The Border Patrol Is Out Of Control, Especially When It Comes to Women

For women crossing the border, the threat of sexual assault including strip searches, unwanted physical contact, and rape is very real -- and they may fear reporting because of their undocumented status.
Publish date:
June 27, 2012
racism, sexual assault, abuse, immigration, Border Patrol, policy

As many as 250 people die in border crossings into the United States between the US and Mexico every year, so desperate to enter the country that they’re willing to risk everything. Traveling through the harsh desert, they may not be prepared for the realities, or they may be actively misled by the coyotes who bring them across, often for high fees that take months or years to raise. The brutality and danger of illegal border crossings, including a risk of rape, doesn’t deter immigrants, although the current economic woes in the United States have brought about a drop in immigration.

It’s not just the desert that poses a threat: the United States Border Patrol has been repeatedly accused of violations of human rights at the border when handling immigrants of all stripes, from legal crossings at established checkpoints to arrests of undocumented immigrants found in the desert. These violations include beatings, rape, withholding food and water, inhumane conditions, unlawful detention, and denial of medical care, including treatment after rape.

In direct violation of the US Border Patrol’s own policies, almost every stage of the immigration process is rife with abuses and in some cases active corruption. There is a reason immigrants fear la migra, and it is the very real risk not just of deportation (sometimes unlawful, to boot) but of serious physical and psychological harm. The agency has little oversight, and cannot even take action on clear policy violations within its own offices; in essence, the Border Patrol is out of control.

Being a legal citizen of the US doesn't necessarily protect you from the Border Patrol if your skin is the wrong colour.

These violations occur at all phases of the immigration process; from entry into the United States to deportation, from detention in immigration centres to transport between Border Patrol facilities. Immigrant advocacy organisation No More Deaths released a damning report earlier this year chronicling the extent of the abuse, and the Border Patrol’s initial response was hot denial -- followed by a pledge to “look into it.”

There is a humanitarian crisis at the US border, and it’s something that goes unremarked in most of the US media, except for alternative news organizations or those that specifically cover immigration and race issues. Commentators addressing the subject have pointed out that the abuses that occur at the border involve some of the most devalued people in US culture; impoverished immigrants entering the United States to join a cheap, and incidentally also highly vulnerable to abuse, labour force.

In 2010, Anastasio Hernández-Rojas died in detention while waiting for deportation. He was severely beaten and shocked with a stun gun, and the coroner ruled the death a homicide, yet the case attracted almost no media attention, despite protest marches and awareness campaigns. He is not the only undocumented immigrant to have died in a US detention facility, and he is unlikely to be the last; in part because officers at such facilities are well aware they may never be held accountable.

The US-Mexican Border.

Many of these violations particularly involve women. Women are warned about these gendered abuses before they embark on the crossing:

Morena, who crossed the Tijuana border when she was 21, says that before she left for the border, people advised her to look like a man to avoid getting raped. In preparation, she cut her hair very short. She said that when she was caught by Border Patrol, she felt most threatened by the pocho (Americanized Mexican) agents. ”The pochos were the worst,” she said. “One grabbed me by the neck and dragged me across the floor. He laughed and called me mugre gallina mojada (“dirty wetback chicken”). He asked me if I was lesbian because of my haircut.”

Even with these warnings, some may feel they have no choice but to at least make the attempt. For women crossing the border, the threat of sexual assault including strip searches, unwanted physical contact, and rape is very real -- and they may fear reporting because of their undocumented status. Border Patrol officers, occupying positions of power, can also threaten female immigrants into silence, abridging their civil rights and denying them an opportunity to file claims against the agents who abuse them.

This culture of violence at the agency is fed in part by its unprecedented growth since 2001 -- the Border Patrol has exploded with agents, and now uses tools more commonly associated with active warfare, like drones. It’s also fed by the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States, which dehumanises immigrants and makes it easy to tolerate a culture of violence and abuse. Even the Supreme Court reinforces this culture; in its notable decision striking down many provisions of Arizona’s draconian SB1070, the court choose to retain the infamous “papers, please” component, which legalises racial profiling and creates a culture of fear.

And it's fed by our own complacence with the situation at the border. As long as legal residents of the United States don’t challenge the abuses along the border and ask for more accountability from the Border Control, the agency can continue acting with free rein. Notably, the agency has been involved in an attack on Attorney General Eric Holder, the man most qualified to lead an investigation into its abuses. Holder’s Department of Justice has distinguished itself in both the civil and human rights arenas, and it’s clear that the Border Patrol feels going on the offensive is the best defense to a serious investigation, something that seems inevitable given the growing numbers of NGOs on both sides of the border clamouring for action.

Individual citizens often ask what they are “supposed” to do about situations like these. In this case, political involvement is one answer; contacting Senators and Congressional Representatives to let them know you’re not happy with the situation on the border and want an investigation is one way to force action on the issue. Particularly if your members of Congress are seated on committees that directly pertain to these issues, like the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, or, for that matter, Foreign Relations, because make no mistake: All eyes are on the US right now, and this is a foreign relations disaster.