Every year, hundreds of thousands attempt to cross the southwestern border into the United States. These migrants, who largely come from Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala, face a journey fraught with violence and danger, especially for women.
But those women who attempt to leave their native countries often face certain violence at home. The promise of the migrant trail beckons, even with its perils: Border crossing guides — otherwise known as coyotes — might make their help conditional on sexual favors. Women generally are outnumbered by men and are at risk of assault and rape.
The legal status of these migrants, however, often precludes them from reporting such crimes to the authorities for fear of deportation. While statistics fail to capture the extent of this violence against women (and other forms of violence that occur once undocumented immigrants are settled in the States), academics have given voice to these experiences through research. This roundup focuses on scholarship that describes aspects of the experiences of women on the migrant trail.
“‘One Scar Too Many:’ The Associations Between Traumatic Events and Psychological Distress Among Undocumented Mexican Immigrants: Traumatic Events and Undocumented Mexican American Immigrants”
Garcini, Luz M.; et al. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 2017. DOI: 10.1002/jts.22216.
Abstract: “Undocumented immigration often presents with multiple stressors and contextual challenges, which may diminish mental health. This study is the first to provide population-based estimates for the prevalence of traumatic events and its association to clinically significant psychological distress among undocumented Mexican immigrants in the United States. This cross-sectional study used respondent-driven sampling to obtain and analyze data from clinical interviews with 248 undocumented Mexican immigrants residing in high-risk neighborhoods near the California-Mexico border. Overall, 82.7 percent of participants reported a history of traumatic events, with 47.0 percent of these meeting the criteria for clinically significant psychological distress. After controlling for relevant covariates, having experienced material deprivation, odds ratio (OR) = 2.26, 95 percent CI [1.18, 4.31], p = .013, and bodily injury, OR = 2.96, 95 percent CI [1.50, 5.83], p = .002, and not having a history of deportation, OR = 0.36, 95 percent CI [0.17, 0.79], p = .011, were associated with clinically significant psychological distress. These results support the need to revisit health and immigration policies and to devise solutions grounded in empirical evidence aimed at preventing the negative effects of trauma and psychological distress in this population.”
“The Geography of Border Militarization: Violence, Death and Health in Mexico and the United States”
Slack, Jeremy; et al. Journal of Latin American Geography, 2016. DOI: 10.1353/lag.2016.0009.
Abstract: “Despite proposed increases in spending on personnel and equipment for border enforcement, the complex geography of border militarization and the violence it produces require further examination. We take a geographical perspective to determine the role of violence in both its official forms, such as the incarceration and punishments experienced by undocumented migrants, as well as through abuses and violence perpetrated by agents in shaping border and immigration enforcement. By drawing on the Migrant Border Crossing Study (MBCS), which is a unique data source based on 1,110 surveys of a random sample of deportees, as well as research with family members and return migrants in Puebla, Mexico, we provide an innovative and robust account of the geography of violence and migration. Identifying regional variation allows us to see the priorities and strategic use of violence in certain areas as part of enforcement practice. We assert that understanding the role of violence allows us to explain the prevalence of various forms of abuse, as well as the role of abuse in border enforcement strategies, not as a side effect, but as elemental to the current militarized strategies.”
“‘I Risk Everything Because I Have Already Lost Everything’: Central American Female Migrants Speak Out on the Migrant Trail in Oaxaca, Mexico”
Schmidt, Leigh Anne; Buechler, Stephanie. Journal of Latin American Geography, 2017. DOI: 10.1353/lag.2017.0012.
Abstract: “This article examines Central American women migrants’ decision-making and protective strategies while on the migrant trail. Through feminist research methodologies and social media networks shared by women migrants, this study addresses how physical and economic violence in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala contributes to women’s decisions to migrate, their migration experiences, and their proactive development of networks while on the migrant trail. In-depth interviews were conducted with female migrants ages 19-46 years old in the migrant shelter ‘Hermanos en el Camino’ in Ixtepec, Oaxaca, and follow-up interviews were conducted in some migrants’ next destinations within Mexico. By including women’s own stories of violence and their formation of migrant networks, this study highlights the lived experiences of women migrants thus making them more visible international actors.”
“Violence and Vulnerability of Female Migrants in Drop Houses in Arizona: The Predictable Outcome of a Chain Reaction of Violence”
Simmons, William Paul; et al. Violence Against Women, 2015. DOI: 10.1177/1077801215573331.
Abstract: “This qualitative research study examines the experiences of immigrant women crossing the U.S./Mexico border and the proliferation of ‘drop houses’ in Arizona as a new phenomenon, one that is often marked by kidnappings and sexual assault. Little research has been published on the violence women face on their journey, and the drop houses have almost completely escaped scholarly analysis. We argue that the drop houses must be seen as a consequence of a ‘state of emergency’ declared by policy makers that led to changes in U.S. national and local immigration policies that fueled what we call a ‘chain reaction of violence.’”
“Gender Mobility: Survival Plays and Performing Central American Migration in Passage”
Brigden, Noelle K. Mobilities, 2018. DOI: 10.1080/17450101.2017.1292056.
Abstract: “Bandits, corrupt officials, travel companions and smugglers rape Central American migrants during their clandestine journey across Mexico. However, migrants do not passively accept this violence; they devise performances of gender to arrive at their destination. Based on over two years of ethnographic fieldwork from El Salvador through Mexico to the United States, this article examines how men and women improvise new understandings of masculinity and femininity as they travel the migrant trail. In the transient social field of the transnational migration route, migrant narratives of the journey are ‘survival plays’ that re-imagine gender.”
“Trauma and Resilience Among Refugee and Undocumented Immigrant Women”
Goodman, Rachael D.; et al. Journal of Counseling & Development, 2017. DOI: 10.1002/jcad.12145.
Abstract: “Migration and resettlement processes are often characterized by stressful and traumatic experiences. Immigrants may experience premigration trauma in their countries of origin and trauma during their migration journey. Furthermore, refugee and undocumented immigrant women navigate unique and ongoing stressors postmigration. In this study, the authors used a phenomenological approach to explore refugee and undocumented immigrant women’s experiences of trauma and stress and the ways in which they develop resilience to cope with these experiences.”
“Somos Hermanas Del Mismo Dolor (We Are Sisters of the Same Pain): Intimate Partner Sexual Violence Narratives Among Mexican Immigrant Women in the United States”
Kim, Tiffany; et al. Violence Against Women, 2017. DOI: 10.1177/1077801216646224.
Abstract: “Migration across international borders places tremendous stress on immigrant families and may put women at greater risk for intimate partner violence. In this study, we used narrative analysis methods to explore how nine Mexican immigrant women in the Northeastern United States described their experiences of intimate partner sexual violence, and how these stories were embedded within narratives of transition and movement across borders. We identified three major themes: The Virgin and the Whore, The Family, and Getting Ahead. We share important implications for researchers and health and social service providers working with this population.”
“The Speed of Life and Death: Migrant Fatalities, Territorial Boundaries, and Energy Consumption”
Nevins, Joseph. Mobilities, 2018. DOI: 10.1080/17450101.2017.1349392.
Abstract: “This article considers how migrant deaths — particularly in the borderlands of Europe and the United States — relate to the speed at which migrants travel. It argues that the most dangerous boundaries for migrants, and the most difficult ones to traverse, are those which embody the sharpest divides in energy consumption, divides reflected in the vulnerability of migrants who typically move at relatively slow speeds and have insufficient access to safe modes of travel. Thus, migrant deaths and the boundaries that produce them embody the injustices associated with grossly unequal levels of access to, control over, and consumption of environmental resources.”
“Risk and Security on the Mexico-to-US Migrant Journey: Women’s Testimonios of Violence” Valencia, Yolanda. Gender, Place & Culture, 2017. DOI: 10.1080/0966369X.2017.1352566.
Abstract: “In this article, I argue that immigrants’ meanings, perceptions, and feelings of risk and (in)security are relational, multi-scalar, and contextual to lived experiences before, during, and after the migration journey. Paying attention to and analyzing Mexican women’s testimonios of intimate experiences uncovers why they migrate, how migration is experienced, and how migrant women frame their lives in the US. In this article, I compare how national and transnational policies of the War on Drugs in Mexico, which increased militarization of the US-Mexico border and created tougher immigration policies in the US (all in the name of US national security), form and transform intimate experiences of risk and (in)security across the migration journey for the same population. This comparative approach challenges and expands US-Mexico literature that does not read across experiences in the three sites of the migration journey.”
“Stuck in the Middle With You: The Intimate Labors of Mobility and Smuggling along Mexico’s Migrant Route”
Vogt, Wendy A. Geopolitics, 2016. DOI: 10.1080/14650045.2015.1104666.
Abstract: “This paper examines some of the intimate, embodied and affective dimensions of mobility for unauthorized Central American migrants in Mexico. While in transit, migrants become implicated within the violence of local and transnational economies of smuggling, organized crime, kidnapping and securitization. At the same time, migrants engage intimate economies of exchange, kinship and care as they negotiate their movements and their lives. Bringing together ethnographic research and transnational feminist scholarship, this paper reconceptualizes human smuggling as a form of intimate labor along migrant routes. I pay particular attention to the ways human smuggling becomes a point of closeness and intimate exchange as migrants and their smugglers strategically re-imagine the borders of kinship. While the types of social relations forged along the journey may defy traditional understandings of smuggling as inherently exploitative, I also examine how such arrangements contribute to new forms of inequality. Through a lens of intimacy, this work contributes new insights on the complex and shifting nature of Mexico’s human smuggling industry and the state policies purportedly aimed to contain it.”
“Crossing Mexico: Structural Violence and the Commodification of Undocumented Central American Migrants: Migration, Violence, and Commodification”
Vogt, Wendy A. American Ethnologist, 2013. DOI: 10.1111/amet.12053.
Abstract: “The undocumented-migrant journey across Mexico has become a site of intense violence, exploitation, and profit making within the logics of capitalism. While transnational migration is often conceptualized from the perspective of sending and receiving communities and borderlands, I suggest the liminal spaces between these zones are crucial sites for understanding how structural forms of violence are reconfigured in local settings. Drawing on my ethnographic fieldwork in migrant shelters located along the journey, I trace how Central American migrants’ bodies, labor, and lives are transformed into commodities within economies of smuggling, extortion, and humanitarian aid. I argue that everyday violence along the journey is produced by historical trajectories of political and criminal violence and by local and global economies that profit from human mobility. As violence is rearticulated at the local level, new tensions and social dislocations emerge between and among social groups.”
- The International Organization for Migration produced a 2014 report titled “Fatal Journeys: Tracking Lives Lost During Migration.” Amnesty International also authored a report in 2010 on immigration, “Invisible Victims: Migrants on the Move in Mexico,” which details some of the violence women experience on the trail.
- Journalist Oscar Martinez published a book on the hardships of immigration, The Beast, Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail, in 2013.
- U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Government Accountability Office, and the Department of Homeland Security have resources and reports on immigration.