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A migration policy based on “deterrence” increases risk of gender-based violence

A migration policy based on “deterrence” increases risk of gender-based violence


Blog post by Sara Duvisac and Irena Sullivan (Tahirih Justice Center)

Deterrence policies aim to stop migrants and asylum seekers from reaching US borders. These policies have increasingly defined the US government’s approach to migration and asylum.

Examples of such policies include border walls; detention of migrants and asylum seekers; prosecution of asylum seekers for unlawful entry; family separation, the now defunct Remain in Mexico Program, and bilateral agreements with countries of origin (or third countries).

One of the most egregious examples is Title 42, first instituted by the Trump administration in 2020; it bars asylum seekers from entering the US due to COVID-19 concerns.*

However, the reality is that deterrence-driven policies rarely deter migration, but rather put migrants and asylum seekers in harm’s way. In our report, Surviving Deterrence, we specifically find that these policies greatly exacerbate the risk and prevalence of gender-based violence (GBV) at the border.

Why gender-based violence is rampant at the border

Our research for the report consisted of in-depth interviews and surveys of social and legal service providers working at the US southern border (both in Mexico and the US). We found that deterrence-based policies like Title 42 particularly harm those most susceptible to gender-based violence (GBV): women, girls, and LGBTQI+ persons.

We found that GBV is rampant at the border; the statistics are shocking. Respondents noted that between 30% and 90% of their clients have experienced GBV while at the border, and 68% of indicated that their clients have been raped and/or sexually assaulted frequently at the border.

While various factors can impact the risk of GBV in any setting, we uncover that US deterrence policies foster conditions that significantly increase the risk.

First, border closure and expulsions increasingly force migrants to rely on precarious forms of housing (overcrowded shelters, informal encampments, homelessness) that make them more susceptible to GBV.

US policies such as Title 42 have in the past few years increased the number of migrants waiting at the border for longer periods of time, leading to overcrowding within already overstretched shelters and informal encampments. As a result, abusers can more easily target women, girls and LGBTQI+ individuals for violence, often with impunity. Approximately 60 percent of respondents have clients who have experienced GBV within shelters themselves.

Second, we find that expulsion and border closures make migrants much more vulnerable to experiencing GBV at the hands of cartels or other organized crime networks. Although cartel violence is widespread in certain border regions in Mexico, our data indicate that cartel violence against migrants does not occur in a vacuum; the conditions driven by US immigration and asylum deterrence policies cause it to proliferate at the border.

Expulsions by US officials-especially when carried out in the middle of the night-can be particularly risky for women and girls. The economic and housing insecurity resulting from prolonged wait times to apply for asylum at the border has increased the risk that women will be targeted by cartels; we find that members of cartels are frequently the perpetrators of sexual assault.

Third, border closures and expulsions increase vulnerability for survivors of GBV who are fleeing persecutors at home; persecutors have more time and opportunity to locate and re-harm survivors who are waiting indefinitely at the border.

The devastation of experiencing GBV is compounded for Black migrants because of the racially motivated harm and discrimination they also encounter at the border and while applying for US protection if ultimately able to do so.

Endangering survivors

In addition to increasing the risk of GBV at the border, the US asylum process systematically harms survivors of GBV who are fortunate enough to be able to apply at all.

First, consistent with the goal of deterrence, the very gatekeepers of the asylum process—US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers—routinely engage in abusive and even violent conduct toward migrants in certain cases. A number of respondents recount instances where officers ignored or belittled survivors of GBV.

Next, an adversarial asylum system rather than a trauma-informed one disadvantages and retraumatizes survivors who attempt to apply for asylum. A trauma-informed system would include broad and consistent access to mental health services, interpreter and translation services, and counsel.

Our interviews highlight how critical it is for survivors of trauma to receive specialized mental health services to help them process and ultimately articulate what has happened to them, so that they can successfully fill out the asylum application and present their cases in interviews with asylum officers and during adversarial court proceedings.

Last, the US legal framework for asylum inherently disadvantages survivors of GBV. 62 percent of our survey respondents note that their clients who are GBV survivors frequently or very frequently do not apply for asylum because of a lack of familiarity with the complexities of US asylum law and procedures.

US asylum law does not explicitly recognize gender, sex, or GBV as a ground for asylum in any statute, and many survivors find it difficult to fit their experiences of GBV into their responses to the questions currently asked in the asylum application.

Undoing Deterrence and Embracing Trauma-Informed Approaches

To rectify these harms, the US must replace its deterrence-based immigration and asylum approach with a rights-based and trauma-informed paradigm. While this requires a significant normative shift in politics and public discourse, there is still room for action at both the Executive and Congressional levels.

  • First, the US government must stop the use of deterrence policies that penalize and punish migration.
  • Second, the US government should invest in an asylum-seeker centered model of service provision by establishing Welcome Centers where asylum seekers can access critical legal and humanitarian resources.
  • Third, US agencies that interface with migrants (particularly the US Border Patrol) should implement trauma-informed and anti-racist trainings that are collaboratively developed with and presented by outside experts–including survivors themselves. There must also be robust accountability measures for lack of compliance.
  • Fourth, the US government should explicitly recognize in legislation that gender is a key modality of persecution alongside those already named in the Refugee Convention.
  • And fifth, the US government should align its immigration and asylum policies with its foreign policy goals that seek to reduce GBV and promote women’s economic and social empowerment.

If implemented, these recommendations will serve as a critical step toward establishing a system that centers-rather than marginalizes and harms-survivors.

Continuing to use deterrence as the foundation of US asylum policies will only inflict further suffering upon many people, including survivors of GBV and other abuses.

For more, please explore the research report, Surviving Deterrence.

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* On April 1, 2022, the CDC deemed Title 42 no longer necessary; in mid-November 2022, a federal judge ruled that the US government’s use of Title 42 to expel asylum seekers was illegal and ordered the termination of the program by December 22, 2022. Last week, the Biden administration challenged the judge’s decision in an effort to continue Title 42. Some reports indicate that the current administration is considering new deterrence policies even if it is compelled to wind down Title 42.





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