pressing & most robust) areas seemed to be anti-sexual-violence work that operates outside of the state/criminal-justice system. (And I love how you open up the possibility of rethinking what counts as sexual violence. Key.)

    A guest post over at Womanist Musings today defines the main goals of feminism as “equal rights and legal protections for women,” which is a model that I think (and you articulate) we really need to critique and move beyond.

    Thank you for sharing this powerful tool, a step in the right direction. I might try to organize with some neighborhood women (there are a few who come regularly to the community center where I live, who are interested in self-organizing a small support group as current/former prostitutes who are considered “illegal” for a whole slew of reasons), to gather testimonios. Thanks again for the inspiration, bfp. I really needed this today.

  3. bq
    April 14, 2010 at 1:21 pm

    sailorman, i take issue with your earnest faith in institutions that wide swaths of many marginalized communities mistrust…involving police and courts often creates problems even for people who are citizens. there are plenty of people who would not feel comfortable going to the same group of armed men that brutalize people in their communities. i would recommend INCITE!’s Color of Violence anthology for a look at the race/class/gender issues involved and also Policing the National Body (edited by Jael M. Silliman and Anannya Bhattacharjee) for more on this.

  4. Emily
    April 14, 2010 at 2:22 pm

    @Sailorman – The fact that WITH A LAWYER some people without legal documents can get protection from the state absolutely does not mean that many many people without legal documents are abused and harmed by the state if they turn to their local institutions for protection in the exact same situation. Whole groups of people do not have access to a lawyer and are at the mercy of ill trained, and often bigoted front-line personnel like police officers, deputies and prosecutors.

    @bfp – thank you for sharing this. Those testimonios are heartbreaking. I had to stop watching the first one; as a new mama I am particularly wigged out by stories of people being violently separated from their young children.

  5. April 14, 2010 at 5:07 pm

    i was thinking about this, walking down our alley the other day, how advantaged i am to have citizenship – and not only to have it, but to be assumed to have it by anyone who looks at my pale skin and european features. for a lot of latin@s in this country, even if they *are* citizens, they never know when someone is gonna assume otherwise (or assume there’s a possibility of “otherwise”) because of it. especially if they are undocumented, or even if they’re documented but they don’t happen to carry around absolute proof with them at all times, or even if they do and people still don’t really care.

    i hadn’t even considered what it means when it comes to sexual assault — with a community of folks who already know they can’t trust the police, or any authority — but there really is nowhere to turn, because any contact with any official is full of potential for tragedy…

    i want to come back and read this closer later, when i have time and this headache isn’t consuming my brain. but thank you so much for continuing to raise this issue, and to write so beautifully on such important topics.

  6. Sailorman
    April 14, 2010 at 6:02 pm

    Er… I wasn’t intending to suggest that things were perfect, merely to point out that there are plenty of in-system people (i.e. “a strong base,” which is all I said) who are working towards similar goals.

  7. April 14, 2010 at 7:11 pm

    Those testimonies break my heart.

    And, also, as a new mother as well, the issue of breastfeeding was almost too much to bear.

    What would it mean for citizen and non-citizen alike, if the police no longer had the power to decide who is a survivor?

    Such an important question.

  8. April 14, 2010 at 9:09 pm

    I’m doing a lot of research on recovery, and in the course of the reading I’ve been doing, I have been stumped by one of the most important factors in recovery that none of the usual organizations address: what if you don’t have access to traditional therapeutic means? This post opened up many, many, many lines of questions for me.

    Also, these testimonies are amazing, powerful, heartbreaking, necessary. What these women suffered at the hands of those who are supposed to protect and help them is needlessly inhumane and cruel. To me, THAT is what evil looks like.

  9. Katie
    April 14, 2010 at 10:39 pm

    Thanks for this important post.

  10. April 15, 2010 at 5:27 am

    Thank you so much for this, bfp.

  11. Siah
    April 15, 2010 at 6:51 am

    Thank you.

    This is IMMENSELY important, not only with regards to un-documented immigrants but also in relation to International Students. Contrary to popular belief, not all International Students come from wealthy families. Not all can pay for their education in a Western country solely through family money and/or loans. And no, those week-long “International Student Orientations” certainly don’t equip non-resident students to navigate North American culture, when it comes to issues such as sexual abuse. Many times, International Students end up working odd jobs, off-campus (which is not allowed under a student visa – but on campus jobs are next to impossible when you are not a citizen.) Seeking governmental guidance after sexual assault could very well result in these students being expelled from university. When you have your entire family working hard and expecting you to make a life for yourself with that coveted US degree, it is not always easy to make the decision to report sexual abuse and risk deportation – especially after spending an insane amount of money on tuition fees.

  12. April 15, 2010 at 6:59 am

    Denying people protection of law is the same shortsightedness as denying them health care. In an epidemic germs don’t care what your status is. A predator who gets away with crimes against undocumented women will be free to commit crimes against citizens.

  13. Emily
    April 15, 2010 at 1:29 pm

    @Sailorman – I think I was reacting negatively to your tone, and to your taking a post about the abuses and vulnerability suffered by a group and commenting about how a small handful of that group are able to get redress by the system. It seemed like an “it’s really not all that bad” reaction, whether you meant it that way or not. I don’t think that the treatment the women in the testimonios suffered was aberrant. I think it more likely that the treatment your clients receive is aberrant, because they have somehow managed to get a lawyer to advocate for them.

    The “you should know” at the beginning of your comment, combined with your “strong base” and “plenty” for me overestimates the support that undocumented largely non-English speaking individuals can expect to get from “the system” should they ever decide or have to interact with it. There are resources out there for a few who are lucky enough to find them, but, as demonstrated by the heartbreaking testimonios that bfp posted, the brutality and mean-spiritedness that many people encounter from law enforcement and government officers is overwhelming.

    I think your first comment had an “it’s not really that bad” message, and I think that message is wrong.

  14. Sailorman
    April 15, 2010 at 3:40 pm

    I’m sorry if I used the wrong tone. But I’m not so sure that I agree with you that what I describe is only a tiny minority and/or an outlier.

    I was on the phone with the Massachusetts Attorney general’s office just the other day, asking about an employment issue, and I brought this question up. The assistant A.G. told me that about 80% of their employment cases involve someone who is here illegally; they they find out only when the employer raises it as a defense, and that by and large they simply don’t care. I have two clients now who have been arrested and convicted for DUI, and who are both still here. So do a lot of attorneys I know.

    Hell, my courthouse has one day a week where they push all the cases requiring translators, and (in this case) about 70% of them are here illegally, and nobody cares. They get their day in court just like everyone else.

    I certainly understand that there’s some bad shit that goes down, as evidenced by the various testimonios. That’s valuable and important information. That’s something that should be changed. But I don’t think it’s accurate to represent those experiences as universal or, necessarily, even “more common than other experiences.”

    I am not saying that it’s worth blowing off. I’ve had to have the “you’re SOL and you’re getting deported” conversation with people and it really sucks for them. But it’s important to ALSO acknowledge that there are something like 20 million illegal immigrants, that they go to school and hold jobs and get licenses and participate in society. And that the ~1.5% (about 350,000 people in 2008) who get deported each year are, to at least some degree, convicted criminals or people who have some other offense than simply being here (rape will get you kicked out for sure, for example.)

    I don’t know if this tone is wrong, too. It’s just taht this seems to be presenting itself as representative of “what really happens” and I don’t think that’s really accurate.

  15. Lea
    April 15, 2010 at 5:16 pm

    Thank you so much for this post. I work with (mostly undocumented) immigrants (mostly women) who are survivors of domestic violence, human trafficking, and other violent crimes, helping them get legal status (ie visas and green cards). The problems that you lay out here are ones I see in my everyday work, of the silence that is imposed on undocumented people who are victimized, and of how many many people feel they have nowhere to turn and no one who will help or speak up for them when they can’t help or speak up for themselves. I did want to point out, though, that there are a few (deeply flawed and imperfect but still extant) options available to undocumented crime victims and survivors, which can provide some folks with immigration relief, tremendous empowerment, and a chance at healing.

    One is the VAWA self-petition, which is for people legally married to a US citizen or permanent resident who is abusive. Even if the spouse with immigration status has never applied for hir partner, the DV survivor can apply on hir own. You have to prove to Immigration that you were abused, but I have seen petitions approved based only on the affidavits of the applicants, even if they don’t have police reports or other corroborating evidence. There’s a similar process called a Battered Spouse Waiver, which is for people who have conditional green cards because they were married less than 2 years when they applied. The Waiver gets them a permanent (10-year) card without having to depend on an abuser.

    Another is called the U visa. It’s for survivors of one or more from a list of qualifying crimes (including rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence) who have been helpful to law enforcement and/or prosecution in investigating and prosecuting that crime. Now, this is clearly incredibly problematic, since it requires people to report to police, who often can’t speak their language, don’t care to investigate the crime (especially if it’s DV), and/or are otherwise racist, sexist, classist, or coercive and abusive. Not to mention that in a lot of the country police have the power to check your immigration status (not in New York, where I work). It means a lot of people who drop charges because don’t want to see their partner or co-parent go to jail (because they still love hir, because they don’t want their child to see a parent in jail, because they depend on hir financial support, etc) can’t apply for this visa. But there are some people who do report to police, whose cases do go to trial, and who can get the certification of cooperation necessary to apply for the visa. Places like the Family Justice Centers in Brooklyn and Queens (and other large cities, see the Family Justice Center Alliance) can help with reporting to police, as they have police on-site who are significantly experienced with DV, and they have case managers and translators and others who can help survivors advocate for themselves.

    Finally, there’s the T visa, which is for survivors of human trafficking. There’s a whole book to be written (and many have been and continue to be written) and many debates to be had about the legal definition of trafficking, how inclusive or exclusive it is, what populations it should and shouldn’t be applied to, who rallies around it, etc. But people who are trafficked for sex and/or labor as defined by current law can get immigration status again by helping an investigation OR trying to instigate one. Often officials don’t investigate, but for this visa you’re not blocked from applying just because there was no investigation. You do have to show that you tried to get someone to investigate.

    Ending this essay, I’m basically an open-borders, fuck-Immigration person and I’m appalled by the racism and jingoism displayed across the country, especially in places like Arizona, but frankly, it’s all too common in the federal government, the media, and local government where I live too, as well as the general culture. I think the remedies that exist are really problematic and can be disempowering and harmful to a lot of people. However, I also see clients almost every day who get green cards and tell me that now they can move on with their lives, get a job, visit their families, get health insurance, and no longer be afraid they’ll lose their children. And even though there are still a whole host of other reasons not to go to police or other law enforcement, fear of their immigration status being found out is no longer one of them for these people.

  16. April 15, 2010 at 5:18 pm

    Great post! If you don’t already know about it, you might want to look into the “U” Visa and the VAWA self-petition processes, which are both relevant to what you’re discussing here.

    The U Visa is a special residence visa for immigrant victims of certain crimes who agree to help with investigation or prosecution of the crime. Rape and sexual assault are just some of the crimes included. The process is imperfect, because not only do many immigrants not know about it but even many police officers don’t know about it or don’t know how to use it, and the victim has to depend on law enforcement to fill out the paperwork.

    The Violence Against Women Act has a provision similar to the U-Visa, which allows non-citizen victims of citizen abuser spouses (or other family members) a path to a work visa and eventually citizenship, that doesn’t rely on the abuser signing papers and being present at immigration interviews, etc. In fact withholding cooperation in ongoing immigration proceedings has become another form of domestic abuse that this provision is intended to circumvent. Still imperfect, because not enough victims or service providers know it is an option, but it is something.

    Because of the complexity of these options, immigrants who might benefit from them should always consult an immigration attorney or other immigration professional, and not assume they can go directly to the police or ICE. Because of the lack of training in law enforcement, many people that could otherwise be helped by these provisions get immediately deported instead, and/or detained, and/or further abused.

    I know all this because I directed a training video commissioned by the Southern Arizona Battered Immigrant Women Project, a multi-agency coalition which conducts workshops for public service prociders about the rights of non-citizen abuse victims. The video, which will be bilingual, is intended to educate service providers, including law enforcement, therapists, counselors, medical personnel, etc. It will be released later this year on a DVD – it’s a DOJ-funded project so I think it will be distributed all over, or at least throughout Arizona.

    Again, by mentioning this I don’t want to sound like I think these legal provisions are the sole and complete answer. They’re just a small, possible option for obtaining justice and security for non-citizen sexual assault survivors.

    Thanks again for blogging about this important subject.

  17. Lea
    April 15, 2010 at 5:33 pm

    And re-reading what I wrote, I didn’t mean to disregard the final, crucial point you make in this post. That police and the justice system are the final official arbiters of whether or not sexual violence occurred means that an unknown number of women’s experiences are denied or disregarded. This is not OK and it makes me very uncomfortable with the work I do, because I’m (indirectly and directly) upholding that system through it. And thank you for sharing the concept of testimonios, this is something I’d like to learn more about, both for the sake of my own development as a feminist and organizer and for the sake of my clients, and those who can’t be my clients because we don’t have the resources, they don’t know to call, or they didn’t fulfill the precise requirements of the law to get legal immigration relief.

  18. Chuckie K
    April 15, 2010 at 10:06 pm

    Sailorman’s remarks are neither a correction nor important. They do signal a fundamental disagreement with BfP about what rights are, and I have to agree with BfP’s assumptions.
    Laws do not establish and define rights for all time, never to be changed. People create rights from their needs and their dreams and establish them through their struggles. If we were stuck in perpetuity with only the handful of civil rights institutionalized by the American Revolution, we would be in sad shape indeed. BfP’s examples of the needs of immigrants illuminate the implicit rights enjoyed by citizens, men, and legal immigrants. The denial of these rights to to illegal immigrants and the particularly destructive consequences for immigrant women differs in no significant way from the former denial of civil and property rights to women. A state system that denies the rights of personal integrity, legal protection and institutional redress to *anyone* practices injustice and forfeits its legitimacy. I would say those are rights worth fighting for.

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