The Precious Price Women Pay

Hispanic women silhoutte

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.
Image of a rape tree found on the U.S./Mexico border

Image of a rape tree found on the U.S./Mexico border

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.young victimsAnd 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.

Living on the Edge


Last week as I read the news of Philip Seymour’s death, my own internal questions, stirring within me since I arrived in El Paso, intensified. Questions about what it means to fulfill one’s purpose, how to discern one’s calling, and then step off the edge into the unknown to bring it forth into the world with courage and perseverance. I thought of this talented actor, how he embodied his characters,  gave his all to the craft of acting. No matter how we judge his death, no matter how our minds view the circumstances and try to make sense of this tragedy, there’s one thing that stands out for me: how this man gave of himself to the cause of acting, and in so doing, to fully living his life’s calling.

But when you give yourself fully to any cause: the cause of acting, the cause of writing, the cause of creating, and especially the cause of serving, you can at times feel used up. You see things not everyone sees. You feel at a deeper level. When you’re devoted to giving yourself to fully living, you come up against raw humanity.

The danger lies in not grounding ourselves in something larger than our small self. In realizing it’s not just about us. We need spiritual grounding. We need practices that take us beyond the world’s limited focus. Perhaps that’s what Mr. Seymour was missing. I don’t know.

But I do know that the people I have met working here at the U.S./Mexico border—and the religious sisters in particular—exemplify for me what it means to give your all to the cause of fully living. They define what it means to “live on the edge.” To live with passion. In the service of something greater than ourselves. They know that the work they do, the people they serve, the call they are answering, is not about them.

Like Sr. Lourdes, for example, whom I met through Border Women. A trained psychologist, she works with undocumented immigrant children who have been apprehended at the border and are sent either to detention facilities for unaccompanied youth, or if they are younger than 12, to transitional foster care centers, while their cases are being processed. Some are as young as four years old. And all are separated from their parents.

Wearing a bright blue Mexican-style dress, wisps of her dark hair detached from her ponytail and falling onto her face, Sr. Lourdes defies my image of a nun. Her eyes shine and she laughs easily. Until I ask about her work. “Some days,” she says, “I go home and cry.”

The children’s stories, their situation, their future. Day after day she’s up against that rawness. What carries her through? What keeps that fire in her eyes from dying out? Faith, prayer, and the support of her community, she tells me.

Then there’s Sr. Doris (I’m not using her real name to protect the victims whom she serves). She ministers to people who have been caught in human trafficking, both in the sex trade and forced labor. It’s hard to fathom how prevalent this is. According to statistics from the International Labor Organization, 20.9 million people become victims of human trafficking every year. As much as 1.2 million of them are children (source: End Childhood Prostitution and Slavery).

Some young people are captured during their trek to the border. Their guides, or “coyotes,” sell them. Some predators travel into Mexico luring women with the promise of work and a safe transport over the border. The women come, some of them wives and mothers seeking to support their family. Once they discover what they’ve actually been hired to do, they are threatened. The predator threatens to tell their family, to ruin their reputation, to physically hurt them. The women feel trapped. These are just some of the scenarios. There are many others.

Sometimes these women—and men—are fortunate enough to find their way out of such bondage. That’s where Sr. Doris enters in. Steeped in shame and poor self-esteem, the victims come to be with her for awhile before moving on in their newfound freedom. She listens. She soothes their pain. She reminds them of who they are — “a loved and valued child of God.”

Her gentle voice soothes my own soul as I hear her say this. I tell her what a gift her ministry is. “They are as much a gift to me,” she says. She smiles. I think I have just met an angel.

This week, Sr. Nancy is visiting us from Milwaukee. Within her first few days here, she, too, gave me a gift. I just “happened” to be sitting with her in a small gathering of women discussing the evolving face of their Franciscan order. Out of nowhere, Sr. Nancy says, “One of my favorite sayings is, ‘if you’re not standing on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.’”

I had to laugh. I feel as though I’ve been standing on the edge for several months now. Wanting to step off, the spark within me longing to be ignited. Apparently, this is exactly where I’m supposed to be.

For Sr. Nancy, just as with all those I’ve been meeting, standing on the edge means living with passion. And at 79-years old, she still exudes that fire. Whether she’s championing for just immigration reform or helping a retired sister transition to assisted living, her passion is being present to what she is doing in the moment, in the service of God.

I see that in her. And I also see that possibility in me.

The other day we were at Mass together. During the kiss of peace, Sr. Nancy leaned into me and whispered, “Step off the edge, Pauline.”