Ripped Off by Smugglers, Groped by Border Patrol: The Nightmares Women Migrants Face
My parents migrated to the United States in 1978. I grew up imagining the desert as a dangerous and haunting place. People ran out of food and water. La migra and los coyotes were ominous figures. I knew that women were especially vulnerable to danger. On their way to Tijuana, my mother was threatened by a man in the network of coyotes, terrified until my dad intervened.
Over three decades later, the desert is even more dangerous, and hostility toward immigrants has become even more flagrant. The Obama administration’s recent decision to allow Dream Act-eligible young people to stay in the United States came as a relief to many, especially in the midst of so much anti-immigrant sentiment. I know many in my community are grateful for this reform. It’s undoubtedly an improvement for the lives of hundreds of thousands of undocumented people.
But unfortunately, there are critical factors missing in the national immigration conversation. The underlying reasons why people migrate are rarely addressed and the issue of safety for those crossing the border is considered to be a trivial matter. In addition to the danger migrants encounter in the desert, they must also worry about Border Patrol abuse, which is widespread and unchecked. Women are particularly at risk. I had the opportunity of speaking with six undocumented women who shared their thoughts and experiences on these issues.
Most undocumented immigrants have had to leave their economically ravaged towns in order to survive and assist their families. In the documentary The Other Side of Immigration, filmmaker Roy Germano explored the causes of Mexican immigration to the United States by interviewing 700 men and women in the Mexican countryside. One of the major factors he found was the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) signed in 1994, which caused severe economic hardships on poor Mexican farmers and workers. Many people were forced to leave their homes because there were no employment opportunities or because they lost their farms as a flood of cheaper corn came South from the United States.
All of the women I interviewed said that either they or their parents chose to immigrate to the United States for economic reasons. Morena, 47, chose to leave her hometown of Huejucar, in Jalisco, because her family was very poor. “My older sisters had all gotten married and there was no way to support my mother and younger sister,” she said. Gloria, 54, decided to migrate because she had two young children to support and there were simply no job opportunities in her hometown, Coacoyula de Alvarez, in the state of Guerrero. Oralia, 29, wanted to give birth to her child in the United States so he would have an opportunity for some prosperity.
The choice to cross the border is often difficult not only because of the high coyote or smuggler fees, which range between $2,500-$4,000, but also because of the potential dangers that lie in the desert and on the border. Somewhere between 150 and 250 migrants die in the desert every year.
When Gloria was 22, she crossed the Texas border with her niece who was four and her two daughters, who were five and one and a half. While she was in the desert, she ran out of food. “When my daughter cried, I fed her mud,” she said. Morena, 47, who attempted to cross four times until she was successful, said her shoes fell apart during her journey. When she finally arrived she had blisters and cuts all over her feet. Ana, 32, was threatened and robbed by what she referred to as a cholo (gangster) as she was crossing. My own parents were smuggled with four other people for two hours in the trunk of a Cadillac.
But the danger often doesn’t end in the desert. No More Deaths, an organization that aims “to end death and suffering on the U.S./Mexico border through civil initiative,” recently published an extensive report on Border Patrol abuses titled "A Culture of Cruelty." The organization found that the dehumanization of immigrants is actually part of the Border Patrol’s institutional culture. Instances of misconduct are not aberrations, but common practice.
Customs and Border Patrol deny these accusations and have so far failed to address the abuses. No More Deaths identified the following human rights violations as being common: limiting or denying water, limiting or denying food, failing to provide necessary medical treatment, and verbal and physical abuse. The list goes on. Many of the practices meet the definition of torture under international law.
Morena, who crossed the Tijuana border when she was 21, says that before she left for the border, people advised her to look like a man to avoid getting raped. In preparation, she cut her hair very short. She said that when she was caught by Border Patrol, she felt most threatened by the pocho (Americanized Mexican) agents. ”The pochos were the worst,” she said. “One grabbed me by the neck and dragged me across the floor. He laughed and called me mugre gallina mojada (“dirty wetback chicken”). He asked me if I was lesbian because of my haircut.” A woman quoted in the report by No More Deaths said that the guards at a processing center had her strip naked and touched her breasts. These are only a few examples of the abuse women experience at the hands of the U.S. Border Patrol.
And so while the new immigration reform is a great improvement, the roots of the problem still need to be addressed. The U.S. must take responsibility for its participation in NAFTA, which “pushed Mexicans straight out of their own fields and factories and into the U.S.” None of the women were eager to leave their homes and risk their lives. The Border Patrol must also be accountable for its abuse of undocumented immigrants.
In talking with these women, I was inspired by their bravery and resilience. Contrary to what many people believe about undocumented immigrants, so many of these women are making great contributions to our society. Most of them work hard and try their best to navigate a system that's set up against them. They raise productive American children. I myself am a product of this. Hopefully, their narratives will eventually become a part of the national conversation.