Here on the border I often hear stories and come across things that are painful for my heart to take in. Especially when they involve women and children.
Recently I learned a new term: “rape tree.” Pictures of these disgusting spectacles, displaying women’s undergarments hanging from their branches, popped onto my computer screen as soon as I googled the topic of sexual violence against migrant females crossing the border.
I’d chosen the topic for an article I’m writing for Las Americas—the nonprofit immigration advocacy center where I’m volunteering—because I’d heard that many women are raped during their journey across the U.S./Mexico border. I wanted to learn more.
Right off I discovered some alarming statistics: between 80 and 90 percent of women and girls crossing into the U.S. from Mexico are raped. Usually the very smugglers, or coyotes, the women have hired to take them across are the perpetrators. Sometimes the rapists are drug cartel members. Often the coyotes are affiliated with the cartel. Sometimes they are one and the same person.
Evidence of this violent crime committed against women has been cropping up through these “rape trees” — a name given to the tree that marks the spot where the crime has occurred. The tree is not only a sign of the perpetrator’s conquest, but serves as a warning to others of the price that must be paid. And this is happening on U.S. soil as well as in Mexico.
Even more disturbing—sometimes the undergarments do not belong to adult women but to young girls. A social worker I’ve met here confirmed this, saying she’s come across cases of 11-year-old girls who have been raped on their trek across the border. I suspect, based on what I’ve been hearing, that some are even younger.And coyotes and cartel members are not the only ones who pose a threat to these vulnerable women. There have been some news reports of occasional documented incidents of Border Patrol agents and deportation officials sexually assaulting undocumented women. Once captured, frightened women can be intimated and pressured into sex for their freedom. If they are sent to detention facilities, that can create yet another venue for sexual abuse, especially if the facility is privately run with minimal oversight.
Websites for watchdog groups such as the Human Rights Watch have reported numerous complaints of abuse from detention facilities around the country, including in Texas, Florida, New York, California, and Washington State. But human rights violations against undocumented immigrant women go virtually unheeded. Whether the rapes occur in the Mexican desert or on U.S. soil doesn’t seem to matter. Few women will report these crimes. The women often remain silent out of fear—fear of repercussions, fear of being sent back—as well as out of shame, ignorance of their rights, cultural beliefs, and their inability to speak English.
Rape has become so prevalent among undocumented females crossing the border that some are calling it “the price of admission.” Women are forewarned, especially if they will be traveling from Central America, that they can expect to be sexually abused along the way. In at least some communities women are advised to start taking birth control pills before they begin their journey.
Still the women come.
They leave behind their country, culture, family, even their own children, to risk such violent crimes and even death. Why? Could it be that these women’s lives of poverty, abuse, or violence have become unbearable? Could it be that facing such risks to come here is preferable to a life of hopelessness? Preferable to a life where one is unable to meet the minimal needs of one’s children?
These are questions that need to be considered when arguing for or against immigration reform. Because if rape and death do not stop these women, why would the threat of more security at the border? Designating more money for additional agents and fencing won’t solve the problem. Immigration is a complex issue, and no single answer will resolve it.