Price of Admission

Along the border, sexual assault has become routine

The darkness lifts, and daybreak nudges into the desert. For northbound migrants, this sunrise may signal a time to find shade and dodge the Border Patrol. Or it could mark the start of a white-knuckle dash to catch rides bound for the interior. From there, god willing, the migrants may disappear into a world offering more hope than the one they left behind.

But for other border-crossers, daybreak brings only the flat hardness of reality--a time for noting what's already been lost in the desperate trek north. For women in particular, that loss can be brutal, because even if they reach some safe house in Tucson or Phoenix or points afar, some of them certainly don't arrive whole. According to experts, rape is now considered "the price of admission" for women crossing the border illegally.

But this scourge goes largely ignored, and is suspected to be vastly underreported. Not surprisingly, few women care to describe their ordeals to authorities in stark government detention facilities. And if they do, it's often as they're already being deported back across the border--sometimes back into the very situations where the assaults occurred.

This grim scenario played out in early May, when three women--ages 16, 17 and 20--reported having been raped by masked men. A few days later, two more women were found alive but badly beaten near Arivaca, south of Tucson. That same week, yet two more women reported having been raped. The reports didn't slow deportation proceedings against them.

Further complicating matters, it's often difficult to determine whether the assaults occurred on U.S. soil or in Mexico. But such details probably matter little to the victims. Civilian border-watchers tell of hearing these women's cries.

"I thought the wailings we heard at night were the coyotes barking at the moon," one volunteer told The Washington Times. "I didn't know until later that those sounds were the cries of women being raped in the Mexican desert, some less than 100 yards away from the border. There was absolutely nothing anyone could do about it."

The rapists are known to hang women's bras and panties from tree limbs as trophies.

Beyond such haunting anecdotes, hard numbers are tough to come by. According to the United Nations, up to 70 percent of women crossing the border without husbands or families are abused in some way. But the flood of stories leads humanitarian aid workers such as Michelle Brané to consider these crimes even more pervasive. Brané directs detention and asylum programs with the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, based in Washington, D.C.

"Nonprofit groups and even the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement--which has custody of unaccompanied children--estimate that the vast majority of women and female children encounter some sort of sexual assault en route to the United States," she says. "It's become the norm, and in many cases with female children, they just assume that there's been some sort of incident."

In this situation, survival often requires extreme steps, she says. "A lot of times, women, because they know what's coming, will align themselves with one man in the group" of smugglers or coyotes. "Whether you consider that assault or not, I guess it's a blurry line."

This speaks to the fact that women are routinely assaulted by the very smugglers they've paid to bring them across. Immigrants have told of preparing for the inevitable by taking birth-control pills before attempting to cross the border, says Dr. Sylvanna Falcón, an assistant professor of sociology at Connecticut College, in New London, Conn. Falcón has conducted extensive research into rapes and other human-rights abuses along the U.S.-Mexico border.

She notes that this saga of exploitation isn't limited to the desert, and points to well-documented incidents of U.S. Border Patrol agents or other officials pressuring migrants into having sex in exchange for their freedom. Other times, the women are raped by those with the power to deport them.

"We know this kind of thing is happening, and it gets reported every once in awhile," she says. "The degree to which it happens is not well-known, but women are particularly vulnerable when they come into contact with agents." That vulnerability is compounded by the remoteness of border areas where agents and immigrants often come in contact.

Attempts to obtain comment from Border Patrol officials were not successful as of the Weekly's press time. But some cases have been sensational, such as the Border Patrol agent in Texas who was convicted of detaining a 23-year-old woman and driving her to a motel, where he sexually assaulted her. Or the ongoing investigation of a sprawling detention center in South Texas, operated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, where a culture of rape, sexual coercion and cover-ups has reportedly existed for years.

"Congress did an investigation, and found thousands of cases of misconduct, and that getting green cards for sex was a very common form of bribery," Falcón says. "You have women who are very vulnerable in every sense of the word. They may have young children with them; maybe they're trying to reunite with family members on this side of the border. (Officials) doing this bribery know that they're in a complete position of power."

Women face risks on all sides, she says. "Anyone from coyotes to U.S. officials, they all have the upper hand here."

Meanwhile, the rest of America simply ignores this horrific violence on its doorstep, she says.

"Our society takes rape seriously, but it doesn't take this type of rape seriously. In all of our national discourse around securing our borders, rarely, if ever, do you hear about any kind of protection for people who might be crossing. Largely, that's because the discussion has been framed around protecting us--protecting the U.S.--and once you get into that framework, what happens to the other person is not even on the radar."

But the cost of our denial may include flaunting international legal standards. "When we look at human-rights laws," Falcón says, "and at the different international human-rights treaties and conventions, clearly, any systemic violation of women in this way is a human-rights violation."

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