The composition of migrant populations at the U.S.–Mexico border is changing. Once dominated by men seeking jobs and security, today there are far more families with children, often led by women. How does motherhood impact migration, and what do migrant mothers face as they attempt to raise, support, protect, and seek better lives for their children?
For decades, women have comprised about half of migrants worldwide—according to the United Nations, 49% in 1990, and dropping slightly to 48% in 2017. In contrast, the vast majority of migrants at the U.S.–Mexico border have been men, often seeking economic opportunity or safety. That demographic reality has shaped not only ideas of who Latin American migrants are in the popular imagination, but also government policies and advocacy responses, the first usually seeking to curtail migration and the second endeavoring to serve and defend people far from home.
In recent years, however, the number of women entering the U.S. at the southern border—and held in detention, being deported, or seeking asylum—has grown. In 2017, the KBI received 898 women at the comedor, 11.56% of the 7,755 migrants assisted; in 2018, that number escalated to 1,482 (or 13.46%) of an unprecedented 11,006 migrants served. At Casa Nazareth, the KBI’s shelter for women and children, the shift was even more pronounced. The KBI housed 360 women and children in 2017; in 2018, that number skyrocketed by 133% to 839 women and children.
The data confirm what is discernable from news reports and media images over the past couple of years—that the nature of migration at the U.S.–Mexico border is changing as more women and children flee poverty, cartel violence, gang threats, political instability, and persecution in Mexico and Central America. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security reports that, so far this fiscal year, migrant families represent 52% of apprehensions, a devastating yet instructive statistic. While there are certainly many migrant women who are not mothers, and fathers who migrate with their children, the role of motherhood has always been a powerful factor in migration. Being a mother deeply impacts the decision to migrate; being a woman dictates risks and choices en route; and being a migrant inevitably determines options and outcomes in unpredictable and often uncontrollable ways.
MOTHERHOOD: Ask any woman with children. Regardless of circumstances, becoming a mother is a major life-defining event, and often a primary source of identity, especially when children are growing up. While the multiple responsibilities involved and the challenges of juggling them are a universal phenomenon, gender inequality and systemic sexism vary across countries, societies, and cultures. In Mexico and Central America, mothers are respected as central figures in their families and communities. Nevertheless, economic, social, and cultural factors can support or undermine the freedom, agency, and expectations mothers experience. For many female migrants from male-dominated cultures, gang or domestic violence (overwhelmingly perpetrated by men) can, on the one hand, hinder their ability to escape, and on the other, strengthen their resolve to do everything possible to protect themselves and their children. Similarly, female migrants from poverty-stricken areas often have lower levels of education and therefore less earning potential—financial resources to seek a better life can be scant to non-existent, and yet they are determined to provide better futures for their children and attempt to do so through migration
In examining the migrant journey, from decision to outcome, we’ll consider the situations of (1) mothers who migrate with their children; (2) mothers who migrate without their children; (3) mothers who choose not to migrate; and (4) mothers who are separated from their children through detention or deportation.
THE DECISION: Migration is an incredibly arduous and costly endeavor; anyone who chooses to leave their home, extended family, and community only does so under untenable circumstances that make a risky and uncertain journey preferable to staying in their countries of origin. For women, migration decisions involve broader complexities and burdens.
As mothers, spouses, and partners, women are often a source of emotional and psychological support for migrating men, tending to the family at home, raising the children, and being the primary breadwinner until and if remittances are possible. When mothers choose to migrate, they must weigh the additional oppression they bear as women—gender-based violence from criminal groups, corrupt law enforcement and government officials; domestic violence from partners; more limited financial resources; and primary responsibility for the welfare of their children. A 2015 study of Mexican and Central American women seeking asylum found that 85% of them came from neighborhoods controlled by criminal armed groups, and 100% of them reported that violence was a near-daily experience in their lives. (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR)
The decision can become one of mothering or migrating, but most often, it is a combination. Some mothers remain in violent situations, either domestic or gang-related, and choose not to migrate in order to protect their children from harm, gang recruitment, and dropping out of school. Others see migration, with or without their kids, as the means for improving prospects for the whole family, but this, too, is complicated by the number and ages of the children, the availability of trusted caretakers among a woman’s extended family, and if the woman herself has been singled out as a target of violence. Women are more likely than men to migrate due to violence (KBI), and according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are some of the most dangerous countries in the world for women, ranking 1st, 3rd, and 7th respectively in female homicides. These alarming rankings illustrate how migration can be an urgent matter of life or death.
So among mothers dealing with the question of migration, we encounter many scenarios, including:
- the mom who migrates on her own—for economic or educational opportunities, her survival, or both—and sends back money she could never earn in her hometown to support her children in the care of relatives;
- the mother who brings her baby or toddler, but leaves older children with their grandmother in another city because she trusts they will be safe from crime and harm there;
- the mom who migrates with her older children who don’t need to be carried and can themselves carry food and water, while leaving the younger children with her sister’s family until she can send for them when they’re older.
These decisions are as personal as they are fraught, and there is no simple way to navigate them. Tragically, at this decision-making stage, family separation is an unavoidable reality for many mothers who migrate, with 60% forced to leave one or more of their children behind. (UNHCR)
THE JOURNEY: The migration route north through Mexico is rife with dangers for all migrants—crimes of extortion, theft, kidnapping, and murder; injuries, hunger, and harsh climate or terrain; and discrimination faced by migrants who are easily identifiable through clothing or backpacks. For women migrants, harassment, sexual assault, rape, sex-trafficking, and forced prostitution are particular risks; in some cases, smugglers treat sex as a form of “payment” for their services. Fully three-quarters of migrant women report that they expect hardships and abuses on the journey. Yet is a testament to the suffering, poverty, and violence they are fleeing that they undertake the trip anyway. (UNHCR)
Mothers weigh these potential consequences when considering migration with children—some hope that the presence of their children might keep these risks at bay while others choose to migrate alone so their children will not be subjected to the trauma of witnessing these crimes or, horrifically, of being a victim. For this reason, more female than male migrants travel with family (52.1% of women according to KBI research, compared with 29.1% of men). Safety is also one of the reasons behind the migrant “caravans,” vilified by the Trump administration as threats to national security, but in fact a form of community on the move. Just like in their home countries and upon arrival in the U.S., women and children are more vulnerable to crimes, exploitation, human rights violations, and abuses. Lack of documentation only increases their victimization, and also the diminishes the likelihood of crimes or abuses being reported, creating a environment of impunity in which assailants and offenders are not arrested, convicted, or otherwise penalized.
THE AFTERMATH: Upon reaching the U.S.–Mexico border, migrant experiences diverge based on crossing between or at a point of entry; choosing to apply for asylum or not; traveling with or without children; and having a lawyer or representing oneself. Overall, the vulnerability to abuse continues, particularly for women, as does the reluctance to report, which is exacerbated by fear of deportation. A KBI study from 2015 found that 35% of female migrants experienced discrimination, intimidation, or verbal or physical abuse; yet only 7.7% filed a complaint. They were not aware of their right to report abuses, felt it would be futile, or worried about retaliation.
By far the greatest concern once families are in U.S. custody—even before the cruel and senseless “zero tolerance” policy resulted in tearing thousands of children from their parents to disastrous effect last year—is family separation. The U.S. government continues to question the legitimacy of family relationships, and on that basis, separates mothers and fathers from their children, using unclear and unpublished criteria to claim that parents are threats to their children’s well-being. Parents and children may be held in different detention facilities, sometimes in different states. For adults and children alike, detention intensifies any accumulated traumas from life in one’s home country and on the journey. Further, family separation adds to both the immediate devastation and the long-term effects of trauma for children.
Along with detention, deportation is the other major cause of family separation. From interviews with women who crossed into the U.S. and were subsequently deported in 2013, the KBI learned that two-thirds were separated from at least one family member during detention or deportation. A 2015 KBI study of both male and female migrants verified a similar occurrence of family separation (64.6%). KBI research has also revealed that 13% of family separations involve a child. In these instances, a child is considered an unaccompanied minor by U.S. immigration authorities, although deportation is the reason they are “unaccompanied.”
Finally, women seeking asylum, on their own or with their children, face particular challenges when claiming domestic or gang violence. In December, a federal judge struck down the U.S. policy announced by then Attorney General Jeff Sessions last June eliminating domestic and gang violence as acceptable grounds to seek asylum. The judge ruled that claims must be evaluated case by case, citing that there is “no legal basis for an effective categorical ban on domestic or gang-related claims.” Nevertheless, asylum is extremely difficult to attain, more so if applications are considered separately (as in the case of family separation)—only one in 10 applications are approved—and the 1951 Refugee Convention on which asylum procedures are based does not include domestic or gang/cartel violence among the grounds listed. Instead, asylum seekers fleeing these situations must establish membership in a “particular social group”—for example, relationship in a particular family, which can constitute a “group”—and provide persuasive proof of persecution. This entails much more extensive research and evidence collection than other grounds (race, religion, nationality, and political opinion), which makes positive outcomes even more rare.
CONCLUSION: As of this writing, a new U.S. bill has been introduced in Congress by Senator John Cornyn (R–TX) that would institute further obstacles to seeking legal status or asylum. Paradoxically called the “HUMANE Act of 2019” (“Humanitarian Upgrades to Manage and Assist our Nation’s Enforcement Act of 2019”), it is anything but humane. Among a range of rights infringements, it voids the Flores Settlement, which lays out the duration and conditions under which children can be detained, for migrant children apprehended with their parents at the southern border; requires DNA analysis to verify family relationships; categorizes children apprehended with relatives who are not their parents as unaccompanied minors, and further, strips away protections from unaccompanied minors and their sponsors; and formally denies asylum eligibility to migrants arriving between ports of entry .
In the same week, the Trump administration submitted an appropriations request for $3.3 billion to cover additional detention and operational expenses; $1.1 billion for border enforcement; and $178 million for personnel expenses, a third of which is designated for a projected Customs and Immigration Enforcement payroll shortfall. The proposed budget list reads like the militarized mission statement that it is.
The KBI strongly objects to this bill and budget request as instruments of further suffering and avoidance strategies for sensibly addressing immigration reform. Instead, the U.S. needs to manage immigration flow, and develop workable, just, and truly humane policies. Some approaches would include: (1) treating family unity as a foremost priority; (2) identifying and tracking all family relationships; (3) heeding asylum law and protecting the rights of asylum seekers; (4) implementing alternatives to detention; and (5) providing access to legal information and resources. We ask that you advocate for these policies with us, and stand up for the humanity, dignity, and rights of migrants and asylum seekers. Information about standing against funding the inhumane treatment of migrants is available in this month’s action alert: https://www.kinoborderinitiative.org/defund-inhumane-immigration-policies/
- “Domestic Violence and Asylum,” July 2018: https://www.kinoborderinitiative.org/domestic-violence-and-asylum/.
- “The Dangers of the Journey,” February 2019: https://www.kinoborderinitiative.org/the-dangers-of-the-journey/.
Stories of Migrant Mothers from the KBI Archive:
- “Andrea’s Story: Refugees Turned Away at the Border,” February 2017: https://www.kinoborderinitiative.org/andreas-story-refugees-turned-away-border/.
- “Guadalupe’s Story: The Penalties of Cooperation,” March 2017: https://www.kinoborderinitiative.org/guadalupes-story/.
- “Rosario’s Story: The Plight and Flight of Asylum Seekers,” April 2017: https://www.kinoborderinitiative.org/rosarios-story/.
- “Miguel and Clara: Families and Our Immigration System,” May 2017: https://www.kinoborderinitiative.org/miguel-clara/.
- “Maria’s Story: An Update on Her Asylum Case,” August 2017: https://www.kinoborderinitiative.org/marias-story-update-asylum-case/.
- “Marisela’s Story: Fear, Trauma and Family Separation,” January 2018: https://www.kinoborderinitiative.org/mariselas-story/.
- “María’s Story: After Detention, The Road to Asylum,” March 2018: https://www.kinoborderinitiative.org/maria-story-after-detention/.
- “Kenia’s Story: Fleeing Domestic and Gang Violence,” July 2018: https://www.kinoborderinitiative.org/kenias-story-fleeing-domestic-and-gang-violence/.
- “Tere’s Story: Accompaniment Among Migrants,” January 2019: https://www.kinoborderinitiative.org/teres-story-accompaniment-among-migrants/.