In the United States, there have been many instances of people of all genders speaking out about their sexual assaults. From Terry Crews to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, we have seen people courageously call out their abusers by name, but not everyone has the ability to do that. Many undocumented immigrants from Latin America feel silence is their price for entering the country. 

As April is sexual assault awareness month, it’s important to bring light to the various ways sexual assault plays a role in immigration. There are many stories of undocumented immigrants being sexually abused at the hands of strangers, border patrol agents, and even coyotes hired to bring them across the border.

A New York Times article published back in 2019 tells the story of five immigrants who were sexually assaulted while crossing the border. Their stories are all heartbreakingly honest as they recount what their abusers did. 

“Undocumented women and children are the most unprotected of human beings,” stated Jesus R. Romo Vejar, a lawyer who represents many migrant women dealing with previous instances of sexual assault. With few laws to protect them, fear of speaking out and facing deportation often keeps them silent.  

Precautions when crossing the border

Many women who cross the border are not naive to what might happen. They are often concerned with preventing pregnancies and STDs during their trip, so they want a safeguard to ensure protection if they are assaulted. 

Julie Watson, a writer for Boston Globe, wrote “Rape has become so prevalent that many women take birth control pills or shots before setting out to ensure they won’t get pregnant. Some consider rape ‘the price you pay for crossing the border,’ said Teresa Rodriguez, regional director of the UN Development Fund for Women.”

According to Amnesty International, this issue is prevalent enough that some smugglers require women to get a contraceptive injection before they start their journey. But sometimes fear of assault doesn’t end when you get the U.S.

The problem with border patrol agents

In the United States, Border Patrol agents have violated the rights of many undocumented female immigrants. Back in 2016, two sisters spoke out about their assault by agents. Both sisters were ordered to remove their clothing and were then touched inappropriately. At the time, they were 17 and 19 years old. 

The sisters reported the incident and an investigation was started. However, because they claimed there wasn’t any evidence, Customs and Border Protection closed the case. They ended up settling the lawsuit for $125,000 but said it was not an admission of fault or liability. As of March 2019, the agent who committed the act still worked there. 

Angelica Salceda, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, filed the legal actions for the two sisters. 

“We’ve seen troubling cases, extensively documented history of human rights abuses at the hands of Border Patrol and CBP officers,” said Salceda. “So certainly it’s more than just a few bad apples.

ICE detention centers and staff abuses

The problem of undocumented children being sexually assaulted is far bigger than just one or two instances. In ICE detention and immigration youth shelters, more than 4,500 children have reported sexual abuse since 2015. According to an NPR article, 178 complaints were against the staff working at the shelters while the rest were complaints involving one minor assaulting another. 

Part of the staff includes youth care workers, meaning that they are the ones accompanying the children anywhere they go. John Burnett reported that “The complaints range from inappropriate romantic relationships between children and adults, to touching genitals, to watching children shower.”

And this is just one of the many horrific events occurring in detention centers in the United States.

Why don’t they report it?

There isn’t one answer to this. Everyone’s situation is different, causing different obstacles to be in their way. One main reason undocumented immigrants don’t report their assault is that they’re afraid of being deported. They may be fleeing a dangerous situation in their home country and deportation could put their lives in jeopardy.

Another common reason is that they feel they don’t have enough information. They may not know their assaulter, meaning they have no name to report. Other times they might not even know where the assault took place. Smugglers keep their clients unsure about their location. This is so their clients can’t give any information if they are caught by Border Patrol.

Another big deterrent for reporting is the lack of resources. When you’re in a new country who should you go to in order to report your assault? Who is safe? 

Where do we go from here?

While this situation may seem hopeless, people are working to create solutions. Organizations like the National Immigrant Women’s Advocacy Project (NIWAP) are advocating for reform in law, policy, and practice. 

Today, there are laws created to protect undocumented immigrants who are victims of sexual assault. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) tries to protect immigrant victims by giving them a path to citizenship. While it is still lacking a lot of vital provisions for immigrants, the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) will be advocating for resources: “NNEDV, our membership, and national partners will be working closely with the House and Senate to secure the best bill possible, particularly considering the needs of historically marginalized survivors.”

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