The Migration Crisis is a Gendered Violence CrisisRoundup
tags: gender, violence, immigration, migrants, Central America, Latino/a history
Laura Briggs is professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the author of Taking Children: A History of American Terror (University of California Press, 2020).
María Josefina Saldaña-Portillo is professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University. She is the author of over 30 articles on revolution, subaltern politics, indigenous peoples, racial formation, migration, and Latin American and Latino cultural studies, as well as several books, including the multiple-prize-wining Indian Given: Racial Geographies across Mexico and the United States (Duke University Press, 2016).
Why do women flee Central America? What do they find when they reach the United States? The answer to both questions is, in part, gender-based violence. Consider, for example, women who own small businesses run out of their homes or elsewhere in the Northern Triangle region, comprising Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. These women must pay the gangs “protection money” (called impuestos, or the anglicized las taxas, because of their structured regularity). The gangs raise these protection fees consistently, with the ulterior motive of forcing women and girls into coerced sexual relationships from which it is extremely difficult to extricate themselves.1 Once a woman can no longer pay, gang bosses will give her an ultimatum, demanding that the woman become a “girlfriend” to a gang member or hand over a pubescent daughter.2 This is most often the precipitating event that causes women to flee, bringing with them as many children as their finances afford. At the US border, they find government officials who, in the last six years, have received tens of thousands of complaints of sexual assault and rape against women, queers, trans people, and even minor children. Should they end up living and working here, these same double threats of violence make them some of the most vulnerable workers in the United States.
When does a “crisis” cease to be a crisis and become a mode of life? This is a particularly pertinent question for the Biden administration: this most recent border “crisis” of women and children entering the United States from the Northern Triangle in search of asylum stretches back at least as far as Biden’s first term as vice president. The influx is the effect of a now permanent aspect of the global drug economy. Like any other economy, it depends on the reproductive labor of women, girls, and feminized people—all the labor that goes into reproducing humans and “home” that is generally considered women’s work and goes uncompensated, including food preparation, cleaning, laundry, and so on, and the physical and emotional work of caring for people, including those who are sick, elderly, disabled, or children—ensuring the well-being and reproduction of the workforce and the production and distribution of goods. Their labor is subject to extra-economic means of coercion, as is all domestic work.
The Mara Salvatrucha (also known as MS-13) and Barrio 18, henchmen for the Northern Triangle region’s drug cartels, use methods of coercion akin to the sexual and gendered violence used by right-wing national guards and paramilitaries in the Guatemalan and Salvadoran civil wars to secure territorial control and subordinate the population during the late 20th century.3 Rape, beatings, concubinage of girls, repeated verbal threats of sexual assault, extortion of sexual favors, and kidnapping are all forms of gendered violence regularly employed to extract feminized labor.4 Indeed, gender-based violence has become a normalized part of doing business for these gangs. Their methods blur distinctions that liberalism has traditionally drawn between public and private spheres, productive and reproductive labor, and economic and political refugees.5
Sexuality, kinship, and gender-based violence have been weaponized on the northern side of the US border as well, at least since the 1990s. The Trump administration policy of separating and even disappearing the children of those who sought asylum from 2017 to 2019 underscored the violence of US policy toward immigrants. But it wasn’t new. The Clinton administration militarized the border, leaving open only the physically grueling and dangerous crossing through the Sonoran Desert. In so doing, the administration exposed the implicit labor contract between the United States and low-wage workers who live in the global South: the most able-bodied workers are welcome, but not children, elders, or other dependents.
In the decades since, the aggressive criminalization of undocumented people has resulted in regimes of deportation, detention, and, not incidentally, sexual violence in immigration enforcement, including in Office of Refugee Resettlement shelters for children.
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