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Human rights group seeks immigration reform to protect women

The international rights group Human Rights Watch has issued a new report that says female migrant and seasonal farm workers are highly vulnerable to sexual violence and sexual harassment. The research shows that women working in the agricultural sector nationwide are subject to abuses, such as rape, stalking, fondling, unwanted touching and vulgar language. The human rights group is asking Congress and the Department of Homeland Security to reform laws and rules to protect migrant farm workers from such abuses.

The authors of the study say that female farm workers across the country, including those in Florida, are more vulnerable to such abuses if the women work for a labor contractor as compared to working directly for the farmer. But the researchers say much of the vulnerability stems in part from the specter of potential removal or deportation proceedings in immigration court. The study authors say that fear of potential deportation often keeps victims from reporting the abuse.

"It's easiest for abusers to get away with sexual harassment where there's an imbalance of power, and the imbalance of power is particularly stark on farms,'' the authors say. Advocates estimate that 630,000 women work as migrant and seasonal farm workers in the United States. That is a large percentage of the 3 million total workers in the same area. The United States Government estimates that 60 percent of all seasonal and migrant farm workers are undocumented immigrants.

The study authors believe that the nature of farm work and the immigration status of many female farm workers tend to increase vulnerability of women in the sector of the economy. Human Rights Watch is asking the Department of Homeland Security to modify its rules that encourage local law enforcement agencies to report potential immigration violations. The researchers say that repealing the rules would allow more women to report abuse to local law enforcement.

The group conducting the research says it is a human rights issue. They are also urging Congress to pass laws to protect better migrant and seasonal farm workers from abuse. While laws prohibit sexual violence and sexual harassment in the workplace, the researchers say that immigration laws and rules fail to protect victims due to the fear of deportation.

Source: Boston Globe, "Report: female farmworkers suffer sex abuse," Tracie Cone-Associated Press, May 16, 2012

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