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A Terror that Transcends Time and Borders

In the migration journey that thousands of Latin Americans have embarked on for years, they can encounter as much terror and danger as they are fleeing from in their home countries. Migrant women face an additional risk while on their journey to what they hope will be a better and safer life, and that is the threat of sexual assault. Reaching the U.S.-Mexico border is the goal for Latin American migrants mainly traveling from the Northern Triangle countries of Central America; Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. However, the threat of physical harm against immigrant women does not end after crossing the border.


IOM/Keith Dannemiller 2014

Different accounts throughout the past few decades show that sexual abuses against this group of women can occur at the hands of various perpetrators. These include smugglers, better known as ‘coyotes,’ who lead migrants throughout their journey; Custom and Border Patrol officers encountered at the southern border of the United States; and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in the detention centers where migrants are later taken. Sexual assault is such an expected risk in the migration journey that women take precautions by going on birth control or taking injections offered at pharmacies in towns nearby the U.S.-Mexico border.[1] Rape is already an underreported crime, and in the case of migrant women, other factors play a crucial role in the lack of reporting, mainly fear of deportation, which is why there aren’t reliable statistics on border rapes.[2] However, throughout the past few decades, a significant number of incidents have been reported that serve as proof that sexual assault against immigrant women is a recurring issue and that actions need to be taken to protect these women and prevent these crimes from continuing to happen.

Some of the earlier reports of such incidents occurred in the early 1990s, primarily at the hands of officers from the then-called Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) agency. Officers from this agency used their direct contact with and positions of power over immigrant women to sexually assault them. Such was the case of Officer James Riley in April 1990, who raped an undocumented woman arrested under false pretenses. Officer Riley worked for an INS unit that did not patrol for undocumented migrants. An additional seven women filed charges against Riley, stating that “he had approached them in the San Fernando Valley area and threatened to deport them unless they had sex with him.”[3]Another incident took place in Arizona in 1993, where Agent Larry Selders detained two undocumented women and propositioned them in exchange for not taking them to the Border Patrol station where they would be processed and deported back to Mexico. Selders assaulted one of the women and was later sentenced to one year in prison. Three other women emerged wanting to testify against officer Selders for similar actions against them; however, the statute of limitations on their cases had already expired.[4]

More recent accounts of abuses against immigrant women at the hands of Border Patrol agents include a 2014 case in Texas where CBP officer Esteban Manzanares assaulted three migrant women from Honduras. The women traveled together, a mother, daughter, and their 14- years-old friend and neighbor when they encountered Manzanares. He drove them into the woods and physically assaulted both the mother and daughter, cutting their wrists, twisting their necks, and then left them for death. Manzanares then took the 14-year-old girl, handcuffed her to a tree nearby, went back to his Border Patrol station to change out of his uniform at the end of his shift, and then returned to where he left the girl. He then took her to his apartment and raped her.[5] This incident shows the amount of autonomy CBP officers have that allows them to commit crimes of this nature without others noticing until it is too late. When dealing with such a vulnerable population as migrants, stricter policies should be in place that regulate interactions between individuals in power, such as immigration officers, and the people they are meant to monitor.



Detention centers are sites where immigrant women face the threat of sexual assault by officers who are supposed to look out for them. In 2010, Human Rights Watch published a report of investigations conducted on allegations of sexual abuse against women at ICE detention centers since 2003 throughout the country. One of the incidents investigated was a 2008 case of an officer at the Port Isabel Service Processing Center in Texas. The officer involved would purposely seek out shifts in the medical unit to gain access to patients in the isolation rooms. He assaulted five different women and was sentenced to three years in prison for his crimes. The previous year, an ICE officer in Florida was transporting a female detainee between facilities and then took her to his home and raped her. “I expected him to protect me, not to take advantage of me.”[6]Later, the officer was fired and sentenced to more than seven years in prison. The words of the victim emphasize the crucial role that immigration agents are expected to play on the migrant’s journey. Instead, the recurring sexual assaults at their hands make them an additional threat to migrants who are already embarking on a dangerous and fearful journey.

Last year, several allegations surfaced of sexual assault on female detainees at an ICE detention center in El Paso, Texas. Several women claimed that guards would assault them on areas of the facility where there weren’t any cameras. These officers would offer clean clothes, personal hygiene products and help with releasing them in exchange for sexual favors. Lack of investigation by the Office of Inspector General, the entity in charge of investigating complaints filed against the Department of Homeland Security, the parent agency of all immigration services bodies, and with the key witnesses, the victims themselves, awaiting deportation, the chances of holding these officers accountable for their actions are very slim.[7]

In the past few years, smugglers have been another prominent group of perpetrators of sexual violence against immigrant women. Migrants pay these men to lead them on their journey, and yet, once they are on American soil, many take advantage of women traveling alone or with children. Some of the accounts tell the story of women being held against their will, abused daily, forced into prostitution, drugged, and even impregnated by their abusers. “They raped us so many times they didn’t see us as human beings anymore.”[8] Lack of information on the places where these abuses took place, and the name of the perpetrators make it more difficult to prosecute the individuals responsible for these crimes.

Sexual violence is a recurrent crime that Latin American migrants are expected to face during their migration journey. This kind of violence goes unreported and, in some cases, unpunished because the fear of deportation and other repercussions weighs heavier on these women than seeking justice for such horrible crimes committed against them. “Undocumented women and children are the most unprotected of human beings.”[9] No one should fear being subjected to this kind of abuse because of their citizenship status. This issue highlights the need for better protection of all migrants who are making their way into the United States' borders and beyond.



[1] Steve Inskeep, “The Rarely Told Stories Of Sexual Assault Against Female Migrants,” NPR, March 23, 2014, https://www.npr.org/2014/03/23/293449153/the-rarely-told-stories-of-sexual-assault-against-female-migrants.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Sylvanna Falcón, "Rape as a Weapon of War: Advancing Human Rights for Women at the U.S.-Mexico Border," Social Justice 28, no. 2 (84) (2001): 31-50, http://www.jstor.org/stable/29768074.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Manny Fernandez, “They Were Stopped at the Texas Border. Their Nightmare Had Only Just Begun,” The New York Times, November 12, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/12/us/rape-texas-border-immigrants-esteban-manzanares.html.

[6] “Detained and at Risk,” Human Rights Watch, August 25, 2010, https://www.hrw.org/report/2010/08/25/detained-and-risk/sexual-abuse-and-harassment-united-states-immigration-detention#_ftn45.

[7] Lomi Kriel, “ICE Guards ‘Systematically’ Sexually Assault Detainees in an El Paso Detention Center, Lawyers Say,” The Texas Tribune, August 14, 2020, https://www.texastribune.org/2020/08/14/texas-immigrant-detention-ice-el-paso-sexual-abuse/.

[8] Manny Fernandez, “'You Have to Pay With Your Body': The Hidden Nightmare of Sexual Violence on the Border,” The New York Times, March 3, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/03/us/border-rapes-migrant-women.html.

[9] Ibid.


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