Skip to main content

The number of Central American women who make difficult, often harrowing, journeys to the United States to flee domestic and gang violence is rising.

I’m a social science researcher and a social worker who has interviewed hundreds of women after they were detained by immigration authorities for my research about the relationship between violence against women and migration. I find that most female asylum seekers experience trauma, abuse, and violence before they cross the U.S. border seeking asylum.

What these women go through while detained by Customs and Border Protection or Immigration and Customs Enforcement can take an additional physical, social and emotional toll.

What they’re escaping

Most Central American asylum-seekers come from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. These three countries are among the most dangerous places in the world to be female, with some of the world’s highest murder rates, including for women and girls. There are few repercussions for the perpetrators.

As they make their way north, these women are often subjected to sexual violence or held hostage. They may also fall victim to human trafficking– which could entail being made to cook and clean for other migrants or forced into prostitution – on their journeys.

Amid rising levels of violence, the number of Guatemalans, Salvadorans, and Hondurans who have sought asylum here has increased almost eight-fold between 2012 and 2017 to about 107,000 according to the Department of Homeland Security.

The government does not disclose how many women are apprehended. But there are clear signs that the number of female migrants is growing. The roughly 189,000 people who arrived with their families, rather than on their own as adults or minors, whom U.S. immigration officials stopped along the border with Mexico during the six months ending in March 2019 were mostly mothers and their children. In contrast, only 75,622 people arrived with their relatives in all of 2017.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is detaining more than 50,000 immigrants at any given time. Most detainees are men, although the percentage of women and girls, and specifically asylum-seeking women and girls, is rising.

The government does not disclose how many detained asylum-seekers are Indigenous. But I have interacted with many of them, particularly from Guatemala.

They usually have trouble communicating with guards, lawyers, or immigration officials in English or Spanish as they only speak K’iche’, Q’eqchi’, Q’anjob’al or another of Guatemala’s 21 Indigenous languages. Because qualified interpreters are often not available, female Indigenous asylum seekers find it especially hard to know what’s going on or to pursue their claims.

Detaining asylum-seekers

The right to seek asylum in the United States due to persecution or fear of persecution back home stems from the 1951 Refugee Convention and U.S. immigration laws. The Trump administration has responded by detaining more asylum-seekers, a policy it casts as a deterrence strategy.

Once apprehended, women may remain detained for months. In some cases, they are detained indefinitely as they pursue their claims. New guidance from Attorney General William Barr could lead to more long-term detention for asylum seekers.

In June 2018, former Attorney General Sessions announced that people fleeing domestic violence or gang violence would no longer be eligible for asylum in the U.S. A federal judge struck down that policy change six months later.

According to many studies by scholars like psychologists Katy Robjantand Kalina Brabeck, locking immigrants up can damage their mental health by increasing risks of depression, post-traumatic stress, and anxiety. The effects can last years and even a lifetime. For parents, the damage extends beyond detention and may harm children of the detained.

Because detention relies on control, coercion, and containment, it inherently makes frightened people more fearful, disrupts sleep and restricts access to medical, legal and social services.

A U.S. Border Patrol Agent conducts a pat-down of a Mexican female being placed in a holding facility.

A U.S. Border Patrol Agent conducts a pat-down of a Mexican female being placed in a holding facility.

Experiencing more trauma

During the past two years, together with psychologists Gabriela Hurtado and Josephine Serrata, I sought to understand and document what immigrant women who have experienced violence and abuse need while they are detained and once they are released.

Many detained women say they have been abused while being held by U.S. immigration authorities in what appear to be inhumane conditions marked by incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault.

The Department of Homeland Security itself has documented dangers that include the provision of food that isn’t safe to eat, like moldy bread and rotten meat, and delayed medical care.

There are signs of threats and intimidation as well. A woman I’ll call Adelia told my research team that when she asked an immigration official how much money she would have to pay to be released, she was told: “stop asking me, or I’ll raise the amount.”

Investigative media outlets, immigrant rights advocates and researchers have documented that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees often face threats, insults, humiliation, and stress brought on by constantly changing rules and expectations.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement itself has disclosed that 28 women had miscarriages while in detention during the 2017 and 2018 fiscal years.

I have heard directly and through media reports that these immigration detention centers sometimes isolate detained women, either in response to perceived mental health issues or as punishment, leaving them unable to interact with one another, their own children or the volunteer lawyers who are trying to help them.

These practices echo and exacerbate survivors’ experiences with past abuse and violence. That is, detention settings may resemble control tactics used by abusers, traffickers or other perpetrators, compounding previous trauma.

A previously detained woman I’ll call Lourdes described what she experienced as dehumanizing. “You feel like an animal, as if you aren’t worth anything,” she explained.

One problem is how these facilities are set up.

Sandra, another former detainee, spent more than a month in the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas. Having heard it would be shelter for families, she and her daughter were surprised by the barbed wire and razor wire surrounding the facility.

“At the entrance, there were nice glass doors that said, ‘Karnes Residential,’ but that was just a facade,” Sandra said. “It is a jail, a jail for families, families like mine that don’t have anyone in the United States, who come just to stay alive and because they want to see their children alive and well, for things to be better in the future.”

Lasting repercussions

We found that the problems don’t end once women are released from detention.

Rather, survivors face considerable immediate and long-term needs and risks. Right after being released from detention, they may simply be left at a bus station with little or no money, supplies or information about reuniting with relatives. This leaves communities across the country scrambling to fill gaps.

Many of these women, understandably, need help finding medical care, counseling, jobs, lawyers and social services. The rough start they get off to increases their risks of becoming homeless and having trouble making ends meet. It also reduces their ability to pay back the thousands of dollars they borrow to escape violence and to cover their bonds – money the authorities collect upon a detainee’s release that is similar to bail in criminal cases.

What might work better?

Federal agencies such the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, as well as advocacy organizations such as National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma & Mental Health and Casa de Esperanza, propose approaches that aid healing.

They oppose the current detainment practices that seclude, isolate and restrict the ability of survivors of sexual violence to move around freely and to make their own decisions.

Immigrant rights advocates and mental health professionals argue that asylum-seekers should not be held in detention centers. Community-based alternatives would cost less and be more humane. They also advocate for training staff to work with people who have experienced trauma as the victims of violence and coercion.

Laurie Cook Heffron, PhD, LMSW, is an Assistant Professor at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. She has interest and expertise in the areas of forced migration, domestic and sexual violence, and human trafficking, and her research explores the experiences of, and relationships between, violence against women and migration.

As former Associate Director for Research at the University of Texas at Austin’s Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault (IDVSA), she has contributed to multiple research projects since 2001, including a program evaluation for services to victims of human trafficking, a statewide domestic violence prevalence study, program evaluation of Texas’ Non-Report Sexual Assault Forensic Exam Program, and a national pilot program to develop professional and organizational resiliency among child welfare workers. Laurie also worked with IDVSA in completing a study of resettlement experiences among Congolese refugee women and a statewide evaluation on human trafficking and existing laws and social services in collaboration with community organizations and governmental agencies. 

Laurie has both direct social work practice and research experience with a variety of immigrant communities, including refugees, survivors of human trafficking, and asylees. Previously, she served as program coordinator for Green Leaf Refugee Services, providing intensive health and emotional health case management services to refugees, victims of trafficking, asylees, and other immigrants in Central Texas. Currently, she provides assessments and serves as an expert witness in immigration cases of women and children seeking T visas, U visas, and asylum based on domestic violence. 

Laurie earned a master's and a doctoral degree in Social Work from the University of Texas at Austin and an undergraduate degree in Linguistics from Georgetown University. She has studied in Santiago, Chile, and in Quito, Ecuador, and was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Niger, West Africa.

Disclosure Statement

Laurie Cook Heffron's and her colleagues received funding and other forms of support from the Casa de Esperanza and the Latino Center for Leadership Development to conduct the research discussed in this article. She periodically provides several nonprofits, including American Gateways, Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, and the University of Texas at Austin Law School, with pro bono services.

Note: Original article published by; updated for Indian Country Today. Published with permission.