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What happens after the Women’s March? Gender and immigrant/refugee rights

On the morning of President Trump’s inauguration, women stood back to back, with their hair braided to each other, on the Paso del Norte Bridge, which connects El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. As activist Xochitl R. Nicholson explained, the gesture of braiding, one often performed by women, symbolized women’s solidarity in the face of anti-immigrant discrimination. Participants marched in El Paso the next day during the nation-wide women’s marches, as a part of a new coalition called “Boundless Across Borders.”

The website for the 21 January Women’s March on Washington names “immigrant rights” as one of its “unity principles”:

[W]e believe in immigrant and refugee rights regardless of status or country of origin. It is our moral duty to keep families together and empower all aspiring Americans to fully participate in, and contribute to, our economy and society. We reject mass deportation, family detention, violations of due process and violence against queer and trans migrants. Immigration reform must establish a roadmap to citizenship, and provide equal opportunities and workplace protections for all. We recognize that the call to action to love our neighbor is not limited to the United States, because there is a global migration crisis. We believe migration is a human right and that no human being is illegal.

How might participants in the women’s marches respond to this unity principle?

1) Listen to the experiences of immigrants and refugees.

At the El Paso march, participants talked about the fears undocumented women face about being torn apart from their children, the possibility of deportation if they report domestic violence, or the possibility of being denied asylum. Queer and trans migrants often escape countries that see them as “deviants” only to encounter violence and bigotry at the hands of immigration officials or in detention centers. Smugglers take advantage of desperate migrants by stealing their money or raping and assaulting them. The lived realities of immigrants and refugees are more complex than the classifications governments may impose on them.

2) Recognize when gender is missing from key policies, laws, and political conversations regarding immigrant/refugee rights.

Take for example that gender is missing in refugee law. A refugee is someone who has received asylum, or legal protection from deportation due to fear of or experiences of persecution due to religion, race, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a social group. Gender is not on the list of accepted “grounds” of persecution in the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention or the 1980 United States Refugee Act. But gendered persecution exists, comprising violence against people who have not lived up to gendered expectations; sexual violence used to punish or discipline women and men; and attacks on people with non-conforming gender identities and sexual orientation. Asylum seekers who have experienced gendered persecution must convincingly present the legitimacy of their claims to immigration officials and judges who may have different theories about what counts as gender violence and who counts as a victim.

Inquire further if gender is missing when it shouldn’t be. Dig deeper when it seems as if gender violence is being addressed to see who is being counted as a victim and who is not.

President Trump’s executive order on border security increases the power of asylum officers and immigration agents to decide which asylum seekers should proceed to immigration courts, where judges may be more equipped to understand the nuances of asylum claims. Immigration lawyers predict that officials will deny an increasing number of asylum claims, and these migrants will end up in detention centers and eventually deported. Some may avoid the risk of applying for asylum and instead live as undocumented migrants. The impact might be even more profound for gender claims, given the difficulty of proving a type of persecution not included in refugee law.

3) Be curious when gender is present in key policies, laws, and political conversations regarding immigrant/refugee rights.

Trump surrogates recently praised the president’s alleged crackdown on sex traffickers in his first weeks in office. They also drew attention to a meeting President Trump held at his daughter Ivanka’s behest with anti-trafficking organizations, including those with a focus on violence against women and children. Despite the administration’s hardline approach to keeping out and deporting certain immigrants and refugees, will there be an exception for foreign trafficking victims, who have historically received T visas to protect them from deportation? Is the Trump administration, per the executive order on trafficking, concerned about “murders, rapes, and other barbaric acts”?

Rather than accept this focus on trafficking at face value, let’s look at the context. Since the early 2000s, Christian evangelical groups, due to their moral panic about sexual immorality, have pushed US Congressional members to give victims legal protection from deportation and to empower law enforcement to address sex trafficking. Most of these groups are anti-prostitution, are far more concerned about sex trafficking than labor trafficking even though the latter is more prevalent, and have sought to increasingly inject their worldviews into US politics. This background is key when exploring how governmental officials proclaim to protect trafficking victims but criminalize sex workers, even those who have been trafficked. Also, governmental investigations prioritize sex traffickers over labor traffickers, because addressing violence against smuggled migrants and exploited migrant workers would ostensibly legitimize the rights of undocumented migrants. Given this history as well as the presence of the evangelical International Justice Mission at Trump’s meeting, I suspect that as we track future anti-trafficking efforts, these trends will continue.

The Women’s March on Washington occurred against the backdrop of heated debates about the inclusion of marginalized communities who did not feel that their voices were heard in the planning stages. If the unity principles are to be implemented, particularly regarding immigrant and refugee rights, then those inspired and galvanized by the March must become feminist detectives. Inquire further if gender is missing when it shouldn’t be. Dig deeper when it seems as if gender violence is being addressed to see who is being counted as a victim and who is not. Go to Paso del Norte Bridge to learn how some communities have always known about the connection between gender and immigrant/refugee rights.

Featured image credit: Women’s March on Washington by Mobilus In Mobili. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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