A recent article by The New York Times revealed that the federal government over the past four years received more than 4,500 complaints about sexual violence against women and children at government-funded detention facilities. Although already alarming news, experts say that this number is even higher when considering that most attacks go unreported.
The article followed by interviewing eight migrant women who were sexually assaulted in South Texas, on American soil. Each woman detailed how the traumatic experience of rape and sex trafficking permanently changed their lives, as they now live in a world of fear and loneliness.
One woman, Lucy, was forced into prostitution after her smugglers tied her feet and hands together and brought her to a brothel. After traveling hundreds of miles from Central America, Lucy was unfamiliar with the new environment and put her trust in the smugglers. However, because she did not have money, the smugglers told Lucy that she needed to “Pay with [her] body.” Lucy ended up working as a prostitute for several years of her life in Mexico and McAllen, Texas.
Another victim, Melvin, was sex trafficked and locked in a stash house in McAllen, Texas. After being abused and raped relentlessly, Melvin lost track of her time in the brothel and described herself as a wholly different person. One day, she arrived at a government-owned detention center and told workers that it was her birthday. According to the workers, the rape that day was in honor of her birthday. Melvin tried committing suicide three times and still lives with the painful memories from her time in McAllen.
After reading these stories, it’s hard to not feel anger towards smugglers and border patrol workers and sympathy for these women. However, no amount of prayers and public denouncement of sexual violence at the border will instigate change until the root cause of the problem is addressed.
When women cross the border, they often leave behind their families and wealth in their home countries. The economic and social vulnerability that women face makes them easy targets for sexual violence and manipulation. After the #MeToo movement, women in America found widespread support for reporting sexual assault. However, undocumented migrant women don’t have that privilege.
Especially under Trump’s Zero-Tolerance Policy, migrant women have become increasingly conscious of reporting sexual assault to government authorities because of the fear of deportation. This endless cycle of circumventing government control gives more power to abusive sex traffickers and prolongs the humanitarian crisis at the border.
When President Trump called Mexican immigrants “Drug dealers, criminals, and rapists,” he set the grounds for what he called a “national emergency.” However, the real threat in the United States is homegrown, one that we continue to ignore. Although in January, Trump recognized that many migrant women are victims of sexual assault, this acknowledgment received virtually no attention compared to his xenophobic rhetoric against immigrants.
In order to properly address the issue of sexual violence at the border, the United States needs to employ comprehensive immigration reform. Most migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border are fleeing poverty and oppression in their country, a notion that is defined as seeking asylum under internal law. However, the immigration courts are severely backlogged and Trump has chosen deportation over granting asylum.
This problem isn’t just about cracking down on illegal brothels near borders and providing women with immediate emotional support, it’s about fixing the flawed system. Most migrants that are deported attempt to reenter the United States because that is their only choice of survival. Due to the internal crises in many Central American countries, women are willing to do anything to enter the United States under the nose of border patrol.
Without amnesty or a path to legalization, women are forced to stay in the dark, and so do their stories of abuse. As a country that claims to care about the welfare of all human beings, the United States isn’t doing enough to address sexual violence. The fact of the matter is that immigrants are not the national emergency, but they’re victims of the emergency caused directly by America’s negligence to the humanitarian crisis at the border.
While The New York Times may have told the stories of eight women, there are thousands of other stories that will never be told because women are living in fear. Our role as women and advocates is to be as loud as possible about this issue until the political change takes place. Because when one woman suffers, all women suffer. And when we fail to tell the stories of victims of sexual assault, the importance of the problem ceases to exist.