Undocumented Migrant Women Carry the Burden of Sexual Assault and Rape

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Undocumented migrant women from Central America risk being raped or assaulted by their smugglers or even border agents, according to a series of personal stories published in the New York Times over the weekend. The piece was published less than a week after Representative Ted Deutch of Florida presented a report to congress that documented several thousand allegations of sexual misconduct against minors while in the custody of United States.

The Times interviewed several undocumented migrants who had experienced rape and sexual assault over the course of their migration, who with their stories shed light on the female experience from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Over 100 undocumented women have reported sexual assaults over the past twenty years — but that figure “likely only skims the surface.” Domestically, three out of four sexual assaults go unreported to law enforcement, according to figures from RAINN.

Since coming forward to law enforcement puts an undocumented victim at risk for deportation, the number of unreported assaults and rapes is unknowably higher. Reporting sexual assault may not even be a logical course of action, as victims often don’t know their whereabouts or their attackers’ names. According to a report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, many of these women — a majority, in fact — have made the treacherous journey to the United States because they fear being raped in their countries.

A 39-year-old woman identified as V.E.M.L. described running toward border agents in Texas moments after being raped by her smuggler. “I ran toward Immigration. I wanted to get away. But then when they took me and put me in the car, I felt frustrated and alone. I just felt like I couldn’t stop crying. They were all men agents. They kept asking me why I was crying and I couldn’t explain.” She was placed in a detention center before she was eventually deported.

In a handful of the cases reviewed by the Times, women were assaulted by American immigration authorities. This includes a women identified as J.E., whose experience was reported in the paper in November. She was 14 when she, her friend, and her friend’s mother surrendered to Border Patrol, only to be kidnapped and assaulted by the border agent, Esteban Manzanares. He committed suicide before he could be taken into custody.

Migrant sexual exploitation is a symptom of a broken system. The publication cited criticism that “the very nature of Border Patrol agents’ work — dealing with vulnerable, powerless people, often alone on the nation’s little-traveled frontiers — makes it easy for troubled agents to go unnoticed.”