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Undocumented Immigrant Women: The Walls between Abuse, the Law and the Human

By Jasmin Lilian Diab, Author and Researcher

One of the most critical issues within the field of Migration Studies today remains the delicate status of undocumented immigrants. In turn, immigration legislative proposals are currently at the center of heated debates on political, social, and economic levels – these debates often hindering the more important issue at hand which is the needs of undocumented victims of abuse.

Undocumented women who are victims of any form of abuse, be it physical, emotional, sexual or verbal abuse committed by their spouses, parents or citizens of the host country do not possess any form of legal protection. The sad fact is that the law does not always treat these immigrant women as individuals with rights, but rather looks at their illegal “status” as a justification for the fact that they are being stripped of their basic human rights and their dignity.

Despite the fact that discourse, research, and policy critiques have both addressed the severity of this issue, as well as provided tremendous research and publication efforts in the areas of history of current legal protections and the potential for these victims to obtain citizenship legally, little progress has been made in this regard. Even more noteworthy, is the fact that discourse and research has also tackled the barriers associated with reporting abuse and seeking help for undocumented battered women, and has also looked into medical practices and advocacy in order to aid in moving beyond the challenges in the accessing of services by this marginalized and segregated faction of the population.

The group “immigrant women” is a diverse group which encompasses women who have lived in the host country anywhere between one month and fifty years. An immigrant woman within this category may have entered the host country as a refugee, as a student, as a tourist, or as a job-seeker looking for better economic conditions and upward social mobility – with the initial intention of doing this legally.

The issue with rendering a life “illegal” is problematic on more than one level. One of the major violations of these individual’s basic human needs often comes from non-governmental organizations who are sadly more preoccupied with the legal consequences or funding limitations of aiding a battered immigrant women, particularly one who is undocumented or who is “illegally present within the country” than in aiding these women in-line with their own mandates, visions and mission statements. Is it that aid is selective? Or is it that aid has lost its humanitarian aspect completely?

Often enough, the barrier between the law and the individuals exist due to the lack of education. Most non-governmental organizations mistakenly assume that the provision of services to undocumented women is against the law. However, what these non-governmental organizations are explicitly unaware of is that they are particularly exempt from any requirements of verifying immigration legality status as a pre-condition for the provision of aid.

Moreover, any non-governmental organizations, domestic violence programs, as well as shelter services which deny the provision of aid and protection to these undocumented immigrants are not only in violation of International Law, but are in violation of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (1990) Part I, Article, 1 stating:

“ […] The present Convention is applicable, except as otherwise provided hereafter, to all migrant workers and members of their families without distinction of any kind such as sex, race, color, language, religion or conviction, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, nationality, age, economic position, property, marital status, birth or other status.”

Immigration status is not relevant to a battered immigrant woman requesting the protection of her life on a basic human rights level. The fact that a woman may not be a citizen of the host country or a “legal” resident of the country in question, must not hinder non-governmental, governmental and inter-governmental agencies’ ability to provide her with adequate protection.

Immigrant women whose immigration status has not yet been permanently established, due to the fact that they have arrived recently in their host country, or have arrived under unusually harsh conditions are usually in the condition they are in for three main reasons: They are undocumented; they are conditional residents; They are here on visas which were originally temporary and have expired. Often in these cases, their batterers are the ones who possess the control and who take advantage of their “unsettled” immigration status as a means of manipulating them, and scaring them into staying within the abusive relationships they are in. It is in cases like the aforementioned that women experience the complex intersectionality of having domestic violence coupled with their illegal immigration status – a matter often turned into a vicious cycle of abuse and human rights violations which ramify into fundamental and secondary rights being violated.

The international community, as well as national governments currently lack the proper vision in their assessment of human rights violations – often not developing their understandings and applications towards the realization that intersectionality governs the manner in which human being interact with each other, and that a violation of one right, is the catalyst and often the foundation for a another right to be violated. In these cases, even if these women were to attempt to regain a “legal” immigration status, this option is often restricted by domestic violence itself. The role of civil society, the government and the international community must be strongly rooted in learning about mechanisms and further facilitate battered immigrant women’s access to these mechanisms, rather than being pre-occupied with the labelling of a human life as one that is illegal or not.


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