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What About Immigrants? A Plea for Feminist Engagement with Immigration Injustice in the Americas

The following piece reflects on the lack of consistent engagement of feminist scholars with immigration injustice in the Americas. Once this is presented, the author pleads for a more robust feminist response to the injustices Latinx migrants face.

I have studied immigration (in)justice throughout the Americas for many years and, from the outset of my research, I noticed the conspicuous lack of feminist engagement with the topic.* This is not to say that feminist scholars and activists don’t care – far from it – but it is to say that feminist activists and scholars rarely speak about the issue and, when they do, they tend to piggyback on the work that immigrant rights organizations are already doing (rather than expanding such work to more explicitly address issues specifically related to immigration and gender oppression). And this, I think, should cause us serious concern both because it leaves many migrant women without adequate support and because it inhibits feminists from realizing their stated goals of resisting oppression for all women.

Allow me to briefly explain. With few exceptions, such as Amy Reed-Sandoval, too often feminists ignore manifestations of oppression against both cis and trans migrant women (such as those in the detention system, documentation and asylum process, and informal economic contexts). Furthermore, if they do take these issues up, they do so without centring how immigration status, country of origin and receiving country intersects with, alters, and amplifies experiences of sexism, racism, heterosexism, ableism, and other forms of discrimination. For example, while some feminist organizations in the United States, like Planned Parenthood, Radical Women, and Ms. Magazine, did condemn forced sterilization of Central American detained migrant women at the Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC), it was Project South along with other immigrant rights groups like Georgia Detention Watch, Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, and South Georgia Immigrant Support Network that actually filed an official complaint and brought the issue to light. The statements made by the feminist organizations or immigrants’ rights groups connected these horrific acts to the history of reproductive injustice against black and brown people more broadly in the U.S., rather than highlighting the ways the women’s immigration status was central.

Similarly, despite understanding that feminicide of immigrants is rampant, feminist organizations and activists too often downplay, ignore, undertheorize, or underemphasize the connection between feminicide and immigration. To take just one example, renowned scholar and activist Julia E. Monárrez Fragoso notes in her article, “Feminicidio sexual serial en Ciudad Juárez 1993-2001,” that: “there is a descriptive generalization of memory taking place when it is said that some 400 young women, ranging in age from 16 to 24, mainly immigrants, often black, primarily students at commercial schools or computing centres or workers in free trade zones, have been mutilated, tortured, and raped, their bodies left abandoned in the desert surrounding [Cuidad Juárez].” Nevertheless, she argues, we should not focus on the connection between feminicide and migrant women because doing so, “hinders making visible other representations of feminicide and elaborating a feminist policy that focuses on opposition strategies vis-à-vis the murder of women in all its forms.” I disagree; we need to centre the connection between feminicide and immigration and see it as a form of immigration injustice (in other words, as an immigration policy, practice or norm that reflects, creates or furthers oppression).

Let me be clear, though, the problem is not simply that the issue is ignored or not explicitly mentioned. On the contrary, to realize their own mission – identifying and resisting oppression – feminists must recognize and confront the fact that migrant women are targeted for these and other abuses because they are immigrants. These injustices are intentionally (or at least not randomly or accidentally) being perpetrated on immigrant bodies. Beyond this, they are aimed at particular immigrant bodies – the bodies of poor women from Latin American nations, as opposed to the bodies of wealthy immigrants from Europe, for example. It is not a coincidence that in 2017 the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) instituted a policy of blocking young, Latinx, pregnant people from accessing abortion, only providing access to such services after a Supreme Court ruling demanded it. It is not coincidental that The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has uncovered numerous abuses of detained Latinx pregnant migrants that include: border agents repeatedly slamming them against a chain link fence, migrants miscarrying in Border Patrol facilities without receiving hygienic products or medical care, migrants being denied medical attention, and migrants being forced to deliver a child in a Border Patrol hielera (or the freezing cold rooms where detained immigrants are sometimes held) while standing and still wearing pants. These things are happening to (primarily Latin American and Caribbean) immigrant women specifically.

Similarly, we cannot lose sight of the fact that migrant women are often targeted for feminicide precisely because they are immigrants. They are targeted because migrant women are seen as easy prey and their deaths are intended to send messages to other migrants about their status in society. These – and many others that permeate the everyday lives of migrants in the Americas -- are feminist concerns and it is time to centre them as such.

I admit that I have a more personal stake in this issue; as a feminist scholar of immigration and an immigrant to Colombia myself, it is all too clear that black and brown migrant women (and migrants in general) face obstacles that I never have or will simply because of their/my social group memberships and nationalities. For example, as Carlos Sandoval, among others, has noted, like other immigrants from the Global North, I am often not even seen as an “immigrant,” with people instead referring to me as an “expat,” “a professor,” or simply as a “gringa.” While it took me two weeks to get my documents, it took a Venezuelan nurse I met two years. While I had an apartment waiting for me, countless Venezuelan women have been forced to turn to sex work to earn enough money to share a room with numerous other families for one night. While practically everyone I meet in Colombia welcomes my family and I and celebrates our presence in the country, Latinx migrants consistently endure racist and nativist insults. These and so many other manifestations of oppression immigrants face reflect the core of what feminist activism and scholarship was meant to confront. And I am hoping that these words inspire us to do precisely that.

* Because my work focuses on the Americas, I am not sure the degree to which this is true outside of that region.

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Allison B. Wolf, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Researcher at the Center for Migration Studies at Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia, where she teaches feminist philosophy, philosophy of immigration, political philosophy, and ethics. She is the author of Just Immigration in the Americas: A Feminist Account (Rowman & Littlefield International, 2020) and co-editor of Incarnating Feelings, Constructing Communities: Experiencing Emotions in the Americas through Education, Violence, and Public Policy with Ana María Forero Angel and Catalina González Quintero (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020) and Applying Jewish Ethics with Jennifer Thompson (Lexington, forthcoming). She is currently working on issues around immigration justice in a South-South context in the Americas as well as researching connections between feminist philosophy and skepticism.

Follow Allison on Twitter: @AllisonBWolf1

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