‘You Have to Pay with Your Body’: The Hidden Nightmare of Sexual Violence on the Border

Manny Fernandez, New York Times, March 3, 2019

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On America’s southern border, migrant women and girls are the victims of sexual assaults that most often go unreported, uninvestigated and unprosecuted. Even as women around the world are speaking out against sexual misconduct, migrant women on the border live in the shadows of the #MeToo movement.

The stories are many, and yet all too similar. Undocumented women making their way into American border towns have been beaten for disobeying smugglers, impregnated by strangers, coerced into prostitution, shackled to beds and trees and — in at least a handful of cases — bound with duct tape, rope or handcuffs.

The New York Times found dozens of documented cases through interviews with law enforcement officials, prosecutors, federal judges and immigrant advocates around the country, and a review of police reports and court records in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. The review showed more than 100 documented reports of sexual assault of undocumented women along the border in the past two decades, a number that most likely only skims the surface, law enforcement officials and advocates say.

In addition, interviews with migrant women and those working with them along the border point to large numbers of cases that are either unreported or unexamined, suggesting that sexual violence has become an inescapable part of the collective migrant journey.

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But less understood is that the violence that befalls migrant women happens not just during the perilous journey through Mexico: Much of it happens after women reach the supposed safety of the United States.

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In 2016, a migrant woman fled a stash house in the South Texas city of Edinburg, where she said she had been raped by a smuggler who brandished a machete. In West Texas that same year, two teenage girls reported that they had been sexually assaulted by a Customs and Border Protection officer, who they said forced them to strip, fondled them, then tried to get them to stop crying by offering chocolates, potato chips and a blanket. In an unusual turn, the girls filed legal claims against the federal government, which settled the case in 2018 for $125,000.

At least five of the women who were assaulted — in one case, bound with duct tape, raped and stabbed — were attacked not by migrant smugglers, who are often the perpetrators, but by on-duty Border Patrol agents and Customs officers.

{snip} Women have reported being assaulted in immigration detention facilities, and the federal government over a recent four-year period has received more than 4,500 complaints about the sexual abuse of immigrant children at government-funded detention facilities.

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Most of their attackers were never prosecuted or identified, and The Times was not able to independently verify the women’s accounts. But all eight women either gave sworn testimony or submitted statements under penalty of perjury to the federal government in order to qualify for visas, and cooperated with the police in the investigation of their cases.

They described a netherworld of fear that coexists with the bustling life of American cities up and down the border. One woman told of being held prisoner in a house that had been turned into a makeshift brothel in McAllen, a city of 143,000 in the Rio Grande Valley. “Nueva carne” — new meat, the smugglers said as she and other migrant women were led into the house, said the woman, Lucy, 45, a migrant from Honduras who, like others interviewed, did not want her last name used.

She said a series of men came into the house over the next several days and raped her. “Because I didn’t want to let them, they tied my feet together and my hands behind my back,” Lucy said.

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Law enforcement officials on the border said they had made arrests in many of the cases brought to them and would pursue more if they could. But the majority of women who have been assaulted do not report it, often because their attackers threaten to expose their immigration status — or worse — if they do. One woman, raped repeatedly at gunpoint in a stash house in Phoenix in 2005, said her attacker threatened to sell her 3-year-old daughter if she reported him. Those who do go to the authorities may not know the names of their attackers, or even where the assault occurred. Smugglers make sure their clients are unsure of their whereabouts; if they are detained by Border Patrol, they won’t be able to pinpoint where they were held.

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