Key Finding: 77% of Latina Women Say Sexual Harassment is a Major Problem on the Job

Latina women in the South face the same workplace challenges that other Latinos face. But, in addition to the other difficulties — wage theft, injuries, discrimination on the basis of race and ethnicity, and retaliation — they suffer high rates of sexual harassment and crime victimization.

Approximately 44 percent of the individuals surveyed for this report were women. Not surprisingly, their answers on many questions deviated substantially from the answers of male respondents. Concerns about violence, sexual harassment and the police were all more keenly expressed by women.

    * Women were far more likely to report they believe women are the victims of discrimination at work — 72 percent versus 48 percent of men.

    * 77 percent of women said sexual harassment was a major workplace problem.

The SPLC's research reveals two major themes: When these women arrive in the United States, many have already suffered severe trauma and are victims of serious crimes, often as a result of violence that occurred during migration to the United States. And the criminal justice system too often fails to protect them when they are victimized in the United States.

The stories recounted by immigrant women present a stark picture of the problems they face. A recurring theme is the male supervisor using immigration status as leverage to coerce sexual favors from female employees. These women often have little or no idea about sexual harassment laws and have nowhere to turn.

"There are some bosses, supervisors or whomever that want to take advantage of their position so that [female employees] will have sex with them," said Gabriela, a Latina in Nashville. "If not, they tell them that they are going to fire them. They want to intimidate with the simple fact of saying, 'You are an illegal and I can call immigration.' And they use that fact so that they can harass."

There are also countless tales of discrimination. Verónica, a Latina from Mexico, came to the United States on a guestworker visa to cut greens and harvest onions. She was a hard worker. She was also pregnant. Despite the fact that she was meeting her work demands, her supervisor fired her when she was eight months pregnant and told her the company no longer had a job for her. He told her that she should go back to Mexico and have her baby. Verónica found herself without a job and homeless because she was kicked out of her employer-provided housing.

Verónica joined a pregnancy discrimination lawsuit against the company and reached a settlement.

"I would tell [other women] to not be afraid, because they have the same rights as other people," she said. "We all have the same value as human beings."

Although immigrant workers, regardless of their immigration status, are covered by federal anti-employment discrimination law,1 in practice immigrant women face enormous obstacles to asserting their rights and have fewer available legal remedies. One court ruling, which the SPLC believes is erroneous, suggested that undocumented immigrants may not be entitled to the protections of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the major civil rights law prohibiting workplace discrimination.2 The ruling in this case sends the message to undocumented women and the perpetrators that it will be difficult for them to get justice through the judicial system.

One SPLC client was savagely beaten by a supervisor on the job, even after she reported the supervisor's harassment to the company. When she filed a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the company's response was predictable: The company believed the worker was undocumented and entitled to no recourse.

The belief that undocumented women who are victims of sexual harassment are entitled to no relief is not supported by the great weight of law under Title VII. But employers have been emboldened by the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Hoffman Plastic Compounds, Inc. v. NLRB, 535 U.S. 137 (2002). Hoffman essentially found that undocumented workers who complained (under the National Labor Relations Act) that they experienced retaliation for supporting a union may not receive pay for lost work when they sue. This perverse ruling provides an enormous incentive for employers to hire undocumented workers — and little incentive for employers not to abuse them. Since most Southern states have weak or no anti-discrimination statutes and systems of their own to complement the federal system, most undocumented workers who face discrimination in the South have little legal recourse in practice.

Immigrant women are faced with additional obstacles, including language barriers, in their attempts to seek justice for the violence against them.

Immigrant women have reported taking their abusers to court only to find that the court provided no interpreter and that the abuser himself would serve in that role.

There are also no legal protections to prohibit law enforcement from turning crime victims — even victims of rape — over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The SPLC is aware of several cases in which female victims of crimes have been turned over to ICE and deported.

One immigrant advocate in North Carolina spoke to SPLC researchers about a domestic violence case where the abuser was a permanent resident and his wife was an undocumented immigrant. The woman persuaded her undocumented 13-year-old daughter and her undocumented 24-year-old niece to testify in court.

An ICE agent showed up at the proceedings and arrested the wife, daughter and niece.

Given this atmosphere, it is not irrational for immigrant women to be afraid of law enforcement and to refrain from making complaints. This, of course, makes them more vulnerable to attacks.

Women Describe Violent Journey

Even before these women arrive in the United States, they often endure a harrowing and violent journey into the country. An overwhelming majority of women — 89 percent — describe the process of migration to the U.S. as more violent for women.

More than one woman interviewed for this report said she had been raped or witnessed a rape en route to the United States.

A 44-year-old Mexican woman in Stillmore, Ga., recalled that when she illegally crossed the border, the smuggler took her to a river where she could change her clothes. He raped her there.

Once she was in the United States, she eventually sent for her 14-year-old daughter. During her daughter's journey across the border, the teen was kidnapped, repeatedly raped and even forced to live with a man at one point.

She wasn't reunited with her family until she was 16.

"When I came across the border, it was terrible," said "Laura," a 41-year-old Honduran woman in the United States. "My family doesn't know anything. It was too terrible to tell them. I saw a woman get raped along the way. We didn't have food for days."