Terry McLaughlin: ‘You have to pay with your body’
“On America’s southern border, migrant women and girls are the victims of sexual assaults that most often go unreported, uninvestigated and unprosecuted. Even as women around the world are speaking out against sexual misconduct, migrant women on the border live in the shadows of the #MeToo movement.”
This is according to the New York Times, who on Sunday, March 3, published firsthand accounts of the nightmare of sexual violence and abuse occurring along our southern border. The Times cited President Trump’s quote that “one in three women are sexually assaulted on the dangerous trek up through Mexico,” an estimate that appears to have originated from several surveys of women traveling through Mexico, including one conducted by Doctors Without Borders.
Even if that number is an overestimate, it is true that more than 76,000 migrants crossed the border illegally in February alone. That number is more than double the levels seen in February of last year, and is approaching the largest numbers in any February in the last 12 years.
Within these vast numbers, the New York Times found dozens of cases of undocumented women making their way into American border towns having been beaten by smugglers, impregnated by strangers, coerced into prostitution, shackled to beds and trees, and bound with duct tape, rope or handcuffs. These individual cases were documented through interviews with law enforcement officials, prosecutors, federal judges, and immigration advocates, as well as a review of police reports and court records in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.
In addition to the documented cases, the Times’ interviews with migrant women and those working with them along the border indicate that “the actual number of sexual assaults is almost certainly much higher than those documented by prosecutors and the police, because most attacks are never reported.” The Times article suggests that these interviews show that “sexual violence has become an inescapable part of the collective migrant journey.”
Violence not only befalls these women during their perilous journey through Mexico, but much of it happens after they reach the United States. The New York Times article contains numerous accounts of specific cases of abuse such as the 23-year-old Honduran woman who told 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. In 2017, according to another woman from El Salvador, a guide leading a group of migrants through the Tohono O’odham Nation’s reservation in Arizona raped her “twice during a seven-day desert hike, threatening to leave her stranded if she resisted” saying, “I hope I leave you pregnant so you have one of my kids.”
In 2016, a migrant woman reported that she fled a house in the South Texas city of Edinburg, where she claimed she had been raped by a smuggler who brandished a machete.
Lucy, a 45-year-old migrant from Honduras, reported her experience of being held prisoner in a house that had been turned into a brothel in McAllen, Texas. She said the smugglers called her and other migrant women being led into the house “nueva carne” — new meat. She said she wanted to flee, but feared that she would be killed. The smugglers told her “You guys don’t have money, so you have to pay with your body.” She described how a series of men came to the house over the next few days and raped her, and that “because I didn’t want to let them, they tied my feet together and my hands behind my back.”
A mother of four from Guatemala described how she was kidnapped by armed smugglers after crossing the border and jumped out of a car to escape. She was recaptured and held for days as a prisoner in a house in McAllen, and forced to have sex with a number of men. “I thought it would be better if I died when I fell from the car,” she said.
According to the Times’ report, law enforcement officials along the border said they have made arrests in many of the cases brought to them and they “would pursue more if they could. But the majority of women who have been assaulted do not report it, often because their attackers threaten to expose their immigration status — or worse — if they do.” The Times describes one woman who was raped repeatedly at gunpoint in Phoenix, while her attacker threatened to sell her then 3-year-old daughter if she reported him. Understandably, many who do go to authorities do not know the names of their attackers, or oftentimes even where the assaults took place. Human smugglers make sure their “clients” are unsure or unaware of their whereabouts so that if they are detained by Border Patrol agents they won’t be able to identify the location where they were held.
These women are powerless against the human smugglers who will abuse, violate and degrade them. This ongoing humanitarian crisis at our border should not be a partisan issue.
“They don’t have many defenses,” said Jesus R. Romo Vejar, an Arizona lawyer who has represented many migrant sexual assault victims. “Undocumented women and children are the most unprotected of human beings.”
Terry McLaughlin, who lives in Grass Valley, writes a twice monthly column for The Union. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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