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Weekend Read: For immigrant survivors of sexual assault, support is off the books

President Trump has now appointed two men to the Supreme Court. During an oral argument this week, one of them, Justice Neil Gorsuch, seemed concerned about the expansive use of government power to detain immigrants.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s other appointee, did not.

Kavanaugh suggested that federal authorities must detain immigrants who have committed crimes — even minor ones — no matter how long ago they completed their sentence, and without an opportunity for a bail hearing.

It was a bitter confirmation of Kavanaugh’s hardline views on immigration during the justice’s first week on the court.

His confirmation process over the last several weeks was just as bitter, marred by credible sexual assault allegations against him by more than one woman.

For hundreds of immigrant women, these issues — sexual violence and immigrant detention — are not unrelated.

Take Valentina (not her real name). Since the mid-1990s, Valentina has been working in secret to turn her home into a shelter for abused immigrant women. As Lizzie Presser recently wrote for The California Sunday Magazine:

Valentina isn’t a social worker or a therapist or a lawyer. She is an immigrant who opens her home to women whose husbands or boyfriends abuse them. The women who come are waitresses, saleswomen, fruit and vegetable pickers, housecleaners. Like Silvia, many are ashamed, reluctant to point a finger or to file for divorce. Most are undocumented, and before President Trump’s election, they went to Valentina when they didn’t know their rights or when shelters didn’t have space. Since Trump, even those with papers avoid shelters and mistrust the law.

In fact, since Trump’s election, Valentina is no longer the only woman doing this work. Ten years after she started inviting survivors into her home, Valentina met Mily Treviño-Sauceda, the founder of Líderes Campesinas, a group that organizes female farmworkers.

Together, they’ve built a network of women who house immigrant survivors of sexual violence, often in secret. They give them tips for collecting evidence, accompany them to see prosecutors and even testify in court on their behalf.

Valentina can count more than 30 Latina women in California alone who have opened their homes for survivors. As the Trump administration has sent immigrants underground, Presser writes, their work has become even more critical:

Within months of Trump’s inauguration, Los Angeles police had found that sexual assault reports among Latinos had fallen by a quarter. Half a year in, domestic violence reports had dropped 13 percent in San Diego and 18 percent in San Francisco. More than a dozen major rape crisis centers across California estimated that their Latina clientele had shrunk anywhere from 10 percent to 80 percent.

Women in all sorts of communities have long faced significant barriers to reporting sexual assault, but immigrant women told Valentina that their partners had threatened to call ICE, or that they were afraid their abusive partners would be deported and leave them without child support, or that their children would be taken away from them.

“They’d learned that they could not depend on federal or state agencies, or emergency services, or even crisis centers,” Valentina’s partner, Treviño-Sauceda, told Presser.

Instead, they’re building their own system, off the books and in the shadows.

The Trump administration has not been shy about its anti-immigrant agenda. Just this week, an Associated Press investigation found that state court judges are being allowed to grant custody of migrant children to American families — often children separated from parents at the border.

Those children need to be reunited with their parents, not adopted. Women who have survived sexual assault need support, not condemnation.

There’s a lot of work to do — and here in the Deep South, we’re committed to every step of it.

The Editors

P.S. Here are some other pieces we think are valuable this week:

SPLC's Weekend Reads are a weekly summary of the most important reporting and commentary from around the country on civil rights, economic and racial inequity, and hate and extremism. Sign up to receive Weekend Reads every Saturday morning.

Photo by Cinthya Santos Briones