Sexual violence has “become an inescapable part of the collective migrant journey” for women who cross the border—and it doesn’t end once they enter the United States, as a new report from the New York Times makes painfully clear. From smugglers who exploit women making the journey north to Customs and Border Protection agents and Border Patrol officers who then use their authority to abuse women in their custody, the threat of violence can be ever present.
The current dangers associated with the journey are largely a product of U.S. border policy, which has forced people to rely even more on human smugglers and take increasingly dangerous routes to the United States. As a team of researchers wrote in 2016, “As migrants were diverted away from relatively safe and well-trod pathways in urban areas into more remote, isolated, and environmentally hostile sectors of the border, crossings grew increasingly difficult and hazardous and the share relying on the services of a paid guide, which had always been high, steadily rose.” Our border policy, specifically the Clinton-era policy of “prevention through deterrence,” said No More Deaths’s Justine Orlovksy-Schnitzler in an earlier interview with Jezebel, is “functioning exactly as intended.” She added, “The Trump administration has emboldened both government and non-governmental actors against migrants, which often creates deadly outcomes.”
Here are just some of the horrific stories reported by the Times:
In July, a 23-year-old Honduran woman told the authorities that she was sexually assaulted in a bedroom closet by a smuggler who had helped her and her sister cross into the South Texas city of Mission. The following month, a sheriff’s deputy in San Antonio was charged with sexually assaulting the 4-year-old daughter of an undocumented Guatemalan woman and threatening to have her deported if she reported the abuse. In 2017, a guide leading a group of migrants through the Tohono O’odham Nation’s reservation in Arizona raped a woman from El Salvador twice during a seven-day desert hike, threatening to leave her stranded if she resisted. “I hope I leave you pregnant so you have one of my kids,” he said, the woman told the authorities.
Women who make the dangerous journey north must also contend with the threat of violence from U.S. border officers. In 2017, two teenage sisters who came to the U.S. from Guatemala reported a Customs and Border Protection officer had sexually assaulted them the previous year, forcing them to remove their clothes before he fondled them. And earlier this year, the Times reported that in 2014, a Border Patrol agent violently attacked and sexually assaulted three women he encountered after they had crossed the Rio Grande River in Texas, handcuffing one of them to a tree and covering her mouth with duct tape before taking her to his apartment and repeatedly raping her.
While good data on the prevalence of sexual violence faced by women who journey to the United States is hard to come by (a much-cited statistic from Amnesty International that six out of ten Central American women who cross the border are the victims of sexual violence has disputed origins), it is clear that it is widespread.
Several women told their stories in painful detail to the Times. One 45-year-old woman named Lucy shared how she was repeatedly raped and forced to work in what the Times called “makeshift brothels” in both Mexico and then in McAllen, Texas:
When we got to the house, there were many women. It was a big house. I couldn’t see everybody’s face, but there were different women in different rooms for prostitution. I wanted to flee but I was afraid they were going to kill me. They just told us, “You guys don’t have money, so you have to pay with your body.”
When we crossed the river, there was a man waiting, a white guy with tattoos. He was in a truck. We got into the truck. He brought us into a house in McAllen. When we got there, the guy started talking and he said that I was new meat.
When they wanted to have sex with me they had to tie me up because I wasn’t cooperative. They tied my feet together and my hands behind my back and then they’d have sex with me from behind.
Before, I could not talk about this. I would have panic, really serious panic. I didn’t want to leave the house. I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I thought that everyone in the world saw me as a prostitute. I come from a poor family but a very decent family.
It has affected me, yes. But not anymore. I’m kind of enraged. Those guys have mothers and daughters. What they did to us is what they did to women.
It’s no wonder, then, that women—and queer migrants as well—have increasingly traveled together in large groups, which provides some safety in numbers. As Cecilia Menjivar, a professor at the University of Kansas who studies Central American migration to the United States, told the Arizona Republic in 2018, “There is a huge difference between women traveling alone or even in small groups and traveling with 1,000 others.”