Deportation fears force immigrant women to be mute on sexual abuse, harassment at work

June 26, 2012 at 12:45 am

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Mercedes dealt with numerous instances of sexual harassment by fellow workers at the Chicago bakery where she was employed four years ago. She tried telling the owner, she said, but nothing changed.

“He was rude and would just brush it off or would just laugh if they would do something,” she said.

Mercedes, 26, an illegal immigrant from Mexico who later became a naturalized citizen of the U.S., finally quit the job but said she never reported the abuse because she had no hope that anything would be done about it.

Women immigrants in Chicago and beyond can share similar stories and worse, those who experience shame, wage cuts and even deportation in addition to abuse and harassment on the job.

Maritza Reyes, sexual assault coordinator for Mujeres Latinas En Acción, a Chicago advocacy group, said that more and more women are coming to them with claims of being sexual harassed by their managers and customers at restaurants where they work. Reyes said her organization has also heard from women reporting harassment by temporary labor agencies.

Reyes said while some women have told her they moved to Illinois because they heard it was not as “anti-immigrant” as other states, they are not necessarily finding that to be the case.

“It’s one thing to have the [Illinois] law [enforcing immigrant workers’ rights] in place,” Reyes said.  “It’s another to have that law enforced.”

Under the antidiscrimination provisions of the U.S. Immigration Reform and Control Act, immigrants can be reinstated in their jobs if they are discriminated against, or they can receive back pay for lost wages. Penalties for employers range from $275 to $11,000, depending on the number of offenses.

Reyes said various cultures often inhibit speaking out against mistreatment because of existing beliefs.

“Unfortunately in the Latina culture, there is [often] the idea that a woman’s purity is her responsibility, regardless of anyone else, which is not a very realistic thing when someone is being sexually assaulted,” Reyes said.

Mónica Ramirez, director of the Immigration Justice Project at the Georgia-based Southern Poverty Law Center, said a major reason women do not report harassment is the fear of being blacklisted by employers or not being allowed back to the U.S. on a subsequent work visa.

Ramirez said she is also told by victims of workplace harassment that there are often threats against their families and neighbors, here and in their countries of origin.

Ana Castillo, an award-winning author from Chicago who writes on many Latina issues, said more specific lawmaking covering all workers could lessen mistreatment of immigrant workers.

“The advantage [employers] have when someone is undocumented is obviously the reluctance to report,” Castillo said.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, if the government deported all 10.8 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., the economy would lose $2.6 trillion over 10 years.

Castillo said she encourages female victims to speak out in order to prevent the mistreatment of other workers as well.

“Confide in someone,” Castillo said. “You know in your heart when there’s been an injustice.”