Violence On the Mexico-US Border
Meghan Rhoad, Guest Contributor
To supplement our series on Mexico, we are excerpting a chapter from a newly published book, The Unfinished Revolution: Voices from the Global Fight for Women's Rights, that explains why it is crucial to understand and address the violence faced by women at the Mexico-US border:
Nowhere in the US is the subordination of migrants’ safety—particularly migrant women’s safety—in immigration enforcement policies more stark than on the border with Mexico. Just outside of where I sat talking to Elsa M. in Nogales, the borderline dividing Arizona from the Mexican state Sonora sees the largest flow of undocumented migration along the border. Those who make the crossing face a multitude of perils, including injuries from crossing rough terrain; heatstroke, disorientation, and even death from days of walking under the desert sun. They also face robbery, kidnapping, and beatings by their smugglers or the bandits who roam the border areas, and harassment and abuse by Border Patrol or anti-immigrant vigilante groups. For women and girl migrants in particular—although not exclusively—the crossing also carries the risk of sexual assault.
The visibility of sexual violence has grown with an increasingly militarized environment on the border over the last decade and a half. The number of agents patrolling the border doubled between 2002 and 2009, the border wall has expanded to cover large portions of the almost two-thousand-mile southwestern border, and ever more sophisticated technology is used to detect unauthorized crossings. In directing resources, the government targeted the easier passage points with the expectation that the terrain and dangers in the remaining areas—many in Arizona—would be deterrent enough. Doris Meissner, a federal immigration official during the Clinton administration, told the Arizona Republic in 2000, “We did believe that geography would be an ally to us. It was our sense that the number of people crossing the border through Arizona would go down to a trickle, once people realized what it’s like.”
That expectation has not borne out. Even when the risks of crossing could not be higher, they are often eclipsed by the incentives that make migrants willing to brave various dangers in successive attempts to cross the border. The draw varies for each person, but for many it is primarily the chance to find a job that can feed a struggling family back home. Sometimes it is to escape a violent relationship. More and more frequently, as the US increases the number of deportations of longtime residents, it is the drive to reunite with children left behind in the US. However, redirecting the flow of cross-border migration into areas that entail the assistance of smugglers, longer treks through difficult terrain, and sometimes routes dominated by drug-runners, has had a largely negative—even fatal—impact. Between 1995 and 2005, the number of border-crossing deaths doubled. One study of crossing-related deaths found that women were 2.7 times more likely to die during the journey than men.
In remote parts of the desert, hikers find so-called rape trees where women’s underwear has been strewn across branches, reportedly by perpetrators marking the site of sexual assaults. A woman interviewed by Human Rights Watch in April 2011 described the dangers she and her companions faced during their crossing:
The smugglers have us locked in for three to four days inside a house, on the floor, like animals, then they take us to another house with no light, nor food, nothing, then they tell us that we are going to walk for one night. We buy a little food and then, once inside the desert, they tell us that we still have to walk for four nights. Women start to faint and fall, and guides do not say anything. They use drugs during the crossing, they are very rude, they tell those who fall to “fuck their mothers,” they leave them there, they don’t get them up. . . . We continued, and at night, the “coyotes” [smugglers] wanted to rape [two] young women, thirteen and eighteen years, but we didn’t leave their side and they did not do it in the end.
Statistics are lacking on how often women migrants are raped during the crossing, but organizations working with migrants report that it is not uncommon, and when it happens, it is most often attributed to the smugglers taking the women across, including some who were high on drugs at the time, or to bandits that prey on migrants. In a few reported cases, US Border Patrol agents have been accused of assault.
While international law grants governments wide latitude in controlling their borders, human rights obligations, including the duty to respond to violence against women, exist in parallel. In a May 2011 address, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay urged countries to “look at the real need for migrant labor emanating from their economies and societies, and ensure that they put in place adequate, safe, and legal means for migrants to enter and work in their countries. This could reduce the necessity of risky irregular movement, particularly those facilitated by smugglers and traffickers.”
Addressing the accessibility of legal immigration options is of tremendous importance for alleviating the human suffering that is rife along the border. Even short of a comprehensive overhaul of the immigration system, there is much that can be done to address women’s safety. Border Patrol and other agencies operating in these areas should be better trained and equipped to identify victims of sexual violence and provide them with access to medical care, legal services, and information about U-visas when victims are willing to cooperate with law enforcement in the investigation of the crime. The agencies should analyze their practices, including the timing and manner of deportations, to ensure they do not increase the risks to migrants’ safety. They should also implement adequate oversight measures to prevent abuse of migrants by their own officers.
Meghan Rhoad is a researcher in the Women's Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, specializing in violence against women and the US immigration system.