When the stories of sexually abused immigrants Maria and “E.D.” broke out several years ago, and I posted about them on Facebook, one of my acquaintances responded with a laughing emoji and a reminder that the abuse happened during the Obama Administration. He was right about the time frame of the abuse. He was horrifically inappropriate in his choice of emoticons.
When Dr. Christine Blasey Ford revealed that Brett Kavanaugh assaulted her thirty-seven years ago, men and women expressed their outrage that such predictable and common behavior as a sexual assault at a high school party would jeopardize Kavanaugh’s confirmation for the Supreme Court.
Maria’s and E.D.’s stories triggered a complex emotional response in me. So did Ford’s revelation, especially the trending #whyIdidntreport response from women who are rightly disgusted by those who dismiss Ford’s accusations as purely politically motivated, untrue, or exaggerated. I am a woman. I am an immigrant. I was sexually abused by a Homeland Security doctor appointed by the federal government to assess the health of applicants for permanent residency. I did not report it.
One of the many pieces of the path to legal immigration is an appointment with a Homeland Security doctor who has the exclusive power of proclaiming the applicant fit or unfit to stay in this country. To find a doctor approved by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the applicants look up the list of civil surgeons online and make an appointment, for which they have to pay. Rates vary by doctor.
My husband and I printed out the required I-693 form, or Report of Medical Examination and Vaccination Record, made an appointment with a local USCIS-approved doctor, and several months later, we showed up at the doctor’s office at a hospital. As we were entering the waiting room of the doctor’s office, a visibly distraught Latina woman, her shiny hair tied in a neat pony-tail, was signing paperwork at the check-in counter, her hands shaking. I only saw her face for a split second, and what I saw in that face made me uneasy. Was she ok? I should have asked. I did not.
We sat in plum-colored chairs, and I noticed that the woman at the check-in counter was speaking Spanish. My Spanish was rusty. She spoke quietly. I pretended to read US Weekly, but really I was straining my ears to overhear her complaints. That’s when a tall, unsmiling nurse called my name, sort of. “Augusta?” I put US Weekly aside. “It’s Agata.” She told me to step into the exam room. Alone.
Once inside, I handed in my form and the required vaccination documents. The nurse, without looking at me, asked me to undress and left the room. Undress how, I thought? I removed my dress and sat on the exam table, shivering in the air-conditioned room, playing with the strap of my bra, and wondering why I didn’t get a sheet or a gown to cover myself with. I also wondered how thorough this exam was going to be. An Albanian friend of mine had told me all about these exams. Hers lasted 5 minutes. She answered a few questions and opened her mouth for a few seconds. The worst part, she said, was traffic on her way to the doctor. But my doctor’s office was in a smaller city, so I’d be fine, she said. The USCIS website did not explain what to expect at this appointment. It turns out it’s probably because the extent to which the civil surgeon probes and gropes your body varies from doctor to doctor.
My doctor turned out to be very thorough.
When the doctor and the nurse came in, the doctor asked why I was not undressed. “Am I supposed to remove my bra and underwear?” The doctor—a guy in his early 50s, reeking of cologne and smoothing his thinning hair—was already looking at my health records that proved that I had no communicable diseases, including STDs, and that my vaccinations were all in order. Though I was healthy, I began to worry. What is he looking for? Tattoos? Unsightly moles? “Yes, remove all clothing.” It was at that point that the unsmiling nurse turned her back to us and stood by the little sink tucked in the corner of the office. She didn’t move from that corner until the very end of the appointment. She never looked me in the face.
I undressed completely and focused on the sickly green color of the walls. As the doctor touched and prodded my body, I forced my mind to invent names for the wall color in his office. He touched my thighs. Then his hands moved up to my breasts.
Finally, he asked me to spread my legs. He came closer, and that’s when I felt his genitals rub against my knee. I could feel this flabby penis through the thin layer of his white doctor’s coat. “Excuse me? What are you doing?” My voice was loud, and it rang clear in the sterile silence of the tiny examination room, yet the nurse didn’t turn toward us. He moved away quickly, rubbed some pungent disinfectant on his hands, and told me to get dressed. The payment for the visit is due today, the nurse reminded me. “We take credit cards.”
I did not say a word to my husband until we were back in his red pick-up truck moving fast on the Interstate back to our apartment. After long deliberation, we decided not to report the doctor, mostly because I had no evidence that this abuse happened. After all, the nurse was clearly an accomplice. We were also, frankly, afraid that reporting the surgeon would get me kicked out of the country.
I stayed silent because that doctor could cancel with one signature all my efforts to secure permanent residency and in effect separate me from my husband for months. Years later, I recognize this decision to stay silent as my biggest failure. I was silenced by fear, but what was at stake for me was different from what’s at stake for a lot of immigrants and refugees in this country who face deep poverty, violence, or death back home, and who are also silenced by a language barrier.
I had the privilege of my white skin and fluency in English. So did Ford and countless other women assaulted by classmates, colleagues, doctors, and strangers. If we are too afraid to report sexual assault right away, despite our privilege, imagine how many darker-skinned non-citizen women out there suppress their feelings of rage and shame after assaults instead of speaking out. When the victims finally do speak, they are often ridiculed (as in the recent IndyStar cartoon depicting Ford as a spoiled diva), or their stories are trivialized (in “Boys will be boys” responses), or their assailant receives more compassion than his victim (Senator Bob Corker’s “I can’t imagine the horror of being accused of something like this” comes to mind). This is why we do not report.
Agata Izabela Brewer came to the U.S. from Poland as a Rotary Foundation Ambassadorial Scholar. She has published two research books, a short story, and several essays. In 2019, she won the Black Warrior Review Nonfiction Prize. She teaches at Wabash College in Indiana and volunteers as a Court Appointed Special Advocate.