Migrant Plight: Cyclical Trauma at the Arizona-Mexico Border By: Catherine Morrisey

ABSTRACT: Migrants crossing the Arizona border from Mexico and countries in central and South America endure levels of trauma that have been largely undocumented and underreported by media outlets. Subject to violent rapes, robberies, starvation, dehydration, death and more, migrants struggle to survive ± physically and emotionally ± the journey into the United States. Migrants are retraumatized by the social and political atmosphere of Arizona and the United States, who unwillingly see their circumstances as similar to refugees in war-torn regions around the world. During a migrant¶s trip to the United States, he will experience the social identities of immigrant, victim and criminal as the immigration policies close in on his life and livelihood. This paper aims to address the haunting experiences of migrants, and argues that the United States and international communities should recognize migrants who cross borders, especially from violent regions of Mexico, as refugees. Additional suggestions are also given to address the extensive trauma endured by migrants with the hope that human rights can become intersected with a virtually forgotten realm of injustice.

Inkblot Warrior.

BACKGROUND INFORMATION / INTRODUCTION / THE SPARK. Like gazing into the ocean after a tsunami, it is hard to stare into the Arizona desert and see peace and tranquility. It is a facet of nature which consumes the lives of at least 200 migrants each year and separates families, languages and races. Despite all of its past destruction, it lingers with taunts of more to come. Unlike the ocean, the desert never retreats. The desert is the only natural landscape given more power by human beings. Local politics, social structures and economies have played a critical role in betrothing power to Nature itself. Already fierce and ruthless, the Sonoran desert has consequently taken the lives of more migrants through the decisions of politicians and voters in the United States (Robbins, 2009). While the estimated number of migrants attempting to cross the border has decreased by 25% the past three years, the number of bodies recovered by Border Patrol and special trauma units has stayed consistently at 200 bodies per year (Robbins, 2009), and it is impossible to know how many bodies remain unrecovered at any given time. Immigration enforcement fences in Texas and California1 were constructed during the 1990s, consequently causing migration trails to be channeled through Arizona and deeper into the harshest points of the

Operation Hold the Line in El Paso, Texas and Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego, California were constructed in 1993 and 1994 under President Clinton to eliminate instances of migrants crossing the US-Mexico border (Stickles, 1997). Initially the Center for Immigration Studies said the borders ´can be controlled,µ but have since published reports stating the overall impacts of border walls in deterring migrants from crossing in America are not known (Clayton, 1995).

desert (Paget-Clark, 1998). As a result, despite the fewer number of people crossing, death is more probable than ever before. The desert landscape is unforgiving, and the city awaiting most migrants crossing through Arizona can feel even more relentless. Through the antiimmigrant legislation of Senate Bill 1070, Arizona has amplified the severity of the migrant experience. As a result, each migrant who attempts to cross the border into the United States is greeted with the daunting reality of how much it really costs a person to start a new life. The currency is different for each migrant, but one thing is constant: All who pass must pay a toll. For those who survive and manage to cross into the United States, they experience such extensive trauma in nearly every facet of life. While these people may see their physical bodies survive the journey, they consequently endure the death of their dignity, pride and spirits (Paget-Clark, 1998). Women are at a heightened risk of exploitation and trauma because of their social statuses in Mexico and the United States. The construction of women as second-class citizens has created an enormous burden on migrant women and created cyclical patterns of trauma when they decide to cross into America (Olivera, 2006). This cycle begins with the sexual trauma throughout the border crossing experience, followed by politics of dehumanization in Arizona, and resulting in the criminalization of migration and having to prove victimization because of one¶s residency status. All of these experiences create new instances of trauma for

migrant women. All of these experiences violate the very basic human rights of women. Because the immigration issue is so deeply intricate and complicated, making drastic social change is increasingly difficult to accomplish. Without overall reform to immigration, it is even more challenging to tackle the individual issues found within immigration. The end of this report will include comprehensive ideas for immigration reform and document the ways in which these reforms could positively impact the four facets of trauma and migration. The end of each separate section, however, will discuss the temporary or more moderate solutions to the individual problem itself.

The Migrant Journey Begins:

Proving Victimization

Sexual Trauma

Criminalization of Migration

Politics of Dehumanization

³Fear the time when the bombs stop falling while the bombers live; for every bomb is proof that the spirit has not died.´ John Steinbeck; The Grapes of Wrath.


PART ONE: THE JOURNEY BEGINS / SEXUAL TRAUMA & MIGRANT WOMEN / THE FIRE. ³What happens in a few days, sometimes even a single day, can change the course of a whole lifetime.´ Khaled Hosseini; The Kite Runner.

Trees with women¶s underwear hanging from branches have been called ³Rape Trees,´ and are found throughout the Arizona and Mexico desert. Believed to represent the women subjected to rape along their journey, it is still unknown whether the coyotes use the trees as bragging rights or if women leave behind garments as warnings to other women or as collective mourning sites (Champagne and Burgard, 2010). Sexual trauma along the Arizona-Mexico border has caught the media¶s attention throughout the immigration debate and since the passing of SB 1070. Indeed, many supporters of the bill proclaimed that tougher immigration enforcement would deter the corrupt and sexually deviant cartel leaders and coyotes from passing through the state, thus making migrant women safer as a result (Champagne and Burgard, 2010).


The ripple effect SB 1070, which is harsh in tone and believed to target certain groups of migrants over others, arguably creates more negative impacts on women who have been subjected to sexual exploitation during migration. Journalist Adam Peck reports in his article ³Hearing on Women Affected by SB 1070 Adds Necessary Element of Emotion to Immigration Debate,´ originally published online through the website Campus Progress, that women victimized by sexual abuse have no place to turn as a result of the legislation, even though most controversial measures of the bill have been blocked by federal courts (Peck, 2010). Already believed to be an underreported crime in society, rape victims who are also migrants are even less likely to seek assistance from hospitals and law enforcement ³out of fear that their immigration status will be checked in the process,´ and they will face deportation (Peck, 2010). Potential solutions to this human rights crisis include the passing of provictim legislation, which bans law enforcement and non-profit groups from researching the residency status of any alleged sexual assault victims. This will encourage many victims to come forward and work with law enforcement officers in the arrest of the offender, as well as provide victims the vital resources of immediate medical care from hospitals, and long-term care from social welfare agencies and community resources. It would also be beneficial for the Arizona police departments to implement language-training programs which provide tutoring and other assistance for police officers and investigators to speak


languages other than English. This will assist in providing a layer of trust between law enforcement and migrants, and is especially critical after the strain the relationship has faced in the days since the passing SB 1070.

PART TWO: THE JOURNEY CONTINUES /MIGRANT WOMEN & THE POLITICS OF DEHUMANIZATION / THE FIRE SPREADS. ³The one thing that doesn¶t abide by a majority rule is a person¶s conscience.´ Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird.

A photograph of U.S. detention centers used to house migrants prior to deportation hearings and procedures shows the impact of dehumanizing politics (Detention Watch Network, 2010). For migrant women who successfully cross into the United States, a cycle of additional trauma awaits. The politics of dehumanization create social barriers between migrants and the rest of society, leaving them extremely marginalized and vulnerable to further exploitation. Because the politics of dehumanization have created a nearly immediate ripple effect in the act of criminalizing migration


and women having to prove victimization, it is hard to discuss such topics individually; rather, a holistic approach demonstrates how one type of rhetoric can create more insufficient structures within the overall issue of immigration (Sreeharsha, 2010). The politics of dehumanization have proven extremely dominant in determining the quality of life an immigrant has after crossing into the United States. Migrants in the United States hear a national rhetoric ranging from amnesty to internment camps, but the most common solution proposed by politicians is for migrants to learn English, follow migration documentation protocol and wait patiently for legal permission to cross borders (Sreeharsha, 2010). On the surface, this does not seem entirely dehumanizing ± rather, it seems like a very neutral solution that many Americans have come to support.2 The dehumanization tactics begin with such rhetoric, however, when solutions are suggested without a full understanding of how complicated life is in the various countries from which migrants come. The very concept of having to learn English prior to coming to the United States shows serious misunderstanding of the social structures ± and lack of social structures ± that many countries have. Learning English is often reserved for higher social classes and not even available for migrant families. Paying a fee to

The Associated Press published a poll from the National Constitution Center, which surveyed 1007 adults nationwide and asked: Do you favor providing a legal way for illegal immigrants already in the United States to become U.S. Citizens? 50% of the population surveyed said they ³strongly agree´ with this solution, while 46% of people reported being ³strongly against´ the solution, and 4% of people saying they ³don¶t know´ (Polling Report, 2010).

obtain legal status in the United States is also a lengthy and expensive process. The United States Department of Homeland Security estimates the cost of filing alone is currently over $800 per person, and that fee does not include legal assistance, additional background check materials required by Homeland Security ± including fingerprints and physicals -- transportation to the interview site and any translator assistance fees which may be needed (Unite States Department of Homeland Security, 2010). For individuals who are crossing the border to work for wages that are often times well below the legal minimum wage of the United States, the $800 filing fee is entirely unrealistic (Hanson, 2006). Despite the irrelevance of these solutions, however, half of the country seems to think they are reasonable and worthy of formal legislation. Regardless of countless news stories being published on the insufferable poverty of Central and South American nations, and the drug lords taking over border towns across Mexico, the majority of Americans believe migrants should endure their burdens until their applications have been processed (Parrado, 2005). The politics of dehumanization have played a considerable role in how the United States understands citizenship and migration. Rather than viewing the plight of migrants as an issue of survival, similar to the plight of refugees and asylum seekers, many Americans have dismissed stories of suffering and despair and instead have viewed the undocumented migration process as voluntary, optional and a privilege rather than a basic human right (Conway, 1998).


This dismissal of basic human rights aimed at the migrant populations of America result in the public hearing stories of absolute atrocity and responding to it by believing that if someone is going to break so many laws to get into the country, even after knowing how unsafe the journey may be, then that person has to know what he or she has coming for them. ³It is a way for the public to pass off social responsibility for what is happening within their own country,´ and put a barrier between themselves and the people who are crossing into the country (Hanson, 2006). This technique is so powerful and so influential in current political rhetoric regarding immigration that the very act of migration itself has been criminalized as a result (Robbins, 2009). Detention centers across Arizona house individuals who have committed no crime other than crossing the border without documentation.3 It is not unusual for these people to spend months awaiting detention hearings, being held as prisoners and usually incapable of communicating with family members to let them know where they are and what can be done to help their legal situations (Robbins, 2009). Dehumanization tactics also impacts on lives of migrant women who are sexually exploited during their trips to the United States, and also after if they are impacted by sex trafficking rings, prostitution, abusive partners or crime in lowincome neighborhoods. Because immigration enforcement tactics are developed

The White House estimated in 2010 that there are 400,000 migrants being held in detention centers across the United States awaiting deportation hearings (The New York Times, 2011).

under the belief that all people who cross the border choose to do so, rather than being forced to do so for survival, many resources available to victims of sexual assault are reserved for legal residents and citizens of the United States (Peck, 2010). For women who have been exposed to sex trafficking rings, prostitution and abusive partners, this issue becomes even more problematic. Many states have laws that worsen the penalty for traffickers if their victims are trafficked internationally, but in order to prove the allegations, law enforcement officers must research the residency status of every victim with whom they come into contact. Because ³living in the United States without current documentation subjects all people to felony charges at the federal level,´ victims of human trafficking, prostitution and domestic violence face the risk of charges being filed against them on account of their immigration status (Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition), even if they migrated to the United States against their will. Victims face the risk of sudden deportation if discovered by law enforcement officers, who are required by state law to report all undocumented persons to the Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) agency. Because no state law in Arizona establishes a protection clause for victims of sex trafficking to be shielded from deportation, a number of victims remain silent or hidden from law enforcement¶s view entirely.


³You may trod me in the very dirt / But still, like dust, I¶ll rise.´ Maya Angelou.

Understanding the dynamics of trauma within the bigger issue of immigration is critical when advocating for victim¶s rights and policy reform. Unfortunately, reform to one area of immigration malfunction will not sufficiently solve the problem. It is an issue which requires comprehensive evaluation and change in order to truly decrease the incidents of trauma for migrant women. Therefore, the following list of solutions is aimed at addressing the over-arching problems of immigration, while also providing the theoretical impacts it will have on issues of trauma facing migrant women:



Establish a legitimate application process for migrant populations, which will include the following: a minimum of one year legal residency within the United States, extendable after 12 months upon providing proof of current employment, a sliding pay scale for the processing of application materials based on family or individual¶s income, free translation assistance for all required documents and an immigrant advocacy agent to assist families unable to afford legal assistance.


The economic, social and political circumstances of individual countries will be evaluated by independent research agencies and then used to set the country quotas each year.


All rights of United States citizens to be recognized and enforced for all people on American soil, regardless of residency status.


Immediate de-criminalization of migration at the state and federal level. Migrants currently held in detention centers in the United States to be the first of the applications accepted and reviewed by Homeland Security.


The United States to implement a tax on corporations which clears them for hiring migrant workers, but is also considerably cheaper for a company when compared to the expenses of sponsoring a migrant on the current work visa program.


The United States to implement a safe network of border crossers to lead migrants into the country. This can include the development of private companies training drivers to bus migrants across the border, and can be funded through the corporate hiring tax detailed above, as well as by churches, interest groups and private donations. This system can also include teaching selfdefense tactics to women, providing immediate medical attention

at common border stops and information about companies looking for migrant work. y Alleged victims of sex trafficking, prostitution, kidnapping and domestic violence to receive 24 months of immediate shelter, healthcare, employment and social services. Any children of these victims will be entitled to the same services, as well as additional protection to be provided by schools for children. Investigating the legal status of these individuals will be illegal, even to assist in the prosecution of the offender(s). While this list is not exhaustive, it does provide some remedies to the quagmire of migration in the United States. By providing a more competent and comprehensive approach to immigration reform, a number of issues concerning trauma and migrant women can also be remedied or alleviated. Understanding the complexities behind trauma and migrant women can cause the rhetoric surrounding immigration to change entirely ± even if people passionately oppose amnesty, they also tend to oppose rape trees found in the desert, and drop houses from sex trafficking rings setting up in the foreclosed home down the street. This type of information is critical in the battle for migrants¶ rights and well-being. Without such details becoming the framework under which society discusses migration policies, the power of dehumanizing politics will continue to perpetuate incidents of trauma in the lives of migrant women.


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communities respond to militarization from slave patrol to border patrol. In Motion Magazine, Retrieved from http://www.inmotionmagazine.com/mj1.html Parrado, E. (2005). Migration and relationship power among mexican women. Demography, 42(2), 347. Retrieved from www.jstor.org/stable/4147350 Peck, A. (2010, Hearing on women affected by SB 1070 adds necessary element of emotion to immigration debate. Campus Progress, Retrieved from www.campusprogress.org Robbins, T. (2009). A deadly crossing: Migrants in the arizona desert.National Public Radio (NPR). Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=113035382 Sreeharsha, K. (2010). Reforming america's immigration laws: A woman's struggle.The Immigration Policy Center. Retrieved from http://www.immigrationpolicy.org/sites/default/files/docs/A_Womans_Struggle_0 62810.pdf Stickles, R. (1997). Calexico crossings.National Public Radio (NPR). Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1040211 United states department of homeland security: Border patrol. (2011). Retrieved April 25, 2011, from http://www.dhs.gov/files/bordersecurity.shtm


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