Layers of Violence: Precarious Lives of Latina Migrants


At the beginning of the twentieth century, human trafficking was narrowly understood within the construct of the myth of “white slavery.” Discourses on “white slavery” portrayed trafficking victims as white, virginal, innocent, and naïve women who were lured into situations of forced sexual commerce.1 Historians posit that the idea of “white slavery” reflected anxieties surrounding women’s independence, mobility, and sexual freedom.2 According to Amalia L. Cabezas with Dolores Ortiz and Sonia Valencia, “At the beginning of the twenty-first century many of the same fears are in place, with the exception that now the victim has a brown face.”2

Cabezas aptly captures the U.S. fixations on immigration restriction and sexual morality, which have remained largely unchanged over the last century, in her parallel between the historical myth of “white slavery” and the contemporary hysteria surrounding Latina migration.2 Migrant women from Latin America are hyper-represented in U.S. human-trafficking narratives,2  and while the national obsession with this issue may be rooted in unfounded beliefs about Latina sexuality, the vulnerabilities that often lead to human trafficking, both in and outside of the sex industry, are very much a reality for Latin American women in the United States.3 Contributing to their vulnerability are the multiple layers of violence that Latina women endure in their native countries, from which they are impelled to flee, as well as during their precarious journey north, and finally in the United States, where they are viewed as hyper-sexual criminals, quite unlike the virginal, innocent victims of the “white-slave” myth.

Persecution at Home

Facing relentless violence in their countries of origin, in large part due to U.S. intervention in these nations, many Latin Americans make the painful decision to leave their homelands, their language and cultures, their communities and even their families, to attempt the long, dangerous journey to the United States, in search of safety.4 Based on the book by journalist Juan González, the poignant documentary, Harvest of Empire, exposes the long history of violence generated by U.S. foreign policy and intervention in Latin America. In the film, Juan González, explains, “… the reality is that there’s a reason why there are so many [Latin Americans] in the United States, because, really, the major migrations come precisely from those countries that the United States once dominated and even occupied. They never teach us in school that the huge Latino presence here is a direct result of our own government’s actions in Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America over many decades, actions that forced millions from that region to leave their homeland and journey north.”

Harvest of Empire reveals the U.S. territorial expansionist policies that resulted in economic devastation for Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Cuba, as well as the covert operations employed by U.S. agencies to destabilize and overthrow governments and install oppressive, military regimes in the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. These actions by the U.S. government have contributed to a legacy of violence in the region.

Guatemala exemplifies this violence.4 After the U.S. CIA organized and financed the armed overthrow of democratically-elected president Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán in 1954, four decades of government terror ensued.  Declassified documents disclosed that the CIA had secretly trained Guatemalan death squads. Hundreds of mass grave sites have been unearthed since the Guatemalan civil war. According to one Guatemalan migrant,

“People in the U.S. have no idea why one comes to the United States. They have no idea. And if they do, I believe they have the wrong idea” – Mariana Cabrera, Harvest of Empire.

Mariana struggles to find the words to describe the pain she endured in leaving her young daughter in Guatemala:

“It was very difficult to leave her. It was hard. She was four years old, my daughter. She had no idea that her mom was going to leave and would not be there when she woke up in the morning. Leaving your children: that is not easy. To come here, the price you pay is incredibly high. There is no price.

Mariana, like countless other migrants, had little other option than to seek a safer life in the U.S. for herself and for her family. As articulated by Rigoberta Menchú, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1992,

“In Guatemala, if what exists is persecution, is assassination, is murder, if what exists is insecurity in life, I prefer to cross the border and go to a place where I will feel safer” – Rigoberta Menchú, Harvest of Empire.

As noted by, “Ongoing economic and political conditions throughout the Americas continue to propel large numbers of people to travel across the border in pursuit of safety, stability, and family unification.” These migrants are fleeing life-threatening poverty, political violence, including government death squads and paramilitary coercion, and myriad other harsh realities in their countries of origin.5

In a study entitled, “Women on the Run,” The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) interviewed 160 women from Mexico and the Northern Triangle of Central America (NTCA: El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras), providing first-hand accounts of the severity of the protection crisis in the region. Women interviewed for the report indicated that they and their children faced “extreme levels of violence on a near-daily basis,” including rape, assault, extortion, and threats by members of criminal armed groups.

“Sixty-two per cent of women reported that they were confronted with dead bodies in their neighborhoods and a number of women mentioned that they and their children saw dead bodies weekly.”

Many of the women interviewed also faced “life-threatening and degrading forms of domestic violence, including repeated rapes, sexual assaults, and violent physical abuse, such as beatings with baseball bats and other weapons.” Women repeatedly emphasized that they were unable to receive protection from police and other authorities, some women even indicating that police or other authorities, in collusion with criminal armed groups, were “the direct source of their harm.”

Peril Along the Journey

Coping with the trauma of their experiences of violence, and amid the process of reconciling themselves to the reality of leaving their lives behind them, migrants seeking safety in the United States must first embark upon a long and perilous journey north, through Mexico and ultimately across the U.S.-Mexico border. Some plan to turn themselves over to U.S. Border Patrol on arrival, hoping to receive political asylum, while others, fearing the implications of their “undocumented” status, will attempt to evade border enforcement. All share the ultimate goal of crossing safely into a new life in the United States, but many do not make it.

“Migrants are determined to risk all in the hope of a better future, but the reality is that for many the journey through Mexico – one of the most dangerous journeys in the world – will be devastating,” – Rupert Knox, Mexico Researcher, Amnesty International

Migrants traveling through Mexico commonly face violence at the hands of gangs, who kidnap, rape, and murder them with impunity, often in collusion with authorities.5 Migrant women and girls, in particular, are vulnerable to gender-based violence, including sexual assault and rape. According to a 2013 Amnesty International report, as many as six out of every ten migrant women and girls experience sexual violence during the journey. Several women interviewed indicated that the risk of sexual assault during flight was so high that they took contraceptives prior to traveling, in order to reduce the risk of pregnancy from rape.

Despite the regularity of sexual violence during travel, migrant women who become victims of assault commonly avoid reporting their abuse to authorities. As articulated by journalist Erin Siegal McIntyre,

“Many women are ashamed to admit they’ve been brutalized, and almost all Central American migrants don’t have permission to be in Mexico in the first place, meaning that going to the authorities means risking deportation.”

McIntyre, in partnership with journalist Deborah Bonello, interviewed migrant women and directors of migrant shelters for a video report, “Is rape the price to pay for migrant women chasing the American Dream?” While the report is an imperfect representation of the complexities surrounding migrant sex work and forced prostitution, it highlights various forms of structural violence that contribute to the precarity of Latina migrants, including poverty, gender-based violence, social stigmatization due to sexual abuse, extortion by migrant smugglers, and state anti-immigrant policies.

Migrants who survive the passage through Mexico are confronted next with life-threatening exposure to the harsh, desert elements of the U.S. borderlands, which they must traverse with little to no supplies. “Most migrants told us that they had no possessions with them at all because they expected to be attacked and robbed on the journey and that anything of value would increase their chances of kidnap,” explained Rupert Knox, Mexico Researcher, Amnesty International.

The risk of exposure for migrants in the border region is compounded by U.S. immigration restriction policies and the violent, inhumane actions of the agents who enforce them. Since the 1994 launch of the U.S. Border Patrol’s strategy of “Prevention Through Deterrence,” thousands of border crossers have reportedly died and tens of thousands have disappeared in the expansive wilderness north of the U.S.-Mexico border.6 According to, U.S. Border Patrol agents employ “deadly apprehension practices,” disorienting and dispersing migrants into remote, life-threatening terrain, and routinely vandalize and remove life-preserving gallons of water left for border crossers by humanitarian-aid volunteers. The report states, “Border Patrol agents stab, stomp, kick, drain, and confiscate the bottles of water that humanitarian aid volunteers leave along known migrant routes in the Arizona desert. These actions condemn border crossers to suffering, death, and disappearance.” The “Disappeared” report also exposes the discriminatory lack of emergency response for undocumented migrants in the border zone by a variety of government actors.

According to the “Disappeared” report, “Over the past 20 years, Prevention Through Deterrence has failed to halt the mass movement of people without papers into the US interior. However, it has succeeded in proliferating deaths, disappearances, and informal economies of violence, converting the region into an increasingly deadly arena.”6 Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA, echoes this sentiment, stating,

“Extreme policies won’t change the fact that for many of these people seeking asylum, the danger is so great at home that they have no choice but to flee. Rather than being deterred, people will be forced into the desert, into the rivers, and into the hands of smugglers. These policies place those fleeing violence in deadly peril.”7

Huang notes that border crossers who are aware of the increased risk of travel but who attempt the journey regardless are susceptible to exploitation by human smugglers, or “coyotes,” whom they commonly entrust with their safe transportation into the United States. Confirming this assertion, asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border told Amnesty International that the new measures associated with the Trump Administration’s immigration policies “forced them to risk extortion or violence by paying smugglers to cross into the USA.”7 Women interviewed for the Women on the Run report also reported high smuggling fees and extortion throughout their journey, particularly near the U.S.-Mexico border.

Enlisting the assistance of smugglers puts migrants at increased risk for various forms of abuse, exploitation, and human trafficking, as coyotes may employ tactics of extortion and debt bondage, as well as threats of violence or deportation, to control vulnerable migrants. Migrants who owe their smugglers more than they can afford to pay may be coerced into situations of forced or exploitative labor, sometimes including sex with their smugglers,8 in order to work off their debt. Once in the United States, undocumented migrants lack the empowerment to report inhumane or exploitative working conditions, because their immigration status, and in some cases, the illegality of the work they are forced to perform, puts them at risk of deportation.

Punishment and Rejection in the United States

Ninety-four per cent of the women interviewed for the Women on the Run report were being held in US detention facilities at the time of the interview; 25 per cent had been in detention for less than one month, 27 per cent had been in detention for one to three months, and 41 per cent had been in detention for more than three months.

U.S. District Court Records: “Hieleras”

Migrants who manage to cross safely into the United States and are apprehended by Border Patrol, either willingly or unintentionally, are immediately incarcerated within temporary holding cells, known as “hieleras,” or “ice boxes,” due to their frigid temperatures. Migrants traveling as family units are commonly separated, and women are often mistreated and separated from their children for several hours. If they complain about the conditions of the cells, they are offered voluntary deportation papers, which they may sign in order to be returned to the violence they fled in their countries of origin.9

The National Immigration Law Center interviewed ~75 individuals who had been detained in Tucson Sector Border Patrol holding cells prior to filing a class-action lawsuit, which challenges the appalling conditions of the holding cells as unconstitutional and in violation of Customs and Border Protection’s standards. The conditions reported by detainees included frigid temperatures, overcrowding, lack of beds/blankets, filthy cells, lack of access to basic hygiene items, insufficient food and water, and inadequate medical care. In addition to the deplorable conditions of the holding cells, detainees reported abusive, threatening, and coercive conduct by Border Patrol agents.

The following excerpts represent some of the statements by migrants subject to the inhumane treatment in the “hieleras.”

“It was so cold [in the cell] … The Border Patrol agents took my sweater from me…so all I was wearing was a short sleeve shirt…”

U.S. District Court Records: “Drinking water”et in the cell. There was one sink attached to the toilet.”

“There were approximately 50 women and their children in the cell…There was one toilet in the cell. There was one sink attached to the toilet.”

“While I was detained, I had my menstrual period and so did a few other women. Each of us were only given two sanitary pads each day… When we asked the guards for more pads, we were denied and told that there were no more.”

“There was no waste bin in the cell so the trash was piled in the corner of the room. Toilet paper was thrown on the floor. The odor was awful because some kids had diarrhea and the mothers did not have soap to wash their hands after cleaning them or changing their diapers. The cell was cleaned once a day but we still had no way to wash our hands.”

“I was seven months pregnant…I spent a total of 24 hours in a cell…The whole time I was [there] we were only given snacks twice. These snacks were crackers and juice. It was not sufficient for me and I was extremely hungry.”

U.S. District Court Records: Trash and used toilet paper

“I told a guard that…I was sick and he said “I am not a doctor.” He said that even if he had pills he wouldn’t give them to me…[A] guard took [my medicine] away and said he wouldn’t give them to me. I was taking medication for an ovarian cyst…I was supposed to take the medicine for five days but had only taken two or three days of the medicine when I was detained.”

“When I was screaming in pain, I was told not to cry because I was just going to be deported to Guatemala and there was nothing I could do.”

“I am currently five months pregnant. When I arrived at the Border Patrol station, I told the agents I was pregnant, but the agents were very hostile and did not believe me. They insulted me and poked my stomach and said there wasn’t anything there.”

U.S. District Court Records: Broken drinking water fountain

“I told [the agents] I was seeking asylum and that I wanted to see a judge, but the agents told me I was just here to work and that I didn’t have the right to see a judge because I broke the law. They had me sign a lot of other papers without explaining to me what they were.”

“I felt terrible while I was detained, mostly because I had to watch my [fifteen and nine year-old] daughters suffer and cry due to the terrible conditions.”

S. Riva explores the structural violence that Latina migrants experience in the “hieleras,” in the form of institutional racism, which casts them as criminals and validates their punishment. Riva states,

“When these women enter the US they set foot in a racialized system in which their bodies are already packed with meaning. These women are viewed as migrants abusing the system, rather than people escaping violence and looking for asylum… The criminalized enforcement system – which holds migrants as criminals – meets the asylum system in a way that normalizes punishment for individuals fleeing from violence… The hieleras are a site where punishment becomes ‘acceptable’, ‘deserved’, and normalized.”9

The anti-immigrant sentiment that precedes the arrival of Latina migrants into the United States, justifying their inhumane reception, is described by Leo Chavez in his book, “The Latino Threat.” Chavez implicates the media in the reinforcement of anti-immigrant rhetoric directed at Latinos. As explained by Chavez,

“In their coverage of immigration events, the media give voice to commentators, pundits, informed sources, and man-on-the-street observers who often invoke one or more of the myriad truths in the Latino Threat Narrative to support arguments and justify actions. In this way, media spectacles objectify Latinos. Through objectification… people are dehumanized, and once that is accomplished, it is easier to lack empathy for those objects…”10

Chavez explains that Latina women are sexualized and objectified vis a vis the “taken-for-granted ‘truths'” of U.S. discourses on Latina sexuality, which often focus on “their supposedly excessive reproduction, seemingly abundant or limitless fertility, and hypersexuality.” These “truths” are constructed in relation to assumptions about the “normative behavior” of non-Latina whites; Latinas are portrayed as “society’s Others, in distinct opposition to the normative sexuality and morality of white women.” Their assumed promiscuity and purported tendency to engage in sexual behavior at a younger age are characteristics of their “non-normative sexual behavior,” which, coupled with their “extreme, even dangerous levels of fertility,” is seen as a threat to U.S. society.10 According to Riva, these ‘bad maternity’ narratives are so ingrained in U.S. discourse that the racialized image of Latina women as “irresponsible mothers” filters the lens through which U.S. Border Patrol agents view them, justifying their inhumane treatment and punishment within the hieleras.9

The climate of anti-immigrant rhetoric in the United States, coupled with a lack of trust in the system that punishes them upon arrival, prevents Latina women who have been victimized from coming forward and seeking help. This lack of recourse exacerbates their vulnerability to rights violations, exploitation, and trafficking, because their abusers can coerce and control them with impunity, through intimidation and threats of deportation.


Latina women who flee violence in their native countries, hoping to find safety in the United States, are ensnared in precarity by the layers of violence that follow them from their homelands, throughout their journey, and into the United States. The political, economic, and gendered violence in their countries of origin follows them during flight, increasing the likelihood that they will seek help from a smuggler, who later becomes their exploiter. Awaiting them in the United States are new forms of gendered and racialized violence that cast them as criminals undeserving of basic rights. Rather than finding the protection they seek, Latina migrants are left exposed and without the rights or ability to obtain help.

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