The Gendered Impact of US Border Militarization

The militarization of the US-Mexico border has been an insidious and protracted process. It was not Donald Trump that first proposed a barrier be built across the border; Richard Nixon suggested it decades earlier.[i] [ii] Since Nixon, successive presidential administrations have contributed to the growing border control apparatus that has done little to curb migration. Rather, border control has been shown to force migrants to take more clandestine and dangerous routes, creating greater risk of injury, abuse, and death for those who attempt to cross.[iii] Women face disproportionate violence and lack of redress[iv] when navigating the space and systems created by these border policies. This post will explore the gendered dimension of increasing securitization, and how women are disproportionately endangered by these policies.

When crossing the US-Mexico border, the risks that women face include sexual assault, abandonment, and death. A study conducted by the Binational Migration Institute found that women were nearly three times more likely to die of exposure than men.[v] Some researchers have linked this imbalance to the tendency of smugglers to perceive women as liabilities while en route, which increases the likelihood of abandonment, exposing them to mortal danger in the desert.[vi] While any migrant death is tragic, the death of mothers has an especially large impact on the lives of the orphaned children that are left behind.

The threat of sexual assault is a constant and common issue faced by female migrants in the desert. One study estimates that as many as 90% of women who attempt to cross undocumented into the US  through northern Mexico experience sexual assault.[vii] Border patrol agents are frequent perpetrators of sexual assault and key enablers as well.[viii] Despite claiming that they follow protocol and do not deport women at night, agents often ignore this policy in order to deter migrants from crossing again.[ix] Migrants who are the victims of sexual violence have no access to recourse because they are often repatriated or deported, leaving no opportunity to pursue justice and enabling their perpetrators to act with impunity.[x] By framing the crossing as illegal, culpability is deflected from border policies and agents to smugglers and the migrants themselves, helping justify a lack of legal protection or recourse against the state.

The US government’s continued implementation of border securitization policies has manifested in state-sanctioned gender-based violence under the guise of national security. While President-Elect Joe Biden has promised to reverse the policies of his predecessor, the ongoing history of violence at the border did not begin with the Trump administration. As such, it will take more than reversing Trump’s policies to ameliorate the harm caused by decades of policy that has led to the current situation. Sadly, the word “immigration” does not appear on the Biden-Harris transition plan’s list of priorities, which not does not lend itself to forthcoming progressive immigration reform.[xi] Until steps are taken to disentangle immigration from the US’s bloated national security apparatus, the border will remain weaponized against disenfranchised people seeking a better life.

Written by: Aaron Steinberg MALD F21

[i] Greg Grandin, “How The U.S. Weaponized The Border Wall,” The Intercept, February 10, 2019

[ii] Patrick Timmons, “Trump’s Wall at Nixon’s Border,” NACLA, March 27, 2017

[iii] Cornelius, Wayne A. “Impacts of border enforcement on unauthorized Mexican migration to the United States.” In New York: Social Science Research Council, on-line forum on “Border Battles: The US Immigration Debates,” September, vol. 26. 2006.

[iv] ACLU. Deportation and Due Process. ND

[v] Rubio-Goldsmith, Raquel and McCormick, Melissa and Martinez, Daniel and Duarte, Inez, “The ‘Funnel Effect’ & Recovered Bodies of Unauthorized Migrants Processed by the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, 1990-2005.” Binational Migration Institute, October 1, 2006

[vi] De León, Jason, and Michael Wells. The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail. 1st ed., University of California Press, 2015.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Vera, Valeria. “Border Patrol’s Not-So-Secret: The Normalized Abuse of Migrant Women on the U.S.- Mexico Border.” International Affairs Review, 2013.

[ix] De León, Jason, and Michael Wells. The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail. 1st ed., University of California Press, 2015.

[x] Ochoa O’Leary, Anna. “The ABCs of migration costs: Assembling, bajadores, and coyotes,” Migration Letters, Transnational Press London, UK, vol. 6(1), pages 27-36, April, 2009

[xi] President-Elect Joe Biden, “Priorities,” November 8, 2020