UA Institute Studies the Condition of Women
One UA institute is bringing to light the living and working conditions of female domestic laborers and immigration detainees.

By La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Communications
Sept. 21, 2007

In an office just off The University of Arizona campus, Nina Rabin, Sebastian Quinac and others were busy Wednesday getting ready for an educational clinic meant for domestic laborers and other low-wage workers.

On this particular evening, cookies and crackers sat among stacks of papers printed in English and Spanish. Some touted the new clinic – part of theTucson Women Worker’s Project – while others mentioned legal rights for immigrants and laborers, which signaled the work happening there.

The clinic is part of the multifaceted “Protecting Women’s Rights at the Border” project that the UA's Southwest Institute for Research on Women began this fall.

Another initiative that came out of that project is the Report on Women in Immigration Detention, which will be released in 2008 after one year of research that involves a number of Rabin's law students.

In both cases, Rabin hopes the initiatives will help inform policy decisions and improve public knowledge about two groups of women – immigrants and domestic laborers.

Little is known about the two groups of women because they have rarely been studied, says Rabin, project director for both initiatives. “These are groups that tend to be overlooked.”

But the UA institute hopes to change that.

“It has become really clear that there is a real need for this type of outreach,” says Rabin, the institute's director of border research.

The Tucson Women Worker’s Project

The project offers the clinic for housekeepers, nannies, child and elder care providers and other low-wage workers who come to the center for help.

During Wednesday’s meeting, the clinic launched its “Three Per Week” campaign. Over a three-month period, the group will push to get three new women to the clinic each week. To make this happen, participants and coordinators will put up fliers, give presentations and rely on word-of-mouth communication.

“We’re trying to let Tucson know there is a new clinic for women’s rights,” says Quinac, coordinator of immigration and border programs for the American Friends Service Committee, which collaborates with the institute on the project.

But Quinac warns: “The project is not like a social service.” It is, however, a resource.

“Our goal is to educate the workers and organize them into a committee, not a union,” Quinac says. “They need to be comfortable to talk about their rights, in a polite way, with their boss, supervisor or anyone else above them.”

But that is not always the case.

Sandra Rivas began attending the clinic because she knew two women – one of them being her sister – who were being asked to work 18-hour days at a home care site for the elderly, she says.

“The woman told my sister’s friend that if she missed a day because she was sick she wasn’t going to pay her for the days she worked,” says Rivas, a community health outreach adviser, speaking in Spanish as Rabin interpreted. “I told her, ‘She’s exploiting you.’”

But it was not clear what rights Rivas’ sister and others had. So when she learned about the clinic, Rivas said “I had hope in my heart” and was thrilled that she could begin helping others.

“It pains me that it hurt my sister and it pains me to know it happens to others," Rivas says.

The clinic, with help from attorneys and law students, pore over federal and state laws to inform women about their rights when problems arise in their workplace.

Concerns tend to center on topics that include wages, work hours, safety and sometimes issues of sexual harassment and discrimination.

“The target is the small-scale industry because those workers are particularly vulnerable,” Rabin says, adding that the purpose of the clinic is also to teach the women self-advocacy.

“A lot of women were seeking this, and it’s a great opportunity for them to have a leadership role and to work with other women,” Rabin says. “There are definitely laws that protect them. There are a lot of bad things that happen that aren’t legal. But we’re trying to raise the level of what workers’ right should be.”

Women in Detention

The other project, aptly named the Report on Women in Immigration Detention, should culminate sometime next year with a document detailing the situation at Arizona facilities.

The Florence Immigration and Refugee Rights Project, which provides legal services to detainees, is offering support as Rabin’s group conducts its research.

“There isn’t a lot of information about the facilities,” says Rabin, who is working with three law students to interview detainees and lawyers who have represented the women.

The group will attempt to interview government officials and families of former and current detainees and has a series of questions to answer: Where do the women come from? How do they enter the detention facilities? What types of services are provided at the facilities? How are the women treated once there? How do the facilities respond to the needs of female detainees?

The facilities may be “effective in their dealings with men, but now have a small female population,” says Rigel Massaro, a second-year law student who has already begun her research.

“Womens’ health issues are different, their histories of abuse tend to be more prevalent and the women may be hesitant to talk about such things, especially to a male prison official,” she added. “We want to look at what’s working and what’s not working and come up with some concrete information about what can be done.”

Massaro said the group will also try and define alternatives to detention.

Rabin said about 200 women are held in immigration detention facilities throughout Arizona and, nationally, the numbers are growing without an increased understanding of how best to serve the group, she added.

Like the domestic laborers, “this group is also very vulnerable,” Rabin said. “We don’t want this to be adversarial. We hope to provide a better understanding of this population.”

Extra info

The Southwest Institute for Research on Women, commonly known as SIROW, is a research-driven resource center that operates out of The University of Arizona’s Women’s Studies Department. The institute’s region consists of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, west Texas, Utah, Wyoming, and Northwestern Mexico. To learn more about the institute, visit its Web site at



Resources for the media

Southwest Institute for Research on Women