At the Border between Public and Private: U.S. Immigration Policy for Victims of Domestic Violence
The Law & Ethics of Human Rights, Forthcoming
58 Pages Posted: 14 Jun 2012 Last revised: 18 Oct 2012
Date Written: May 29, 2012
This paper is an examination of the treatment of women in flight from domestic violence at the U.S. Mexico border. It compares the robust state protections and institutional framework for women victims of domestic violence in the interior of the country with the hostile landscape women encounter at the border. The paper draws on three sources for information about the treatment at the border of domestic violence victims: an in-depth case study of one woman’s experience of domestic violence and flight, a small data set of women who fled domestic violence and were detained in Eloy Detention Center in Arizona during 2010 and 2011, and a detailed analysis of the policies and practices at play when a woman in flight from domestic violence comes to the U.S. border.
The case study, data sample, and policy analysis paint a grim picture that may surprise many. Women fleeing violence whose lives entangle with the border confront a bureaucracy and a justice system that harkens back to the time, fifty years ago, when domestic violence was seen as a private matter about which there was little the government could or should do to respond. Most often, women are immediately turned around and sent back to the abuse without any opportunity to explain their terror. If they do voice their fear, they are often locked up in detention centers for months and sometimes years at a time. In the majority of cases, after this prolonged incarceration, they are deported back to the abuse from which they fled. The U.S. immigration policies and practices that lead to these results are not only failing to respond to these victims’ harms; they are actually exacerbating their trauma and isolation, often sending them back to a more dangerous situation than the one they originally fled. Building on this descriptive account, the paper analyzes whether there is sound justification for the differential treatment immigrant women victims of domestic violence receive at the border as compared to in the interior of the country. A closer look at the treatment of immigrant victims of domestic violence in the interior reveals that they receive state protection and assistance so long as they are conceived of solely in terms of their victimization. Inevitably, when their status as victims becomes intertwined with their status as undocumented immigrants, the state’s commitment to robust protection and assistance weakens. What is unique at the geographic border, however, is the ways in which these anxieties about admissions are cloaked in language about the “private” nature of the violence at issue for women in flight from domestic violence. This use of the public/private distinction to express underlying concerns about immigration admissions policies is disturbing on two counts: it fails to discuss transparently the considerations at issue and it minimizes the deep structural roots of domestic violence no matter where it occurs.
Keywords: domestic violence, immigration, asylum, women
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