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Building Migrant Women’s Resilience to Violence and Trauma

The experiences of migrant women Increases in Violence Against

often are overlooked in the analysis and Women in Central America and
understanding of global migration.1 Mexico
There are many levels of violence and This analysis focuses on the longitudinal
trauma related to women’s migration: experiences of women from Central
from the complex, multiple conditions of America and Mexico migrating to the
violence and trauma that can cause U.S. A literature review conducted by
women to migrate, to violence at the the Migration Policy Institute (MPI)4, and
hands of those assisting movement key informant interviews conducted by
(smugglers, pirates, and human the MPI5 and the Tahirih Justice Center6
traffickers), to the impact of separated documented the pervasiveness of the
and unstable families, to gender-based violence and trauma experienced by
violence.2 Violence often is experienced women who migrate to the U.S.,
by migrant women with other conditions especially migrant women from Central
such as poverty, lack of economic America and Mexico:
opportunities, and substandard living
conditions. + The most recent data available (2015)
indicate that El Salvador has the third
Migrant women (including refugees, highest rate of violence against women
legal immigrants and undocumented in the world per 100,000 and Honduras
immigrants) in the U.S. often reside in has the fifth highest rate.7
neighborhoods and communities where
violence continues to be pervasive, with + In El Salvador, violence against
similar conditions to those they left, women has not only increased in
resulting in continuing trauma and re- absolute terms but also as a proportion
traumatization. And those that are of overall homicides; the number of
repatriated/deported often return to the femicides doubled from 2013 to 2015.8
same conditions of violence and trauma
that they fled originally.3 + In Honduras, there has been an
increase in the number of femicides,
with more gang-related sexual violence
and disappearances.9 Between 2005
and 2015, female murders have
increased from 2.7 to 10.9 per 100,000
residents, peaking at 14.6 per 100,000
in 2013. In absolute terms, this was an
increase from 175 women murdered in
2005 to 478 in 2015, peaking at 636
murders in 2013.10

+ In Guatemala, the rate of femicides is


These data about femicides are only the

most extreme violence; there are also
high levels of sexual assault, rape,
extortion by force, domestic violence,
and other forms of violence but there is
less data about these types of violence,
and fewer incidents are reported and

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September 2018
Building Migrant Women’s Resilience to Violence and Trauma

documented. The International There is little data collected or available

Organization for Migration (IOM) has about these internally displaced persons
noted that there has been a shift from and less known about their conditions.
the traditional concept of individual While there are complex and
domestic or intimate partner violence to individualized reasons for any individual
violence becoming a public and social or family to leave their homes and
problem. The IOM notes that violence is migrate, the data reviewed and key
not only a reason pushing women to informants consulted point to a clear
migrate, but also becomes a risk factor pattern of increased migration from
during the entire migration journey.12 Central America because of violence.
Qualitative data collected from migrant
These data also need to be women from Central America indicate
contextualized in the broader conditions that both the “push” of fleeing violence
of violence and trauma in these Central and the “pull” of economic opportunity
American countries. Key informants are both important reasons for
observe that there is an “existential” fear migration.16 A 2015 United Nations High
of violence in these countries, where Commissioner for Refugees report
individuals are afraid to go out in public, based on interviews with 160 refugee
do not use public transportation, and women from Central America who had
keep children inside at home.13 Many migrated to the U.S. documented how
women who do leave feel that they have their migration was influenced by their
to take their children with them because experiences of violence and insecurity in
it is too dangerous to leave them in such their countries due to armed groups and
conditions, which in turn, makes their their governments’ inability to protect
migration more challenging. them.17

Increases in Women Migrating to the Violence and Trauma Experienced by

U.S. Women During Migration
There is evidence that more women and The experiences of women migrating
families from Central America are now from Central America through Mexico
migrating. Many have moved within their have become more dangerous, in part
home countries and become internally because of increased arrests and
displaced.14 One estimate is that there deportation by Mexican immigration
are at least 1 million individuals who are authorities.18 The percentage of women
internally displaced within Mexico and apprehended by the Instituto Nacional
the Northern Triangle countries of El de Migración (INM) nearly doubled, from
Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.15 13% in Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 to 25% in
FY2016.19 Mexico has become more
assertive in immigration enforcement,
with INM agents detaining Central
Americans in public spaces and holding
an increased number of Central
Americans in Mexican custody,
including those with asylum claims.
Some have observed that for many
migrants from Central America,
transiting through Mexico has become
Source: Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre much more difficult.20

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September 2018
Building Migrant Women’s Resilience to Violence and Trauma

A study by Médecins Sans Frontières Harsh Conditions for Migrant Women

found that 31% of the women surveyed in U.S. Immigration Detention
who were migrating to the U.S. through Several reports have documented the
Mexico reported sexual assault or rape harsh conditions in U.S. Immigration
during their journeys. That study also and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
reported that some women took detention facilities for migrant women,
contraceptives before leaving their including overcrowding, lack of privacy,
home countries because of their fear lack of clean clothing, lack of medical
that they could be raped during care, and intentionally cold
migration and did not want to get temperatures (women migrants refer to
pregnant.21 the detention facilities as hieleras, or ice
boxes). Migrant women are often
Mexico also become much more separated from their children,24 and are
restrictive in its grants of legal status to unreasonably denied release on bond
Central American migrants. The number despite low flight risks. Those without
of Central American migrants placed in legal representation languish in
detention has grown 300 percent detention without opportunities to seek
between 2011 and 2016. A majority of legal relief.25
those in detention are returned to their
countries of origin, and returns are In 2017, Freedom for Immigrants
considered voluntary if a claim for (formerly Community Initiative for
asylum is not filed. However, in the past Visiting Immigrants in Confinement,
two years, only 19 Central American CIVIC) filed a complaint with the Office
women have been granted asylum in of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at the
Mexico based on gender-based U.S. Department of Homeland Security
violence, despite the increase of (DHS) detailing sexual assaults against
violence against women in their home migrant women in ICE detention.26 Later
countries.22 that year, the American Civil Liberties
Union, American Immigration Council,
Increases in Migrant Women American Immigration Lawyers
Apprehended by the U.S. Association, Center for Gender and
Since FY2012, the number of adult Refugee Studies, Northwest Immigrant
women apprehended by the U.S. Rights Project, Refugee and Immigrant
Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) at the Center for Education and Legal
southwest U.S. border has doubled, to Services, and Women’s Refugee
over 100,000 women apprehended in Commission filed a complaint with DHS
FY2016. During this time, the seeking changes to the conditions of
percentage of adult women compared to pregnant women detained by ICE.27
adult men apprehended has increased
from 14% to 25%. While the number of One respondent to the Tahirih survey
women being apprehended peaked in reported:
FY2014 during the surge in migration
from Central America by women, Detention [of women migrants] is
families, and unaccompanied children, abusive; officers lie and are
the number of women being abusive; clients end up saying
apprehended at the border remains at things in detention that don’t help
high levels.23 their case later because they
don’t understand the process
and are so traumatized.

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September 2018
Building Migrant Women’s Resilience to Violence and Trauma

Another observed: [The general anti-immigrant

environment] has been dramatic,
Detention conditions [for women especially when a president
migrants] are so bad sometimes launches a campaign by calling
that they constitute torture. They Mexicans rapists or says a
drive people so mad that they Mexican-American judge is unfit
lose their mental stability and based on his heritage. We have
can no longer be good witnesses a bully with the bully pulpit.
in their defense. We’ve also seen the intentional
dehumanization of
Conditions for Migrant Women immigrants….Even those fleeing
Residing in the U.S. horrific levels of violence and
For migrant women living in the U.S., seeking protection in the U.S.
community violence in the are seen as a threat….
neighborhoods they reside in, and Scapegoating immigrants for
domestic violence at home, also are other problems is an easy out for
ubiquitous. One survey respondent politicians, but this really
noted: compounds the sense of
alienation, trauma, and isolation
Gangs are transnational and for immigrant communities.
some of our clients have been
stalked, attacked, and The police chiefs in Los Angeles and
threatened in the U.S. because Houston have observed that reports of
of the persecution that they domestic violence and crime from Latino
faced from the same gang back immigrants have decreased significantly
home. The fear that clients have since President Trump’s inauguration
is based on real world because of fears of being turned over to
experience and not something immigration enforcement.28 One survey
that is imagined or made up. respondent said:

These conditions have been Immigrant women and families

exacerbated by the fears that have been live in a constant state of fear of
created by the Trump administration’s the external community and
executive orders banning travel, government which they view as
immigration, and refugee admissions disliking them due to their status
from predominantly Muslim countries, as immigrants. This environment
efforts to build a “wall” along the further adds to the experience of
southwestern border, increasing raids trauma that forced migrants face.
and aggressive, high-profile This environment also
enforcement activities by ICE, contributes to immigrants not
separation of immigrant children from wanting to access any
their parents, threats to withhold federal assistance from government
funding to cities that decline cooperation agencies or non-profits, or
with federal immigration enforcement, police, for fear of safety.
rescission of the Deferred Action for
Childhood Arrivals program, and Another reported:
terminating Temporary Protected Status
for many nationalities. A survey This is so bad, and getting
respondent commented: worse. People are so scared. On
Sundays they will coordinate
schedules out of fear…They will

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Building Migrant Women’s Resilience to Violence and Trauma

say, “Okay you will sneak over to advocacy, and other NGOs that seek to
Mass at this hour, then I will hide respond to their needs. The online
and go at this hour, then you will survey was conducted in October 2017
take care of the children while I and had 158 respondents from service
sneak to the market for our providers, advocacy organizations, legal
shopping for the week. advocates, domestic violence shelters,
and other community-based
Undocumented women migrants are organizations. Responding
among the most vulnerable people in organizations served Mexican, Central
the U.S. work force because they feel American, Southeast Asian, South
they have no way to report harassment American, and women migrants from
and violence. Migrant women and girls, other parts of the world.
who have limited English proficiency,
and who have been in the U.S. for short Not surprisingly, the survey respondents
periods of time, are among the most at prioritized the need for accessible and
risk to be victims of sexual violence in affordable legal services to assist
the U.S. labor force.29 women migrants gain legal immigration
status. One survey respondent noted:
Programs and Services for Migrant
Women in the U.S. On any given day in Arizona,
Fortunately, there have been many non- there are approximately 3,000
governmental organizations (NGOs) adults detained by ICE.
responding to the needs of migrant Approximately 90% of those
women who have experienced violence individuals will not be able to find
and trauma. However, most NGOs only an attorney to represent them in
have the capacity to respond to their removal case. We try to
individual-level violence, e.g. provide help as many folks as we can
emergency shelter and domestic but the need is crushing.
violence services; assist victims of
crimes; apply for immigration visas for Another noted:
domestic violence victims, victims of
human trafficking, or victims of crime; or Lack of legal [immigration]
apply for public benefits. status/delay of [immigration
court] determination means
There are a few U.S. governmental sustained vulnerability for
programs that address trauma and women and families, where they
violence experienced by migrants: there cannot legally work, cannot
is some funding for domestic violence access public benefits, and could
services, some violence prevention be re-victimized.
programs in the criminal justice context,
some general community relations One respondent noted how current U.S.
programs to address extraordinary immigration law is slow to recognize
incidents of community-level violence or violence-based claims to obtain asylum:
trauma, and some trauma-informed
mental health programs.30 Many of our clients have fear
claims based on gang or cartel
The survey conducted by the Tahirih violence and there is a real lag in
Justice Center as part of this analysis the law and immigration judges’
documents the wide range and willingness to consider these
immediacy of needs among women very real threats to people’s
migrants and the types of service, health and safety as a possibly

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September 2018
Building Migrant Women’s Resilience to Violence and Trauma

valid reason for protection. We trauma of the immigrant

need more lawyers pushing this community. This compounds the
law forward to get the judges to individual trauma. They have
even listen to these types of trauma, for example, from
claims. domestic violence, but also from
being an immigrant in the
The dilemma of needing services such community with all these
as mental health services, but remaining problems.
ineligible for such services until legal
immigration status is obtained, creates a Even for women migrants who have
desperate cycle. One respondent obtained legal immigration status,
explained: accessing other services is equally
PTSD and related mental health
issues are so, so prevalent, yet Could immigration law or public
few mental health resources benefits get any more complex?
exist, then because of folks’ And then our clients have to
PTSD they lose their navigate them in a second or
[immigration] cases…sometimes third language. The result is, if
the things that have happened to you are not represented, you
people are so awful that the simply don’t gain access to
[immigration] judges refuse to either.
believe it, so they lose [their]
cases. Another issue that was prioritized was
housing for women migrants, especially
Another commented: beyond emergency or crisis housing that
include domestic violence shelters. One
None of the immigration survey respondent explained:
enforcement regime or court
system is trauma-informed. It’s [Housing] is a crisis nationally
disgusting how people are ....If it is a crisis for the general
treated. It just worsens the population, it is even more so for
trauma. immigrants. Inability to get work
authorization impedes ability to
There are few service providers and find affordable housing….
organizations that have the capacity or Landlords also often require a
resources to respond to and work on social security number. Inability
these issues of violence and trauma at a to find housing can mean
systems or structural level. For example, inability to leave an abusive
while health care providers are situation, or can trigger a new
becoming aware of the importance of scenario because of the power
trauma-informed care, they often do not dynamic inherent in a woman
consider the lifetime and cumulative trying to find housing but unable
experiences of community violence and to afford her own place.
trauma experienced by migrants and
refugees, i.e., focus on “adverse Another commented:
childhood experiences” in middle class
families. One survey respondent noted: Lack of safe, affordable housing
is a primary stressor for
…psychologists don’t immigrants, especially those who
understand the communal are without legal status. Often

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September 2018
Building Migrant Women’s Resilience to Violence and Trauma

this results in remaining in + In 2017, 13,552 women were returned

unsafe situations, and prolongs to Mexico from the U.S., 9% of the adult
the experience of trauma and Mexicans returned; 1,294 girls were
lack of safety in people’s lives. It returned, 15% of the Mexican children
can lead to increased symptoms returned32
of PTSD and other mental health
conditions. It can also impede an + In 2017, 4,598 women were returned
immigrant’s work with their to El Salvador from the U.S. and
immigration attorney to complete Mexico, 19% of the adult Salvadorans
an application for immigration returned; and 899 girls were returned,
relief, because they are not 40% of the Salvadoran children
stable enough to discuss their returned.33
history of abuse.

Conditions for Migrant Women Upon

Repatriation is a stage in the migration
process that is largely overlooked, but of
increasing importance. Returned
migrant women (and girls) often are
stigmatized, have their identities
challenged, and find themselves in life-
threatening situations. In this moment of
increased repatriation of migrants from
the U.S. to Mexico and Central America,
attention is understandably focused on Source: International Organization for Migration
the process of deportation, and how to
avoid or fight removals, with little to no + In 2017, 11,830 women and girls were
attention on what happens upon a returned from the U.S. and Mexico to
migrant’s return home. Guatemala, 18% of the total number of
Guatemalans returned.34
Governments and civil society could do
more to curtail many of the practices
that negatively affect these vulnerable
populations, from the practices of return
that put migrants at serious risk, e.g.,
breaking up families with different
immigration statuses, returning them to
places where organized criminal groups
operate, and failing to ensure
educational continuity for children. One
report estimates that returnees to
Central America are ten times more
likely to be at risk of being murdered
than the general population.31

Tens of thousands of women and girls

are returned from the U.S. to Mexico, El
Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras
each year:

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Building Migrant Women’s Resilience to Violence and Trauma

+ In 2017, 5,345 women were returned NGOs relevant to issues of repatriation

by the U.S. and Mexico to Honduras, and return of migrants to Central
12% of the adult Hondurans returned; America and Mexico.39 Moreover, none
1,703 girls were returned, 36% of the of these laws, policies, or programs
Honduran children returned.35 specifically address the needs of women
migrants, including their experiences of
violence and trauma.40

Applying Concepts of Population

Resilience to Interventions and
Migrant women who experience
violence and trauma should not be seen
Source: International Organization for Migration
merely as “victims” in need of services;
they can become self-advocates, and
In El Salvador, there was a law enacted
agents for social change. Building and
in 2011 for migrantes, attempting to
reinforcing individual, family, and
meet the needs of this population. The
community resilience could be one
program Bienvenido a Casa is meant to
approach for overcoming violence and
be a re-integration program to support
returned migrants. A Ley Especial de
Migración y Extranjería has been
Some critics of a resilience approach
proposed to assist returned Salvadorans
caution that over-emphasizing individual
by helping with transportation and
“resilience traits” places the burden on
practical assistance.36 These programs
those traumatized and victimized to
face challenges and it is unclear how
“overcome” their experiences.42
effective they are.37 However, a community and systems
approach to resilience at a population
Guatemala does not have a specific
level would focus on the family,
institution or program dedicated to aid neighborhood, social network, service
forced returns, nor concrete legislation
providers, and government policies that
concerning it. The Consejo de Migracion
support migrant women both individually
was created but it has not been able to
and collectively.43 They include policies
address migration in general, nor forced and practices such as expanded
returns specifically.38 educational opportunities for girls and
women, access to contraception and
In Honduras, there are several reproductive health education and
government departments that address services, independent economic and
the issue of migration, and several business opportunities for women, and
NGOs with programs for migrants. The safe spaces for social support. Finally,
Ley de Protección de los Hondureños these approaches also must include
Migrantes y sus Familiares created the broader and more long-term changes in
Fondo de Solidaridad con el Migrante cultural and social norms that justify,
Hondureño (FOSMIH) and there is a condone, excuse, stigmatize, and cover
Proyecto Amigo. However, these up violence against women.
structures have not been effective in
meeting the needs of Hondurans being More work is needed to understand how
returned. to identify, support, and measure
resilience at these family, neighborhood,
In summary, there are some laws, community, and systems levels. One
policies, governmental structures, and

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September 2018
Building Migrant Women’s Resilience to Violence and Trauma

respondent to the Tahirih Justice Center marginalized, systems-involved,

survey proposed: or underserved communities,
including but not limited to
Investing in women, immigrant immigrants and refugees,
women in the U.S. and women in communities of color, LGBTQIA
countries with large immigration communities…
rates (sex education, self-
esteem, education in general). Another noted:
Investing in specific countries to
help in sustainable economic Although restorative justice has
development. Develop legal been used in youth crime cases
institutions, trust in government and in schools, it has not been
and police, and help and advise widely applied to or studied in
countries to curb corruption. intimate partner violence
prevention and intervention.
Another suggested:
For example, some respondents
Invest dollars directly in discussed the need for more universal,
immigrant women. Give money accessible, and affordable child care for
for them to create the solutions migrant women:
they need instead of relying on
systems that don’t care about Low wages make it impossible to
them. This funding could be pay for childcare…Domestic
private, public, federal, whatever. violence shelters often have
When we create systems run by rules that moms can’t leave their
people without a sense of what kids with someone else at the
the community needs, the shelter because of liability
system doesn’t benefit the issues, so how is the mom ever
community. supposed to find work? Let
women pull together and support
Another commented on the lack of each other. We’ve started to
alternatives to address intimate partner support our clients supporting
violence: each other in this way, forming
networks for women to provide
…there are few formal options childcare and other support to
available to address intimate each other. We should look at
partner violence outside the solutions to build these
traditional criminal and legal community networks of support
systems [which] prioritize rather than calling Child
punishment over rehabilitation Protective Services or putting up
and have shown little barriers.
effectiveness for either deterring
crimes or promoting behavior Another proposed:
change. These systems also…
limit the current practices, Girls-only spaces; Girl Scouts for
language, and places of healing immigrant girls?
and justice. Finally, criminal and
legal options to address intimate The survey respondent comments about
partner violence create specific the lack of accessible and affordable
barriers for and are often housing for migrant women also
underutilized by traditionally highlight the additional barriers they

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September 2018
Building Migrant Women’s Resilience to Violence and Trauma

face: lack of legal status and

employment authorization, which limit 1
Boyd M, Grieco E. Women and Migration:
income and employment opportunities; Incorporating Gender into International Migration
lack of identification documents (often Theory, Migration Policy Institute (2003),
available at:
withheld or destroyed by their abusers);
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lack of childcare. Affordable housing migration-theory
strategies, plans, and policies that Parish A. Gender-Based Violence Against
Women: Both Cause for Migration and Risk
addressed these needs and challenges Along the Journey, Migration Policy Institute
experienced by migrant women might (2017), available at:
be additional interventions.
These and other potential interventions migration-and-risk-along-journey
The Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based
and solutions should continue to be Violence has described the lifetime spiral of
explored to better understand and be violence experienced by girls and women:
more responsive to the needs of migrant
women who have experienced life-long gender-violence/
Hallock J, Ruiz Soto AG, Fix M. The Migration
violence and trauma. Journeys of Central American Women: A Review
of the Literature, Migration Policy Institute
Researched and written by: (Forthcoming 2018); Hallock J, Ruiz Soto AG, Fix
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1067 Market Street Suite 3007 Women Flee Central America, Migration Policy
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MPI interviewed the following key informants:
Thanks to Ford Foundation Senior Program Leisy J. Abrego, University of California at Los
Officer Mayra Peters-Quintero for her Angeles; Michelle Brané, Women’s Refugee
support and guidance on this project. Commission; Miryam Hazán, Inter-American
Development Bank; Gretchen Kuhner, Instituto
para Mujeres en Migración; Abel Nuñez, Central
American Resource Center; Carola Suárez-
Orozco, University of California at Los Angeles
Tahirih Justice Center, Nationwide Survey: A
Window into the Challenges Immigrant Women
and Girls Face in the United States and the
Policy Solutions to Address Them (2018),
available at:
Survey-Report-1.31.18.pdf Tahirih Justice Center
received 158 responses to its survey of service
providers, legal advocates, domestic violence
shelters, and other community-based
Small Arms Survey, A Gendered Analysis of
Violent Deaths (2016), available at:
Cristosal, Desplazamiento interno por violencia
y crimen organizado por El Salvador (2016),
available at:

Commissioned by the Ford Foundation through a contract with NEO Philanthropy 10

September 2018
Building Migrant Women’s Resilience to Violence and Trauma

Manjoo R. Report of the Special Rapporteur on
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10 17
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U.S. Civil Society Working Group on Women, Burgi-Palomino D, Buckhout E. Does My Story
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arriving at the US border. PLoS One (2017)12:1, Separation of children from migrant women
available at: mothers occurred even before the announcement

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Building Migrant Women’s Resilience to Violence and Trauma

of the so-called “zero tolerance” policy that at:

created the crisis of the separation of thousands 13FederalPartnersReportFinal.pdf
of immigrant families beginning in the summer of University of Washington Henry M. Jackson
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26 34
Freedom for Immigrants, Sexual Assault in International Organization for Migration,
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Lee EYH. Female immigrants face unique ocuments/RETORNOS%20GT%202017.pdf
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decrease-in-Hispanics-11053829.php; Lockhart Guatemala (2016), available at:
PR. Women are now living with the fear of
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September 2018
Building Migrant Women’s Resilience to Violence and Trauma

Central American Families, American

Immigration Council (2016), available at:
merican_families.pdf; U.S. Civil Society Working
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Another critique of a resilience approach is that
it may undermine an individual’s claim to asylum
(based on a well-founded fear of persecution) if
asylum officers and immigration judges begin to
find that women experiencing violence should be
able to overcome that fear through some theory
or practice of resilience.
Cardoso JB, Thompson SJ. Common themes
of resilience among Latino immigrant families: a
systematic review of the literature. Journal of
Contemporary Social Services (2010); 91:257-

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