10/13/2014 12:09 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Immigrant Women, Native American Women and Rape

Co-authored by Amanda Moore, writer of

Women's Groups protesting SCOMM in front of City Hall in San Francisco

As the NFL scandals keep breaking and a greater degree of attention is placed on violence against women, it is my hope that groups which do not get much attention in this conversation are brought more to the forefront: Native American and immigrant women, two groups who not only face the usual obstacles of shame and other social pressures to reporting sexual assault, but also institutional ones that have been placed on them by our government. Although there are ways to address this, the same political cowardice that leads Congress to take a break when they should be voting on whether or not we go to war has been controlling the debate on sexual assault and women's rights.

When the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) went up to be renewed, politicians like Marco Rubio (R-FL) filibustered it, claiming he had problems with issues of sovereignty with Native American tribes, as well as immigration visas for women. When Marco Rubio was filibustering, he claimed one of his main concerns was relinquishing jurisdiction for crimes committed by non-Indians to Indian tribal courts. In reality, he was needlessly extending the suffering of Native women -- women who are primarily victimized by non-Indians. Native American women are victims of sexual assault at rates of over four times the national average and 80 percent of the perpetrators aren't Native American. In fact, 75 percent of those living on reservations in the United States are non-Indian -- a fact that Rubio and his cohorts must not have researched when they cited concerns over non-Indians being subjected to all-Native juries.

Tribes within the U.S. have a sort of limited sovereignty for good reason: they would technically be able to station soldiers or store weapons from countries the U.S. is in conflict with if they had unlimited sovereignty, as well as create other large diplomatic problems by being an independent nation in the middle of the U.S.. This extends to tribal courts, however, which is not such a great idea: Tribal courts cannot prosecute crimes with a penalty greater than 3 years, i.e. sexual assault.

VAWA allows for a step in the right direction to remedy this: starting March 2015, tribal courts will have jurisdiction over domestic and dating violence. It stops short, however, of the ability to prosecute crimes committed between strangers and requires that the defendant have some kind of tie to the community (such as working on the reservation). While most victims of rape and sexual assault know the offender, almost a third of Native American women who are victimized do not know their attacker. Since rapists know they cannot be prosecuted, they view reservations as easy targets: a hunting ground for sexual predators. In many communities, the number of reported rapes increases during hunting season, when more outsiders come onto reservations (as do the rates of prostitution, both forced and voluntary).

Once any crime with a penalty too great for the tribal courts to handle occurs, the only people with jurisdiction to arrest are the FBI. The FBI's Native American unit is pitifully underfunded with little political pressure to improve, to the point where locals know not to expect any help, no matter how egregious the crime. There have even been instances of attackers dragging women onto Native American land, knowing that they exist as a lawless place where nobody can prosecute them.

While Native Americans are living in what is essentially a sexual assault no man's land, immigrant women who have the law on their side are often too afraid to come forward and report assault -- or they are being assaulted by the very people tasked to look over them. Employees of a Karnes City, Texas immigration detention facility are currently facing charges of raping and abusing women who were caught crossing the border. The facility in question only started housing women and children in August of this year, and isn't the first family detention center to be under investigation for mistreating its detainees.

Once inside one of these facilities, in our broken immigration system, an immigrant could be held there for years before having an opportunity to make their case before a judge. Depending on the circumstances, this can lead a mother to be separated from her children, first by bars and then by national borders, for years, and her children being placed into foster care. While there are programs to offer visas to victims of crime who cooperate with police in investigations, U-visas, there is a national cap and these are exactly the types of visas Marco Rubio and 22 other Republican Senators were filibustering.

Outside of the horribly-broken detention system, many women are dependent upon an abusive spouse for their immigration status, while others with no status are afraid to go to the police out of fear of deportation. With programs like Secure Communities (SCOMM), any local police officer can check the immigration status of an immigrant, and this can lead to a deportation. This means that the same person you are going to in your hour of desperate need can have you put into one of those horror-story detention centers, leading many victims to avoid the police, leaving predators free to roam. While many states and localities, like California and Miami-Dade County in Florida, have outright rejected SCOMM, many jurisdictions are still willing to send women to the for-profit, rape-hole detention centers operated by the Corrections Corporation of America and the Geo Group.

While there is a steady trend rejecting SCOMM in states and localities, there are still many places where it is still law, and though there have been strides in helping Native American women, we certainly are not where we should be: immigrant women are still vulnerable due to the politics of immigration and Congressional obstruction, and the lack of priority given to Native American women is part of a long trend of the government ignoring Native American issues. Whether these women will get the help they so plainly deserve.