Protecting Women’s Rights at the Border through Advocacy and Education
By Nina Rabin, director of border research, Southwest Institute for Research on Women
The maxim “think globally, act locally” is particularly easy to practice at international borders, where local issues are inherently global and the effects of worldwide migration are apparent in acutely immediate ways. When I joined the Southwest Institute for Research on Women (SIROW) just over a year ago, I sought out initiatives at the heart of this convergence--those that would address the local impacts of globalization on underserved women living in Southern Arizona. My background as an attorney representing immigrants and low-income workers led me toward programs that would alleviate the negative effects of U.S. immigration and border policies on women immigrants’ rights. As a member of SIROW, the research arm of the Women’s Studies Department at the University of Arizona, I have had the opportunity to develop projects that harness the University’s research and education capabilities to improve conditions for immigrant women, while at the same time providing students with a unique education in globalization.
Women immigrants in the border region are caught in the crossfire of U.S. immigration policies and the forces of global economic and political development. Their numbers have surged over the past decade as more women cross the border to search for better wages, locate family members, or escape from violence. Women migrants undertake a treacherous journey north complicated by increased enforcement of U.S. immigration policies at the border. Some women do not survive the journey. Many experience sexual violence along the way, and some are apprehended at the border and placed in detention facilities. Those who do reach their destinations face a harsh reality. Federal and state policies currently place little emphasis on the enforcement of labor laws and significant emphasis on high-profile enforcement of immigration laws. This leaves women immigrants in the labor force particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. They fear that in speaking out about mistreatment, they will draw attention to themselves and risk deportation.
The project I direct, Protecting Women’s Rights at the Border, responds to this dire situation with a unique combination of education, outreach, legal services, and research. Like all of SIROW’s projects, it applies a “participatory research-action” model, in which research participants play an active role in developing and implementing projects rather than acting as passive subjects. I find this approach especially well-suited for academic research on globalization, which occurs at the crux of several deeply inequitable relationships: between the United States and Mexico, between the university and its surrounding communities, and in this case, between women migrants and the larger global economic and political forces that shape their lives. To avoid replicating unequal power dynamics, we have structured the project to encourage participants to actively shape its goals and contours. From an educational perspective, our approach also permits the students involved to move beyond abstract discussions of globalization and confront specific individual lives impacted by global trends.
In its pilot year, “Protecting Women’s Rights at the Border” has launched two initiatives: the Tucson Women Workers’ Project and the Report on Women in Immigration Detention Facilities. Together, they represent a multi-faceted, interdisciplinary, and inter-institutional approach to addressing the complex local-level effects of globalization on women’s lives.
The Tucson Women Workers’ Project
The Tucson Women Workers’ Project provides low-wage women workers with legal information, advice, and counseling about their employment rights. It also offers outreach, education, research, and advocacy in order to improve working conditions in occupations where low-wage women workers, particularly immigrant women, predominate.
The project serves all low-wage women workers, immigrants and citizens alike. But it particularly targets its outreach to domestic workers and child- and elder-care providers, who are predominantly immigrant women. Because women in these occupations typically work outside public view, they are especially susceptible to unsafe working conditions and violations of basic wage and hour protections. Many of these women speak only Spanish or have limited English proficiency. Some do not have lawful immigration status, which makes them all the more vulnerable to exploitation.
The Women Workers’ Project aims to address the complex needs of women immigrant workers by bringing together the strengths of various institutions and individuals: the resources and research capabilities of the University of Arizona, the community organizing and advocacy expertise of my nonprofit partner on the project, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), and the energy and initiative of the students and women participants.
A weekly walk-in labor rights clinic forms the core of the project. Every Wednesday evening at one of SIROW’s community offices, students from the University of Arizona’s law school and a rotating group of volunteer attorneys provide confidential legal advice and counseling to women workers about their rights in the workplace. Students and community members also provide free on-site childcare. SIROW trains all clinic staff to respond to questions about employment matters, including wage and hour violations, race and sex discrimination, sexual harassment, unemployment benefits, and workers’ compensation. In some cases, staff members provide women with ongoing support and assistance in resolving workplace disputes outside clinic hours. In other cases, they refer women to a network of local attorneys and organizations that can provide further assistance.
As the project aims to address the challenges faced by women immigrant workers on a systemic as well as an individual level, the clinics serve an additional function beyond providing women with individualized advice. The clinics are also an entry point into a variety of training and educational opportunities that introduce women to basic employment law concepts and develop their advocacy skills. The project offers workshops that teach women about minimum wage and overtime laws, negotiation skills, and legally required accommodations for workers who are experiencing domestic violence at home. These workshops encourage women to assert a measure of control over their work arrangements and thereby prevent some of the abusive situations that originally brought them to the clinic. We hope that women can employ this training to collectively reshape some of the systemic inequities that have disenfranchised them.
We also actively encourage women interested in leadership to become involved in shaping the activities and goals of the Women Workers’ Project. By enrolling in a series of training sessions, women can become “outreach coordinators” who lead know-your-rights presentations for small groups of women workers in their own communities. They can also join a growing group of women in the community who meet regularly with SIROW and AFSC staff and law students to discuss the project’s plans and priorities.
The labor rights clinic additionally serves systemic goals by collecting data on trends and recurring problems facing immigrant women workers. Before discussing an individual’s specific employment question at the clinic, a law student guides her through an intake form with a series of questions about the conditions of her employment. This information forms the basis for reports and advocacy campaigns that aim to raise public awareness about the working conditions of low-wage immigrant women workers and highlight needed policy reforms.
Finally, the Women Workers’ Project provides a valuable educational experience for law student participants. The legal concepts and skills that students learn in the classroom gain an important additional layer of meaning when applied to the challenges working immigrant women face. One student shared the following reflections in a journal about her experience with the clinic:
"[Over the course of the semester], [w]omen came to us with a variety of problems and workplace issues, but what came through to me most strongly was that women’s issues cross class, racial, ethnic, and citizenship boundaries. This is not news, but sometimes I think we forget the truth of the universality of the female experience. On one of my last evenings at the clinic, a woman walked in with our Legal Clinic flyer in her hands, with her children, and told me her story. Her story, sometimes tearful, sometimes funny, often complicated, was filled with struggle and hard work and pride. Was she a citizen? I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. But what touched me most was her clutching our flyer as she talked, as if we represented her one tie to the law that she hoped would help. I have faith that it can, because her being in this country means that the law belongs to her, no questions asked."
We hope that experiences like the one this student recounts can inform future careers, regardless of whether students pursue specialties related to immigration or employment law. By working at the clinics, students gain a deeper understanding of how laws and policies influence marginalized communities and begin to see the law as part of a holistic array of approaches to addressing the needs of vulnerable populations.
In time, we hope to expand the educational opportunities presented by the Women Workers’ Project to students in other parts of the university in addition to the law school. We are already exploring ways to involve undergraduates in providing child care for the clinic, as well as in many of the project’s community education and outreach activities. Spanish-speaking students at both the undergraduate and graduate level, for example, might receive credit for serving as translators at the clinic in workshops and at other events.
Report on Women in Immigration Detention Facilities
Although federal immigration policy reform has made headlines over the past year, the critical role of immigration detention facilities has received little public notice and even less academic attention. Very limited information is available about the 28,000 people in immigration detention on any given day (Torres 2007), including 2,500 in Arizona, of which approximately 200 are women.1 This project uses research, reports, and advocacy on behalf of this often invisible population to address the lack of knowledge and awareness. Women in particular stand to benefit from the increased attention. Because women represent a small fraction of the total population of detainees, their needs often remain unaddressed. The U.S. federal government, which began systematically detaining women in Arizona only as recently as 2001, has not taken steps to adapt detention facilities to address women’s specific needs.
Women immigrants end up in detention facilities in two main ways. First, when the border patrol apprehends women who are not from Mexico at the U.S.-Mexico border, it places these women in detention facilities to await transportation to their countries of origin. (Women from Mexico are placed in separate short-term detention facilities and/or immediately repatriated.) Second, women immigrants who commit a crime that requires their deportation enter the facilities after they have served their criminal sentences, while their deportation proceedings are underway. The list of deportable criminal offenses has expanded rapidly over the past ten years. Relatively minor crimes, such as shoplifting or possession of any controlled substance, can be grounds for deportation, even for legal immigrants who have resided in the United States for years.
In any case, if a detainee raises a legal claim as to why she should not be deported, she remains in detention pending the proceedings on her claim. She may claim and receive asylum if she will face persecution or torture upon returning to her home country. Alternately, she may be eligible for a legal remedy called “cancellation of removal,” in which a judge determines that the hardship her deportation would impose on her family outweighs its benefits. These legal determinations take months at minimum and sometimes continue for years prior to a final decision. Federal policies now require many immigrants to remain in detention facilities for the duration of this waiting period.
Until the mid 1990s, the U.S. federal government did not detain immigrants in substantial numbers, instead releasing them pending their deportation hearing date. But in 1996, the federal law changed dramatically and now mandates detention in the vast majority of cases, in an effort to prevent immigrants from disappearing while their cases are pending. As a result, the number of immigrants detained has increased astronomically, from an average daily population of 6,000 in 1995 to over 27,000 in 2007, and women are being detained in large numbers for the first time (Dow 2007).
In the fall of 2007, SIROW launched a documentation effort to gather as much information as possible about conditions in women’s immigration detention facilities in Arizona. The government agency in charge of detention facilities granted me permission to conduct five days of interviews with women detainees in two of the three facilities that house women detainees in the state. I conducted these interviews with the help of three law students in October 2007. In an effort to gather as much information as possible and include a variety of perspectives, we also interviewed attorneys who have represented currently detained women, previous detainees, and detainees’ family members.
The project is still in its data collection phase, but many of the key points we hope to highlight in our report have already appeared repeatedly in our interviews. Perhaps most striking is the strain that women immigrants’ detention puts on their families, including their children, who are often U.S. citizens. Current policy and practice permits detainment of many women without regard to the fact that they are the primary caregivers for their families. Detention facilities are often in remote locations, exacerbating the impact of detention on families. Because the U.S. government has only recently begun detaining women in significant numbers, it cannot provide sufficient bed space for women near their communities. As a result, the government transports women to facilities hundreds or thousands of miles away from their homes. Other key areas of concern include the adequacy of medical services available to women detainees, particularly for gender-specific conditions including pregnancy; the mental health services available, especially for women refugees fleeing gender-related violence and abuse; and access to legal and social service providers.
Once our researchers have completed the data collection phase, SIROW, with guidance from experts on the needs of at-risk women and organizations devoted to immigration and detention policy reform, will draft recommendations for immediate and long-term responsive measures by the appropriate federal agencies and Congress. We expect that these recommendations will suggest that the federal government consider alternatives to detention.
Our research has already affected the students involved. In conducting interviews, students open a window into the lives of women who are far removed from their law school halls. Students have interviewed women from remote countries around the world, many of whom live in circumstances few law students have encountered. These interviews have inspired moments of unexpected connection. The detainees recognize our genuine desire to hear their stories and their ideas for reform. Their willingness to share their experiences with us in the context of a research study has provided the students with an opportunity to view current immigration enforcement laws and policies through a perspective both empathetic and objective. By engaging in this type of research, students develop the capacity to move between large-scale policy considerations and the individual lives those policies affect. These analytical skills, while always essential, are particularly crucial for students aiming to understand and address the effects of globalization.
Both the Tucson Women Workers Project and the Report on Women in Immigration Detention Facilities bring together a variety of institutions (the university, community-based organizations, and government agencies) and individuals (researchers, students, women immigrants, and advocates) to pursue the common goal of improving the lives of women immigrants in the U.S.-Mexico border region. Because the challenges facing immigrant women are so complex, they are best addressed using collaborative and multidisciplinary approaches. Immigrant women’s circumstances and needs are international in scope and interdisciplinary in nature, encompassing economic, legal, social, and psychological concerns. We hope that our approach will inspire sophisticated and responsive services, publications, and reforms. And we hope that by engaging all participants--researchers, students, and women immigrants alike--in the educationally rich experiences our projects provide, we will encourage them to understand globalization not simply in terms of macroeconomic forces and international relations, but in terms of specific individuals whose capacity to share information, exchange ideas, and work together propels us toward common goals.
1I draw the figures for Arizona from my interviews with service providers and facility personnel in the state.
Dow, M. 2007. Designed to punish: Immigrant detention and deportation. Social Research 74 (2).
Torres, J.P. 2007. Statement before the U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, Subcommittee on Border, Maritime, and Global Counterterrorism (March 15). http://hsc.house.gov/SiteDocuments/20070315162647-42745.pdf.