DSK Arrest Against the Norm
Immigrant women face high levels of harassment, and most never report it.
Thursday, May 26, 2011
So far, French complaints about the ritually humiliating perp walk aside, the Dominique Strauss-Kahn rape scandal has cast the American system of justice in a flattering light. When alerted to the incident, the New York City police were clever, trustworthy and efficient; the hotel managers reacted as humane and responsible employers; the alleged victim, a Guinean immigrant, showed courage in the most stressful of circumstances and her resolve was rewarded when prosecutors took her claim seriously. As New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote, “It’s an inspiring story about America, where even a maid can have dignity and be listened to when she accuses one of the most powerful men in the world of being a predator.”
But the feeling that it’s inspiring should not blind us to the fact that it is anomalous. Indeed, that a black female immigrant claiming to be the victim of a sex crime would fare so well in the U.S. criminal justice system is one thing that DSK, a smart man, was perhaps not counting on. He would have had good reason to make that judgment. There is evidence that the majority of women immigrants in the United States experience some form of sexual harassment or coercion on the job, and very few of them come forward.
In one recent study of 150 immigrant women working in the food industry conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, titled “Injustice On Our Plates,” every single one – yes, that is 100 percent – reported some kind of workplace sexual harassment, and for the majority, this involved a sexual assault. According to SPLC’s Senior Staff Attorney Mónica Ramirez, most did not know they had any legal recourse. Only a few reported it.
One reason for the silence of most immigrant sexual violence victims is the fear, increasingly pervasive, that reporting an incident to police will prompt questions about the victim’s immigration status or that of her family members and friends. The alleged victim in the DSK case, according to her attorney, had been granted asylum and had become a legal permanent resident. But for undocumented women, who are legally entitled to have their claims investigated and prosecuted (and who may be entitled to immigration relief as crime victims), the risks of going to the police are nonetheless real. Even legal immigrants are often concerned about drawing police scrutiny to family members and friends who do not enjoy legal status. Says my friend Liberty Aldrich, director of domestic violence and sexual assault programs at the Center for Court Innovation, “Many female immigrant victims… fear of the immigration repercussions for them or their families.”
Under the Obama Administration’s ICE, the coordination between immigration authorities and local law enforcement has been vastly expanded through two programs: 287G, in which local police are actually deployed as immigration law enforcers, and “Secure Communities,” in which local police feed information (such as fingerprints) about offenders to immigration authorities, who can then move to deport them.
The Obama Administration is coming under fire for foisting “Secure Communities” on local governments that want nothing to do with it, concerned about spending resources on detaining innocent people. The way the program has crippled the ability of law enforcement to do its job at all in immigrant communities – by discouraging victims from reporting crimes and deterring others from cooperating with police – receives less attention.
It’s understandable that the DSK rape case would grab the spotlight. But it does make one wonder: How many other victims remain in the shadows?
BETSY REED is executive editor of The Nation.