By: Roxane Ramos
The number of women migrants from Mexico has doubled over the last 20 years. They face greater, graver dangers than their male counterparts, but still make the journey. Why?
Even as migration across the U.S.–Mexico border has leveled off in recent years—due to increased militarization along the border and the frightening hazards of a desert crossing—all experts agree that the number of women migrants has increased substantially. Women make up 25–45% of undocumented migrants entering the U.S. from Mexico each year, up from 20% two decades ago. The shift exemplifies a worldwide trend in migration. To better understand the nature of this change, we need to look at why women are migrating.
According to research conducted at the KBI*, the main reasons Mexican women migrate to the U.S. are economic need (48%) and family reunification (17%), with violence as a third factor (5%). It’s important to note that these motivations are not mutually exclusive; the decision to migrate is multi-dimensional, resulting from a sequence of converging life events. Surveys require participants to select a primary response, and this can obscure the complexity of the issues involved. For women, there are often multiple reasons, and many are related to gender-based discrimination and violence as well as to their role as mothers and sometimes primary providers.
First of all, in a culture that values family connection and stability, family dynamics are shifting, and this is borne out in patterns of migration. More and more Mexican women are migrating on their own, without a partner as a companion, and a quarter of mothers who migrate are the sole providers for their children (“madres solteras”). These mothers frequently find themselves in the untenable position of having to leave their children in order to support them. Of the migrating women with children surveyed, 71% left children behind in Mexico; another 25% found themselves leaving children behind in the U.S. to return to urgent situations in their place of origin. The numbers speak for themselves of a situation that is both dire and heartbreaking.
The statistics provide an overview of how women arrive at their decisions to migrate, but they don’t address the actual experience of migration and deportation for those without legal status. The challenges and dangers migrants face when crossing the Sonoran Desert from Mexico are daunting and often life-threatening—robbery, extortion, kidnapping, extreme temperatures, rough terrain, and border violence. For men, this violence can take the form of verbal harassment, physical beatings, or most horrifically, murder. Women face these risks, too, but are also subject to sexual intimidation and assault.
While there are no accurate statistics about the number of women raped along the border—the crime often goes unreported—low estimates start at 1 in 4 women, and anecdotal evidence abounds. Women offer their testimonios for humanitarian aid workers and border patrol officials (see side bar), and rape trees, their branches strewn with the underwear of victims, confirm our worst fears about the prevalence of this heinous crime. Moreover, if a woman rejects the sexual advances of a coyote (hired guide), she runs the risk of being left behind in the sweltering desert, without water, days away from the border. On the other end of the spectrum, another KBI study reveals that, when deported, fully two-thirds of women are separated from family members or the companions they crossed with, in cities where they know no one, another scenario of precarious vulnerability.
Yet the number of migrating women keeps growing and, with approximately 5.5 million children in the U.S. living in mixed-status families where one or both parents are undocumented**, this trend is not likely to stop anytime soon. What would you do if your children were hungry? What would you do if they were on the other side of a well-defended and dangerous border? As a 1992 report from the United Nations points out, “It may be assumed that…a person would not normally abandon his home and country without some compelling reason.”
What it comes down to is family unification and survival. Migrating women feel these indelible ties and family responsibilities acutely, and they are more and more willing to endure a perilous journey for the sake of their children. Speaking to this concern, one woman migrant acknowledged, “I am going to the United States for my children. I am risking my life for my children. And I will return to Mexico for my children.”
* Funded by a grant from Catholic Relief Charities, 2010–2012.
** Pew Hispanic Center, Immigration Policy Center, 2013.
When I was young and my dad arrived home drunk, we always left running so that he wouldn’t beat us. It rains a lot where I’m from, and we hid under a tree where we would wake up wet from the rain, and would go home to sleep at 11 or 12 at night, soaking wet. Sometimes we went to our grandparents’ house. My dad told us that he would kick us out because he didn’t want us at home.
When I was 16 years old, my dad took me to Tehuacán, Puebla, and he “tossed me” to his friend, a truck driver, to work. My dad took the money I earned in my 2 first weeks. When he was leaving, he told me that he would be back, but he never returned. Maybe the truck driver gave him money for me, I don’t know. If I asked him about it, he would get angry.
I got pregnant in Tehuacán, but [the truck driver] cheated on me with another woman, and I left him. I went to live with my parents in Chihuahua, and that’s where my daughter was born. During my pregnancy, I supported my parents. I earned $1000 pesos a week [about $75USD]. My father had the nerve to ask my boss for a loan that I had to work off. I paid the costs for my daughter, clothing and everything else.
When my daughter was 20 days old, we tried to cross for the first time. From Chihuahua, we went to Ciudad Juarez. We didn’t make it across. We finally crossed when my daughter was 8 months old. I was with my dad, mom, one sister and two brothers. In the United States, my father wanted to sell me to an old man that drank with him. My cousin advised me to look for a man that I loved. I got together with someone and was happy like this, but there was always the poisonous scorpion of my father around the corner. My father told my husband, “If you can’t control this mule, give her to me, and I’ll break her. Hit her. Hit her….”
In the United States, I had two children, a girl and a boy. The boy got sick with meningitis. [So] we returned to Chiapas. There was no work and they tricked my husband with a job at an American company. There were a thousand promises—daycare, school…. They paid us 137 pesos a day [$10USD], and they deducted 562 pesos a week [$43USD] for food and childcare. At the end of the week, we hardly had anything left. They treated us horribly. We couldn’t rest. If they didn’t let us work one day, or even half a day, they wouldn’t pay us, and the worst was that they took our daughter away. They said that they took her because of domestic violence, but everything was a lie. According to them, my husband used drugs and hit her, but he doesn’t use drugs, and he treats the children very well.
What happened is that our daughter fell from a tree and someone reported it. They asked my husband if they could take her to the hospital and we accepted. That’s when they pressured me to sign a paper. I signed without knowing what it was, and they took my daughter away from me.
† Excerpted and adapted from “Women’s Testimonios of Life and Migration en el Cruce” by Marla Conrad, submitted as a thesis in partial fulfillment of a Master of Arts in Social Justice and Human Rights from Arizona State University, May 2013. All names and other identifying information have been changed. Much gratitude to Marla and the migrant women who participated in her research study.