“When you leave your country, this is what you’re in for”: experiences of structural, legal, and gender-based violence among asylum-seeking women at the Mexico-U.S. border | BMC Public Health

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“When you leave your country, this is what you’re in for”: experiences of structural, legal, and gender-based violence among asylum-seeking women at the Mexico-U.S. border | BMC Public Health

Of the 30 pregnant and parenting asylum-seeking women who participated, on average, women were 29 years of age and had 2.5 children (Table 1). Twelve (40%) were internal migrants from Mexico, 13 (43%) were from Northern Triangle countries of Central America (i.e., El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala), and 5 (16.7%) were from Haiti. Most identified as being of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin, 23.3% as Black, and 27.6% as Indigenous. On average, the participants had been in Tijuana for an average of 10.7 months, ranging from 1 month to 6 years.

Table 1 Demographic Characteristics of Pregnant and Parenting Asylum-Seeking Women in Tijuana, MIHRA Study, 2022 (N = 30)

Participants’ narratives emphasized four inter-related themes related to the GBV that they had experienced along their migration journey that were compounded by the impacts of asylum deterrence policies: 1) perpetuation of GBV across the migration journey; 2) asylum-seeking women’s vulnerability to GBV as exacerbated by asylum deterrence policies during COVID-19; 3) negative physical and mental impacts related to GBV; and 4) lack of access to responsive justice and violence-related supports.

Perpetuation of gender-based violence across the migration journey

In our study, women experienced GBV in their country of origin, in-transit to Tijuana, and in Tijuana while waiting to seek asylum. This continuum of GBV between countries of origin and Tijuana included physical violence, sexual violence, kidnapping, and threats of violence and reflects the myriad of gendered dangers, whether real or perceived, that women experienced before and throughout their migration. Asylum deterrence policies forced women to wait in these unsafe conditions, perpetuating their experiences of GBV and creating conditions that increased women’s vulnerability to GBV, ultimately allowing its existence in their lives. None of the women in our study described having had access to the humanitarian parole process, even if they would have been eligible, which also forced them to give birth in sometimes unsafe and discriminatory settings, putting them at further risk of violence, harm, and adverse perinatal outcomes.

These conditions left women vulnerable to the inevitability of GBV along their migration journey, with others recognizing the lack of impunity for perpetrators of GBV. One woman described an experience with a truck driver who had given her and a friend a ride and who had tried to extort her sexually as payment. He told them, “when you leave your country, this is what you’re in for” (Asylum-seeking woman from El Salvador, Age 21 years), speaking to the pervasive societal view that GBV was normal and was something that women were meant to endure. Another woman mentioned that experiences of abuse are “things that happen and that one has to overcome as well” (Asylum-seeking woman from Honduras, Age 26 years).


All women in our study described fleeing their home country due to the threat of violence for themselves and/or their families, including extortion, physical violence, sexual violence, or (attempted) kidnapping. Several women described the constant threat of violence and attempts at extortion from cartels or gangs in their neighbourhoods

“I left my place of origin because of violence, because of threats, because I was kicked out of the place where I lived. Armed people came to my house at night and threatened to kill me and my children. I am a single mother, I have three children and at that moment, as a mother, all I was thinking about was protecting my children. So I grabbed my children, as much as I could and ran out of there, running away, and made it all the way here to Tijuana.” (Asylum-seeking woman from Mexico, 26 years old)

Another woman described the attempted kidnapping of her daughter, alongside continued threats and extortion. This participant described grappling with the decision to flee her home country and leave her extended family behind: “Coming to a place, not because you want to leave, but because you are forced to leave” (Asylum-seeking woman from Guatemala, 23 years old).

In transit from their home country to Tijuana

During their migration from their home country to the Mexico-U.S. border, women were highly vulnerable to GBV and many experienced sexual and physical violence. This vulnerability was exacerbated by the lack of safe spaces for migrants including unsafe living conditions, exploitative working conditions, and financial precarity, where they are constantly are at real or perceived risk of harm. For women who did not have the financial means for a flight to Tijuana, the long journey from their home country often necessitated paying others for transport, stopping for short-term work in new places, and then moving on after weeks or months. Many of the women were desperate to find resources to meet their basic needs and, due to their situation, were vulnerable to financial or sexual extortion. One woman was robbed during her migration journey and was forced to ask for help from others to get the resources she needed to continue her journey.

“[They] attacked us and they stole the money I was carrying… I was robbed and here he holds up the gun to my head, he takes off all my clothes to see if I have more money. He left me without money. I was on the street asking for help to continue the journey.” (Asylum-seeking woman from Haiti, 32 years old)

In Tijuana

With the addition of Title 42 to existing asylum deterrence policies and the closure of the Mexico-U.S. border to most asylum-seekers in March 2020, many women found themselves living in Tijuana for months as they waited for a legal opportunity to cross. As there was minimal movement across the border, inordinate pressures were placed on existing resources (including housing, food, employment, and humanitarian aid), creating inhospitable conditions in Tijuana and other border cities and essentially trapping women in a system which perpetuated the violence and harms against them rather than providing them support or refuge and thus perpetuating legal violence.

Although they had expected to reach safety, with one woman sharing that she decided to migrate through Tijuana because it was the “farthest” from the violence in her city (Asylum-seeking woman from Mexico, Age 26 years), women continued to experience GBV in Tijuana, including pregnancy-related discrimination, physical violence, and sexual violence. One woman described her experience with an abusive partner: “And then he kicked me out, he hit me, he did whatever he wanted. When I arrived [to the shelter for pregnant women], I was all beaten up and that’s where they took care of me and my baby” (Asylum-seeking woman from Honduras, 26 years old). This was perpetuated by the humanitarian crisis at the Mexico-U.S. border caused in part by the implementation of asylum-deterrence policies.

Asylum deterrence policies: exacerbating vulnerability to gender-based violence

Asylum-seekers, by definition, are seeking safety. Women’s experiences clearly reflected how structural and legal violence were perpetuated by the impact of U.S.-based asylum deterrence policies on the (un)availability of support, resources, and basic needs in Tijuana, where existing humanitarian aid was inadequate to meet the needs of the influx of migrants. For women in our study, the humanitarian crisis in Tijuana engendered by the addition of Title 42 to existing asylum deterrence policies severely elevated risk of harm due to the lack of safe spaces, with few available supports, ultimately increasing their risk and perpetuating their experiences of GBV.

Asylum-seeking women routinely reported trying to find safe space for themselves and their young children in overcrowded shelters, many spending time sleeping outside, under bridges, or waiting in line for days. Surprisingly, while pregnant women or women with children in humanitarian emergencies are often prioritized for housing and other resources, in this study, several women described facing discriminatory treatment and being refused services due to being pregnant, having children, and/or on the basis of their migration status or race.

Nobody wanted to open their door for us. We walked all over the streets of Tijuana with our children and our backpacks, and they said it was closed, that they didn’t want families. And we searched and searched and until now, we are in [name of shelter]. And they haven’t taken us in, they have us outside. We are waiting… being cold and under the rain. I’ve gone out to look for a shelter and no one wants to receive us. And we don’t know what to do.” (Asylum-seeking woman from Mexico, 23 years old)

Another woman described how this interacted with anti-Black racism and xenophobia, with her husband being turned away from renting an apartment because he was Haitian.

“The lady who… owned a house knew that a man was coming to see the house and when my husband arrived, the lady was at the door. She saw that a Haitian was coming and closed the door. She closed it. So she won’t rent the house to Haitians.” (Asylum-seeking woman from Haiti, 40 years old)

Due to the lack of available spaces in shelters, many women needed to find their own place to live. With little available housing stock and the record numbers of migrants waiting at the border, affordable housing was nearly impossible to find. With their financial precarity, many women found themselves limiting food so that they could pay for rent, or were forced to remain in exploitative or unsafe situations (e.g., staying with abusive partners) in exchange for shelter.

Asylum deterrence policies in place since March 2020 led to women being trapped within the cycles of GBV with no escape, no access to security or safe spaces. By migrating, women had expected to get away from the violence in their home countries and the reasons that they had initially decided to flee. However, many found that Tijuana was not the safe haven for which they had hoped and, due to limited access to the asylum-seeking process in the U.S., they were stuck in these unsafe spaces, perpetuating their trauma with no foreseeable resolution. One woman described how she and her family had been fleeing a cartel in their home country, but they realized that this cartel was also present in Tijuana.

“[We will seek asylum in the U.S.] if we can, yes. To cross over at once. Because now we realize that the [name of drug organization] arrived here and I don’t know how it is here, but we are afraid that it will be the same as [in our place of origin].” (Asylum-seeking woman from Mexico, 26 years old)

Although some women described finding supports through religious or social agencies, in many cases women felt they had no choice or autonomy regarding where they received supports and were forced to place their trust in whoever offered help. It was clear that the increased vulnerability of asylum-seekers engendered by asylum deterrence policies provided the opportunity for perpetrators of violence and other harms to take advantage of their desperate situation.

Mental and physical health consequences of GBV across the migration journey

Women reported that their exposures to GBV were significant and long-lasting, including both mental and physical harms. Most women described living in constant fear, which affected their freedom to move freely about their neighborhoods and to live in peace. While many women did not label their experiences as “traumatic”, perhaps due to the pervasiveness of GBV in their lives, many described experiences and symptoms of trauma linked to the physical and sexual violence and otherwise dangerous situations that they experienced or witnessed around them.

“Well, me, when I arrived and got off the bus, I was scared because I didn’t know the street or where I should go. And since it is dangerous in the streets, you do not know what could happen. You could be mugged, or they could take away the baby. And I was careful, and I arrived all the way there” (Asylum-seeking woman from Mexico, 19 years old)

But the fear is the same. It is not our country. We do not know each other well. We do not know. But I think you live that even yourselves. We don’t know when a person is good, or if they are bad. There is always that fear.” (Asylum-seeking woman from Honduras, 26 years old)

“In the streets, yes, I am very, very afraid. Here [in Tijuana], I am very, very afraid. I suffer more from stress. Because one time when my husband left his work, he encountered thieves… And that’s why I’m very afraid here. That’s why when I don’t have to go out, I stay at home with the children… I live in fear.” (Asylum-seeking woman from Haiti, 40 years old)

These quotes highlight the constant state of vigilance in which asylum-seeking women live, as well as the social isolation that it brings for themselves and their children, as they do not feel as though they can trust others or the world around them.

Women’s personal experiences of trauma were compounded by the loss and grief of losing others along the journey, whether these people had been victims of violence or were individuals with whom they had lost contact and feared for the worst. One woman shared her experience crossing the Darién Gap, which is a particularly dangerous region along a migration pathway between Colombia and Panama and the only overland path connecting Central and South America: “there is a lot of death on the road because some people are already tired, they can’t, they can’t get to their destination” (Asylum-seeking woman from Haiti, 32 years old). Many women experienced trauma stemming from structural violence by immigration and other government agencies, including forced displacement and disappearance of family members. For example, one woman recounted her experience at an encampment at the Chaparral point of entry, which was torn down by municipal authorities. Within one day, the woman and her families were separated from other migrating families with whom they had become close, who had disappeared suddenly in the night. Such experiences disrupted important social support networks, and not knowing what had occurred or where friends, family, or community members had gone, or whether they were safe or not, was a constant source of stress for the women, and impacted perceived safety for themselves and their families.

There was a lot of sadness [after we left El Chaparral] because some of our friends and colleagues who were there, we never heard from them again. What happened to them?… They disappeared…” (Asylum-seeking woman from Honduras, 36 years old)

Trauma was often unspoken. In our interviews, it became apparent that many women did not disclose all of the trauma that they had experienced, perhaps because they did not want to relive these or because the experiences were too frequent to fully recount. When asked about any experiences of discrimination related to migration status when interacting with health or social services, one woman stated that she “didn’t include any of that. I didn’t even include the abuses that happened, none of that…It gives me … I don’t know what, to be reliving so many things” (Asylum-seeking woman from Honduras, 26 years old).

Lack of access to responsive justice and violence-related supports

Limited supports were available for addressing GBV through criminal legal actions against perpetrators or for supporting women who had experienced GBV, which allowed perpetrators of violence to operate with impunity, further perpetuating vulnerability to GBV for women in our study.

Because of limited options to meet basic needs, many women were forced to live with daily threats of GBV and were often limited in their ability to seek recourse for sexual or economic coercion. One woman described her experiences of these coercions with an extended family member who was providing housing for her and her husband, which she felt forced to endure to ensure that she and her family had a “safe” place to sleep. She reported this abuse to her husband but, because they had no other option for shelter, this was seen as a necessary cost of shelter and the abuse was never reported or addressed (e.g., to police).

“They started to demand that [my husband and I] pay them money… that nothing is free… And then came harassment from [the extended family member] towards me… He texted me and asked me how much I would charge him to be with him. And I got very scared and I told my husband. But since we were in his house, [my husband] didn’t want to say anything because if he kicked us out, we were not going to have a place to go.” (Asylum-seeking woman from Mexico, 18 years old)

Some women attempted to report their experiences of GBV in their home countries and in Mexico, including Tijuana, but none were offered any meaningful investigation or recourse. These stories were indicative of the acceptance of GBV as a regular, normal, and allowable occurrence for women, particularly for racialized, migrant women in transit.

Over there, they don’t do anything [regarding the threats], they do nothing. They do not help us. One has to flee.” (Asylum-seeking woman from Mexico, 24 years old)

Other women were silent about their experiences of GBV, perhaps because of previous experiences in which reporting failed to result in any meaningful improvements or justice, because of fear, or because they had internalized the normalization of GBV in their lives. One woman stated that “you need to be silent” and another had not disclosed her experience of sexual assault during migration to anyone prior to their interview. Importantly, none of the women in our study reported seeking or receiving any formal support for themselves to mitigate the negative physical and mental health impacts of GBV in their lives (e.g., trauma-informed mental health supports).

Women’s knowledge and first-hand experience that there was no available recourse for the GBV they experienced and no support for the trauma they lived with daily highlighted the perpetuation of GBV in their lives. The legal violence of asylum deterrence policies holding them in limbo at the Mexico-U.S. border acted to limit women’s autonomy and reproductive rights, depriving them of an escape from the constant fear and threat of GBV and of a legal status that might protect them from their perpetrators.

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