Monday, September 24, 2001

If the reported rapes of four Latina women at the DeCoster Farms egg plant near Clarion isn't enough to shock us, the response from advocates for immigrant workers in the state should be.

They weren't surprised, in fact, said such rapes may dog many Hispanic women working low-wage labor jobs across Iowa. Such crimes aren't reported because of language barriers, the cultural background of the women, or in some cases - fear of deportation.

In other words, for sexual predators, Latinas are considered safe marks.

The women working at DeCoster said that their work supervisors had forced them into vehicles and warehouses to assault them. The accusations only became public because the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued DeCoster to get the company to comply with their investigation of the rape reports.

The employment commission said that the supervisors told the women to keep quiet about

what was being done to them, or they would make sure they were fired, deported for working illegally, or killed. Wright County Sheriff's officials are investigating, and indicate that their interviews suggest that the women are credible, and that there may be more victims. DeCoster officials say they don't know a thing about it.

Rapes among Iowa's growing Hispanic population are not uncommon, the advocates say. Women from Mexico or Latin America may be uncertain of their rights in the U.S., or about how to file a crime report.

A stigma of sexual abuse is particularly paralyzing for poor Hispanic women, says Sandra Sanchez, of the Immigrants Rights Project in Iowa.

"It's much more delicate among Latinas in this country," she said... "Sexual abuse is blamed on the woman, like women are guilty for inviting it."

Often, those who prey on the women tell them they can have them deported. "They have already risked so much to come here," Sanchez said.

A raid on DeCoster plants in April found some 90 illegal immigrant employees.

An attorney for Iowa immigrants says that many crimes, from drug dealing to domestic abuse, are not being reported because immigrants fear police are more interested in helping to get Hispanics deported than in helping crime victims.

That isn't necessarily true. We would hope that other departments are as color-blind in law enforcement as Storm Lake police and the BV Sheriff. Yet the perception of prejudicial treatment is troubling.

In any case where a Latina is being sexually harassed or abused with threats of deportation or cultural barriers being used against them, additional "hate crime" penalties should apply as well as other laws.

Only time and the justice system will decide if the DeCoster cases will result in convictions. But we can say that it shouldn't take a lawsuit from equal opportunity officials to get law enforcement on the case, or to gain cooperation from an employer in an investigation.

Cultural diversity has come to the United States and to Iowa because of the global perception of this as a place of freedom, of rights and opportunities that are unimagined elsewhere in the world.

The freedom to be be a target of rapists because the color of your skin makes you a piece of meat doesn't fit in with that image, does it?

In a case where a woman feels she must stay silent about an assault to avoid getting fired or getting deported has been raped...

Twice over.