Crimes Against Illegal Immigrants
For immigrant victims of sexual abuse, justice is nearly impossible to come by.
That fits a larger pattern in rape and abuse cases, where the perpetrator is usually known to the victim, says Gina Scaramella, executive director of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. “That’s not too different from the coach or college professor or boyfriend,” she says — except for one important difference: “The person doesn’t have the ability to move or speak out or change their circumstance.” In fact, the tight-knit nature of immigrant communities reinforces the wall of silence. In some cases, a victim might not say anything because family or other community members are dependent on the perpetrator for a job or monthly check — or, perversely, because she knows her abuser is also here illegally, and doesn’t want him to be deported. “When you are here from another country, you are not just you,” says Scaramella. “You are everyone who is here with you and everyone who is at home depending on you.”
That pressure is even stronger on women from cultures where talking about sex is taboo. “For Latinas it is very hard to share that,” says Patricia Montes, executive director of Centro Presente, a Somerville-based agency providing services to Hispanics. “I can clearly picture a Latina telling another woman, and her saying, ‘It was your fault, what were you doing there?’” In some Asian cultures, reporting sexual harassment is virtually nonexistent. In certain Middle Eastern and African countries, admitting to being raped is equivalent to a death sentence.
By law, state and local authorities are supposed to treat victims the same whether they are in the country legally or not. Suffolk and Middlesex counties, say advocates, have been particularly aggressive in prosecuting cases of immigrant abuse. “No one, regardless of their country of origin, deserves to be a victim of a crime, especially of a sexual assault,” says Gerry Leone, district attorney of Middlesex County. Vivek has never had a client deported for reporting abuse, but she also knows that not all law enforcement officials are as sympathetic as Leone, and worries that the current wave of anti–illegal immigration legislation in the country will make it that much more difficult to convince victims to come forward.
But getting a victim to come forward is only part of the problem. Sometimes corroborating witnesses themselves are undocumented immigrants and don’t want to call attention to their own legal status. That was the case with Nelci de Lara, a Brazilian woman allegedly sexually assaulted by the owner of Samba Cleaning Service, which cleans homes and office buildings throughout the metro Boston area. In early 2004, de Lara claims, the owner, Gilberto da Silva, assaulted her while she was cleaning a house in Newton. After, she says, he continued to expose himself to her while on the job. “It was devastating,” says de Lara’s attorney, Dennis Bottone. “Around the time she was terminated, she was literally afraid to walk out the front door and walk around the block.” Da Silva denied any assault, and none of the other employees were willing to testify. “They said, ‘I don’t want to; I am going to lose my job. I am also going to be reported to immigration,’” says Bottone. The Middlesex DA’s office eventually dropped the charges.
Bottone had better luck with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. After an investigation, the MCAD ordered da Silva to pay $164,700 in punitive damages and lost wages, plus interest. “When you look at the judge’s finding, it is most assuredly our side of the story,” says Bottone. (The case is currently under appeal.)