Approximately 50 students, faculty and community members gathered in the Rackham Assembly Hall on Monday evening to attend “Gender Violence, Immigrant Vulnerability and the State: A Symposium.” The event was designed to educate students and the community about how increased globalization and migration is affecting how society views immigrants in the post-colonial world.  

Debotri Dhar, women’s studies professor at the University of Michigan, organized the event along with other speakers. 

According to Dhar, residual ideals from the colonial era have resulted in immigrants of color being framed as burdens on the state in order to maintain hierarchies of race, social class and nation present in the colonial era. She said this also contributes to the relationship between immigrant vulnerability and gender violence in today’s post-colonial era.

“This current moment in history is very politically divisive, not just for the nation but globally,” Dhar said. “During such times, it is common for the well-being of our most vulnerable individuals and communities — in this case, immigrants — to be overlooked … and so I wanted to use my knowledge and experience to bring general awareness to the public, to speak of the challenges faced by immigrants even more vulnerable than I.”

LSA senior Caylin Luebeck opened up the discussion by introducing the panelists, as well as the purpose of the event.

“I hope you all leave with new questions about your identities and a new perspective on how to integrate those identities into social action based on our current political climate,” Luebeck said.

Ruby Robinson, managing attorney at Michigan Immigrant Rights Center and Law School professor, discussed the additional social and legal barriers victims of gender violence in immigrant populations face. Speaking from his experience as an immigrant rights lawyer, Robinson said challenges such as language barriers and a lack of understanding of the American legal system make it more difficult to help immigrant survivors of violence navigate the immigration justice system.

“Unfortunately for many non-citizens, there are additional real and perceived barriers that limit how and why this violence is more likely to be underreported, under-prosecuted, under-addressed and overall under-discussed,” Robinson said. 

Additionally, Robinson said the legal system designs convoluted laws to hinder immigrants from seeking assistance. He cited the expanded control of the immigration system given to the U.S. Attorney General in 2019. 

“Even if someone does not face these barriers, has the socioeconomic means to overcome them, and/or is willing to take risks — notwithstanding these barriers, relief and assistance may not always be available — U.S. immigration systems are byzantine, they’re complex, they’re racist, they’re inevitable and, as we’ve seen on display over the past years, they’re being altered at an incredible pace,” Robinson said.

Another panelist, Adriana Mancillas, is a counseling and advocacy services coordinator at SafeHouse, an organization that provides safety, support, advocacy and resources for survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. 

Mancillas informed the audience of the resources at SafeHouse tailored for immigrant survivors of assault, such as multilingual legal advocates, counseling services and volunteers who help serve as a bridge between languages. Mancillas said there is an increasing need for such resources as evidenced by her experiences working with SafeHouse. 

“There’s a huge amount of risk that survivors who are immigrants have to deal with when they reach out to help,” Mancillas said. “Almost always when survivors reach out to community advocacy systems … it’s because they have no other options … What that tells us is that there’s a unique lack of community support for survivors coming from countries thousands of miles away.” 

Dhar then discussed intersectionality. She said public opinion on immigrants manifests itself in two forms, both of which have roots in colonialist views of people of color. 

According to Dhar, the first is the belief that immigrants that are people of color are “pollutants” to the state. 

“Two hundred plus years of countries in the Global South being colonized and plundered, so travel has never been a problem as long as it be (sic) white communities that have done it,” Dhar said. “So when I hear the phrase ‘Go back to your country,’ what I register there is not that everyone should ‘go back to their countries,’ but that only elite white communities should be able to travel.” 

Dhar said the second form of anti-immigrant sentiment is the perpetuation and normalization of the “white savior complex” as described by Gayatri Spivak. 

“When we look at how things are now, I find that a lot of times the discourse of the public sphere is okay with immigrants coming in as long as we’re able to somehow have that ‘savior’ narrative, which problematically mimics the colonial hierarchy culture, white superiority and the idea that somehow everybody else is less,” Dhar said.

Dhar concluded the panel by drawing attention to what she described as the fragile beauty of the immigrant experience by sharing a song by Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz titled Dil-e-Mann Musafir-e-Mann (My Heart, My Traveler)

“I think it captures so well the idea of immigrant lives and how on one hand, even while embracing the new and trying to fit in, there’s that other part which is about trying to find home in unfamiliar spaces,” Dhar said. “The experience of travel alters us … even though those physical spaces may remain, you have changed.” 

Engineering junior Grace Hankes, a current student of Dhar’s, said the event expanded her understanding of politics surrounding immigration today.

“It really brings to light some of the more political aspects of what (immigration) is going on,” Hankes said. “In class, we talk a lot about the social implications of what happens, but we don’t exactly have the insight that some of the members of politics and lawyers have with their experience.”

Ann Arbor resident Rhonda Weathers said she appreciated the diverse perspectives presented at the panel.

“It was interesting for me to get the perspective of domestic violence and sexual assault from an immigrant,” Weathers said. “I was the executive director of a domestic violence program, but it was in Northern Michigan, so we didn’t have a lot of immigration issues that came into the work, so I was interested to hear particularly from the prosecutor about the impact he sees on that population.”

When asked what she hoped the audience would take away from the event, Dhar once again emphasized the importance of viewing immigration through a lens of progressive intersectionality.

“Well, my hope, first and foremost, is that the audience will understand the additional challenges faced by immigrants when it comes to gender violence,” Dhar said. “But more than that, I hope this event will encourage the audience to also reflect critically on the larger discursive framing of immigrant lives in the public sphere.” 

Editor’s note: The headline of this article has been updated to clarify the subject matter discussed by the panel.

Contributor Sarah Zhao can be reached at srahzhao@umich.edu

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