White House Press Release Falsely links Gender Violence (and FGC) to Foreign Nationals

By Geethika Kodukula

(Disclaimer: Although they graciously accepted it, the views in this post are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Sahiyo or its founders. I am not myself an immigrant, Muslim, or an FGC survivor.)

In January, the White House put out a press release wherein they mentioned a Department of Justice report about the Entry of Foreign-Born Terrorists into the United States and the “connection” to Gender-Based Violence. The press release noted more than 20 “statistics” and names of people who have either been convicted of terrorist activities or conspiring against the US between 2001 and 2016. All of the cited examples were of people keeping Islamic faith, children of visa lottery recipients, or children of foreign-born nationals. Nowhere in this press release is there mention of the multitude of hate-crimes against people of color in 2017 or the half a dozen shootings in the month of January that are more pressing and real concerns for national security.

As a statistician, I can tell you with certainty that numbers do not mean anything if you do not have a baseline to compare against. For example: let’s examine statistics about crime from the FBI. In 2016, there were 6,121 hate crimes in the United States. However, before believing that we must leave the country because it is unsafe, it is important to note that only 11.6% of the total number of jurisdictions monitoring hate crimes reported any incident. In other words, 88.4% of jurisdictions had no incident report of a hate crime whatsoever. Cherry picking numbers and placing them onto an entire group does not make the statistical interpretation valid.

According to the White House Press Release, two ‘threats’ immigrants bring into America are gender-violence and crime. Let me rephrase that – the current administration, led by this man, who hired people like Rob Porter and David Sorensen who touted their professional prowesses in response to them giving their wives black-eyes, is worried about immigrants bringing gender violence into the country.

Gender Violence is pervasive across the world. “Global estimates by the World Health Organization indicate that about 1 in 3 women worldwide has experienced violence in their lifetime.” [WHO | Violence against women] Factually, there is no continent on which there hasn’t been some form of sexual harassment or assault, including Antarctica. If you want some stats on the issue, go to UNWomen.

I could (and desperately want to) pick apart each of the statistics provided in the White House statement intended to make us clutch our pearls and shriek at the sight of a ‘foreign-national’. However, I will resist the urge and stick to the point that made me decide to write this piece.

From the White House statement:

“According to a 2016 report by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of women and girls at risk of undergoing female genital mutilation (FGM) was three times higher in 2012 compared to 1990. The CDC report states that the increase was entirely a result of the rapid growth in the number of immigrants from FGM practicing countries.”

One concern/question that immediately comes to mind: what was their methodology to predict that increase? Let’s check the report:

“For comparability of terminology with earlier analyses, those at risk consisted of the number who potentially underwent or would potentially undergo FGM/C in the future if the population of foreign-born women and girls and their children in the United States had the same rates of FGM/C as the countries in which the girls or their mothers had been born.”

To put it in perspective, the statement assumes that if a country has, say, 20% prevalence of FGC, and we have 100 immigrants from that country, 20 of those immigrants are at risk for FGC/M.

The inference is then that after people emigrate to the United States, they behave in the same manner as they would in the country from which they migrated. The study does not take into account assimilation of immigrants, a difference in socioeconomic status, nor that FGM/C is banned in the United States. The CDC study itself notes that ‘These differences would very likely result in reduced risk for FGM/C’. Whoever wrote this press statement did not read the entire CDC study, or they just choose to conveniently leave out that point. Alternatively, they must have thought that no one would read the actual CDC study in its entirety and instead the public would align with the narrative that we must all run from the scary foreign-man?

FGC is a real public health problem prevalent around the world, including in the United States. We are all trying to understand, reason, and reduce its incidence. We would be rejoicing if as a shift from the norm, the statement had said, ‘We can not tolerate this practice anywhere; here on U.S. soil, or across the world. We will work towards grassroots education, de-stigmatizing, and progress in the elimination of FGC.

The White House Press Release leaves me to wonder, is the U.S. still a champion of human rights across the world, or, are they okay as long as any violation that occurs is just not in their backyard?

FGC has its origins rooted in the patriarchy and suppression of female sexuality. Expecting the Trump administration to understand the nuanced situation of harmful religious practices is almost pointless. It is a war and not a battle. However, I will be damned if I stand by and watch these false “champions of women’s safety and health” demonize people without caring about the implications of their statements. At this point, if a ‘foreign national’ pulls his ear three times before eating his lunch, it seems the White House will find a reason to make it an issue relating to economic/health/crime/gender-violence.

The gender-violence statistics in the United States are staggering. For many of us, it is our day job to end it – day-in and day-out. Gender-violence, like many forms of violence, is about power. Don’t let anybody fool you into believing that strict immigration reform will put a stop to gender-violence.

Time and again, research has shown that there is no evidence for the enduring belief that increased immigration means increased crime. For writing this article, I perused the FBI’s arrested people statistics from the year 2011. Observing the races of the persons arrested by the FBI in 2016 (the latest year of compiled data available at the time of writing), 69.6% of the persons arrested were white, with 26.9% being African American. There are many more sources and studies that decry the notion that immigration increases violent crime. In fact, immigration does the opposite, immigration actually energizes a community, helps the economy grow, and in some cases (gasp!) even brings crime rates down.

I do not live in a leftist utopian peace bubble. Enemies of all magnitudes are growing, for every democratic institution in the world. Terrorism is a real, tangible threat that touches our lives too often. We should aim to unite people, to prepare them for emergency situations, to stand together. Instead, this driving-a-wedge mentality and fear-mongering are weakening our bonds and strengthening the effect of terrorist/anarchist ideologies.

I understand the temptation to believe that the ‘bad’ is pouring in from the outside, in terrifying numbers, if you align with some media platforms and politicians. However, this us vs. them mindset will cause chaos, breed distrust, and only add on to the number of problems with which we, and the next four generations, have to deal. If we build the walls, imposed a travel ban, and shut our doors to everyone outside our borders tomorrow, to our sad surprise, we will see that crime has not reduced or altogether disappeared as promised.

I am all for meaningful immigration reform and crime policy reform – every country needs it. However, let us try to remember that this is America, where anyone who is not 100% Indigenous Native American, has descended from an immigrant who came to this country at some point. Let us try not to dehumanize or demonize immigrants as people who are here to pillage, steal jobs and blow up things. They want a brighter future for themselves and their children. We should all strive and want to evaluate and provide a structured pathway for that to happen. Big, scary numbers and cherry picking Muslim names from a decade-long list of convictions will not get us there.

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