Doing Public Sociology During Hard Times for Immigrant Women

Guest post by Cecilia Menjívar

Enduring ViolenceThe prison is in the middle of nowhere, in the desert, about 45 minutes from Phoenix. To enter it, I had to go through a gate with barb wire and two additional fences before reaching the building where this privately-run prison is located. Once inside the building, I went through a metal detector and then had to leave everything I was carrying at the reception desk, even a pencil and a small water bottle. I was then escorted to the courtroom inside the prison, where I would testify in the case of a Guatemalan woman facing deportation. After three additional doors that opened with a code that my escort punched, I entered the air-conditioned courtroom, where the woman and her pro bono lawyer, the court recorder and the government lawyer were waiting. The judge, a short man of few words, finally arrived to hear the case of the Guatemalan woman who was asking for protection from deportation on the grounds of the domestic violence that she escaped back home. On the advice of the lawyer, I was not supposed to make eye contact with the woman while testifying so as to not provoke suspicion that I might know her, which could have tainted my testimony (I had never seen her and never saw her again). Out of the corner of my eye I could see tears running down the woman’s face and the lawyer giving her a tissue. My testimony ended and the government lawyer cross-examined me, the hearing was adjourned and we left the courtroom. As we left, the woman and I made eye contact for a few seconds; I nodded faintly to convey a greeting. The woman was escorted back to her cell, where she had been held for two and a half years after being caught in a raid near Boston; often these immigrants are moved around the system and not housed where they are apprehended.  In an email later that day, the lawyer told me that the woman had been crying in the courtroom because she had been very moved by my testimony and that what I said was all true of her own experience, and had asked the lawyer to thank me for my research.  A few months later the lawyer informed me that the judge had denied the petition, even though he agreed that my testimony and the evidence presented were strong. They would appeal, she said, but she had expected as much; after all, this was Arizona.

Little did I think that writing a book about violence against Ladina women in Guatemala would give me the chance to engage in public sociology. In Enduring Violence: Ladina Women’s Lives in Guatemala, I argue that normalized violence in the lives of women can create conditions for horrific crimes in the form of feminicide to take place. To understand the killings of women because they are women one needs to take a step back and examine how various forms of violence—structural, symbolic, political, gender, and gendered—coalesce in their daily lives in the form of “private terrors.” I lay out this argument in court documents to sustain the narratives of violence that immigrant women present as part of their petitions for asylum.

Because of Enduring Violence, I have been asked to serve as an expert witness in cases of Central American women seeking asylum in the U.S. on domestic violence grounds. I have worked on cases in Arizona, California, New York, Tennessee, Texas, North Carolina, and Virginia, and they follow closely the patterns of violence I depict in the book. On my end this work entails providing an affidavit based on my expert knowledge, then testifying telephonically or in person, though sometimes my affidavit is enough. I only work on cases pro bono, mostly with law clinics, because this is how I can reach with my work the lives of the women who have nothing, those whose cases only pro bono lawyers will take. Serving as pro bono expert gives me the opportunity to not just practice sociology, but to put into practice what I have produced through the application of systematic research methods and rigorous theory, to improve the lives of women one case at a time, and to take a political stance against gender injustices and new regimes of inequality.

 

Cecilia Menjívar is Cowden Distinguished Professor of Sociology in the School of Social and Family Dynamics at Arizona State University. She is the author of Fragmented Ties: Salvadoran Immigrant Networks in America (UC Press), among other books. Menjivar won the Julian Samora Distinguished Career Award from the Latino/a Sociology section of the American Sociological Association.