The Crescent Report

December 3, 2010


Filed under: From the Desk of Imam Mahdi Bray — Imam Mahdi Bray @ 10:50 am

The plight of undocumented workers is often riddled with abuse and neglect. Check out the piece below.

-Imam Mahdi Bray

Quote of the Day:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”


Lena came to America when she was thirteen. After graduating high-school, she began to clean houses for six dollars an hour. Despite doing well in her studies, she was unable to legally enroll in the state university. After the second week, lewd statements led to inappropriate touching. She tried to ignore the advances and pleaded to be left alone. Her pleas were ignored by the employer, but as his actions became more violent, she found the courage to ignore his threats and seek help. It was the threat of deportation that initially caused her to avoid seeking criminal redress against her abuser. 

The growing number of undocumented migrant workers (illegal immigrants) in the United states has raised many societal concerns ranging from community organization to labor force participation to crime rates. What is often overlooked in discussing the relationship between immigration and crime is the victimization of undocumented migrant workers. Much has been done in the way of examining offending rates of this population, however the rates of victimization among undocumented migrant workers is an important issue in criminology and criminal justice. this population faces an increased risk of victimization and has few outlets for dealing with crime. Undocumented migrant workers face an increased risk of being victimized due to opportunity and their distrust/fear of anyone in the criminal justice system.

Undocumented workers like Lena make up a vital if invisible workforce. They’re the people who show up after hours to clean our offices, do our dry cleaning, wash our dishes, and pack our fruits and vegetables in unseen warehouses on the edges of the city. To advocates, they are an essential part of the economy, doing jobs American citizens won’t. To critics, they are gaming the system, exploiting the country’s generosity, and draining tax dollars when they fall on hard times.

One aspect of our immigration system often ignored by both sides, however, is also one of the most insidious: The invisibility of undocumented workers has created a situation rife with abuse, especially against women like Lena whose legal status often makes them vulnerable to sexual harassment at work. Though reliable statistics are hard to come by, the few studies that have been completed on the topic paint a bleak picture – a California State University survey found that 90 percent of migrant workers, for example, cite sexual harassment as a problem – and local experts say violent sexual harassment among undocumented immigrants is a growing concern in across the nation. “It’s all too common,” says attorney Stephen Born of the law firm Mills & Born, “It’s hard to know what’s unreported. Immigrants who are illegal avoid any contact with the authorities. It’s one of those very-difficult-to-quantify issues.”

Even when victims do come forward, it has become nearly impossible for them to achieve justice.  Like other victims of sexual assault, undocumented women do not have the ability to move or speak out or change their circumstance.” In fact, the tight-knit nature of immigrant communities reinforces the wall of silence. In some cases, a victim might not say anything because family or other community members are dependent on the perpetrator for a job or monthly check. That pressure is even stronger on women from cultures where talking about sex is taboo. “For Latinas it is very hard to share that,” says Patricia Montes, executive director of Centro Presente, a Somerville-based agency providing services to Hispanics. “I can clearly picture a Latina telling another woman, and her saying, ‘It was your fault, what were you doing there?'” In some Asian cultures, reporting sexual harassment is virtually nonexistent. In certain Middle Eastern and African countries, admitting to being raped is equivalent to a death sentence.

There are no solid statistics on the rate of sexual violence against women the Muslim-American community, and it is difficult to determine whether Muslim women are victimized more than other immigrant women in the general population, but reports have increased two-fold since 9/11. Women and girls became more intimidated and silenced by the perpetrator of the hate crimes for fear of retaliation, retribution and indifference.

In the last year Muslim American Society Immigrant Justice and Legal Center (MASIJC) has seen a dramatic increase in distress calls. Clinic director, Khalilah Sabra, in concerned that Islamophobia and the massive increase in hate rhetoric against Muslims have contributed to an increase of abuse, “In many of the cases, the abuser maintains control by threatening deportation. Not surprisingly, most of these women and girls are correctly aware that their immigration status jeopardizes their rights and filing a complaint may backfire on the entire family.” Therefore, this injustice often deters battered immigrant women and girls from reporting abuse and reduces the likelihood of securing criminal convictions of abusers. Unfortunately, few local communities, service providers and government agencies are prepared to meet the challenges of providing protection and culturally sensitive services to migrant and immigrant women. MASIJC’s ASSIST program, based in Raleigh, North Carolina, offers technical assistance that focuses on the specific cultural, religious, linguistic, social and legal issues that victims of domestic violence from these communities face. The communities Muslim women come from are not open enough to proactively discuss and deal with this kind of criminal behavior, Furthermore, there is a significant cultural gap between these women and the outside/external parties who are attempting to help them. The advice that ASSIST provides to women is, in substance and method, culturally and religiously sensitive and thus is more respectful of their identity. This is a type of confidential support and comfort that they cannot receive from some mosques and community centers. ASSIST services included counseling based on the Islamic perspective on issues of marriage, divorce and domestic violence and providing women with a jurisprudential framework for their problems and explores with them possible Islamic legal solutions that best protect them and serve their interests. MASJIC acknowledges that Immigrant women, including Muslim women, face even tougher hurdles in cases of domestic violence and other kinds of assaults because of linguistic and cultural differences and a lack of knowledge regarding their legal rights and is providing victims with the tools they need to articulate their rights within their own religious and cultural contexts.

State and local authorities are supposed to treat victims the same whether they are in the country legally or not. Some counties, say advocates, are not particularly aggressive in prosecuting cases of immigrant abuse. Not all law enforcement officials are as sympathetic, and advocates worry that the current wave of anti-illegal immigration legislation in the country will make it that much more difficult to convince victims to come forward.

But getting a victim to come forward is only part of the problem. Sometimes corroborating witnesses themselves are undocumented immigrants and don’t want to call attention to their own legal status. That was the case with Nelci de Lara, a Brazilian woman allegedly sexually assaulted by the owner of Samba Cleaning Service, which cleans homes and office buildings. In early 2004, de Lara claims, the owner, Gilberto da Silva, assaulted her while she was cleaning a house in Newton. After, she says, he continued to expose himself to her while on the job. “It was devastating,” says de Lara’s attorney, Dennis Bottone. “Around the time she was terminated, she was literally afraid to walk out the front door and walk around the block.” Da Silva denied any assault, and none of the other employees were willing to testify. “They said, ‘I don’t want to; I am going to lose my job. I am also going to be reported to immigration,'” says Bottone. The  DA’s office eventually dropped the charges.

For more information about ASSIST, please call (202) 421-6611.

Muslim American Society Immigrant Justice and Legal Clinic


Domestic Violence

919-828-7740 | 866-291-0855 toll-free

Sexual Assault

919-828-3005 | 866-291-0853 toll-free


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