Borderland Journey: Stories from Deported Latinas
The Southwest crossing is a perilous journey for undocumented Latinas
Posted September 30, 2015
By Emily T. Bashah, Louise M. Baca, and Karen L. Suyemoto
Undocumented Latinas who cross the Southwestern border into the United States face a myriad of challenges. Among the risks psychological research has identified: trauma, abuse, violence, xenophobia, acculturative stress (APA, 2012), oppression, and lack of legal protection (Prilleltensky, 2008). With that in mind, we wanted to understand the lived experiences of undocumented Latinas who were detained and deported, with particular focus on the challenges they faced and the resiliency that facilitated their survival. The Kino Border Initiative, an organization that provides humanitarian aid in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, supplied a randomized sample (N = 57) of testimonials from deported Latinas living in a women’s shelter within 2010-2011.
The following passages are a compilation of major themes generated from the women’s stories. Identifying information has been redacted to protect respondents’ confidentiality, while also maintaining the richness of qualitative testimonials in original narrative form (Kaiser, 2009).
The cycle of trauma, poverty, devaluation of women, and abuse was a common experience among undocumented women’s hometown experiences. Some women described early experiences in childhood and adolescence that included sexual and physical abuse, neglect, and being unloved by significant people in their lives. Many women said they had few rights in their communities of origin, and felt vulnerable and powerless compared to men. However, the women identified key people who came to aid them in moments of desperate need, and consistently stated that their religious and spiritual faith was a guiding and protective force throughout their hardships.
For some women, fleeing from their hometowns meant fleeing oppression and the constraints of poverty; for others it meant seeking a better life and the opportunity to provide for their children and family. For some, it was about reconnecting with family who were already living in the U.S. For many, it was a combination of all three:
"In my case my motive to immigrate to your country is because one is poor, because my family depends on me given that all of my brothers already have their families who they are attending to and everything falls on me now that my mother is sick and my father has serious health problems and although I didn’t want to immigrate through the desert I need to do it for my family."
As the women prepare for their journey, many are well-informed of the dangers, risks, and threats that await them. Some women disclosed that they were raped, while many women reported witnessing sexual violence against others.
The cost of paying off coyotes (smugglers and/or guides) often meant borrowing funds from others and putting one’s family into debt. Many of the women said they had made multiple attempts at crossing, even after they had been deported. The desert is harsh: exhaustion, dehydration, hunger, extreme physical exhaustion, and foot injuries are common. The terrain is an inhospitable landscape of cacti, rattlesnakes, and poisonous insects. The women often spoke of being abandoned or left behind by the coyotes if they did not move quickly through the desert, in a journey that typically lasted a few days to a few weeks.
During the voyage, the illegality of their journey frequently placed the women under control of cartels, sex and human traffickers, and people out to harm or take advantage of their vulnerability. Many of the women were abducted, forced into prostitution, raped, beaten, and extorted out of whatever remaining money they had or could get. In spite of these dire experiences, nearly all the women maintained hope and courage to elevate their lives and improve conditions for their children. With perseverance, tenacity, and determination, the women held onto their vision for a better fate and future. For many, this hope and tenacity sprang out of deep religious convictions:
"Myself, I have since October trying to cross to get to Phoenix, AZ and I could yet not achieve my dream. I have three sons, I am a single mother and not having documents, but I have my father Jesus Christ who is always with me and never let me out of his hand which I am grateful to have an essential beautiful and blessed life because my children are my hope to succeed and give them a better future. …I do not surrender and I do it for my three little treasures that are my children. I have even walked the desert for 5 days and all I know is that only my father Jesus Christ is the one who will help me to meet my children. This is kind of my life from October to April and I do not regret anything, but I expect a miracle for everyone as I wish them good luck and never give up hope. May God always bless and protect you on the right track is the only one who does not forget us. Lord Jesus Christ Son of the living God, have mercy on me a sinner, Amen."
The U.S. Border Patrol
The undocumented women understood that they were violating the law by crossing into the U.S. illegally, but they also believed they had a right to be treated humanely by customs and border patrol. For many, that belief turned out to be unfounded. The worst violations typically occurred at the point of capture in the desert, where there was no form of monitoring or accountability standards for the agents in the borderlands. The women witnessed and experienced horrific incidents of physical abuse. Some agents reportedly hunted down immigrants and ran over their bodies with their vehicles, treating them as wild animals to be hunted:
"An agent caught us during the night around 3 a.m. and treated us badly. The men were beaten. My friend was lying down and an agent ran over her hip with a motorcycle and they did not give her medical attention until the following afternoon. It's something that you have the right to ask for food, and then they used profanity and insulted us as starved to death people...I am weak and was not provided with food. The person who was run over was not given any attention, and was deported right away.”
Following detainment, most women were placed in detention centers. Many of the women said they were made to endure extremely cold conditions, because the thermostat was set at very cold temperatures while being refused adequate clothing. The women described how the agents humiliated them, taunted them with racist verbal and emotional insults, and denied them basic medical and dietary needs. And they expressed surprise and dismay at their treatment:
"They would provide with just a little bit of food, a little bit of water, but being there we needed to make it work, all of us cold and everything and when immigration caught it was the worse because they treated us like dogs, they would insult us, they would yell at us to humiliate us and when arriving they would toss us to the ground. Despite everything we are Mexicans and most important we are human beings, I did not like the treatment the Americans gave us. I thought they were different, I imagine other things about them, I thought they were good but I was wrong. When I arrived to immigration I thought it would be a different treatment but they yelled at me, they handcuffed me and tossed me to the floor and detained me, they would put their feet over my body and the worse was they had us locked up in this small room where you can’t really breathe and also had a toilet in the same area. We all smelled, we would do our necessities in there."
Of the women who eventually made it into the U.S., many were taken advantage of and exploited by employers for not having legal status. Since the majority of women have family on both sides of the border, it was common to endure the journey crossing multiple times back and forth in order to visit sick or dying family members. Once deported, the women were dropped at the Mexican border in Nogales, Sonora, with no provisions to assist them. That is where the women encountered the Kino Border Initiative, where they were provided medical attention, food, assistance, and a safe house in the women’s shelter.
"Approximately three months ago, my mother got very sick, they diagnose her with cancer and I felt the necessity of being close to her. I went to [my hometown], my mother passed away, I came back to try and cross through Sonora. We walked through the desert, immigration stop us, they chained us from our hands and feet telling us we are criminals, we met with the judge, they made us sign declarations admitting we are guilty and with a threat we couldn’t come back in 5 years or we would go to prison for a month up to 5 years if we did. I’m desperate, my daughter and granddaughter live in Los Angeles and they are waiting for my return. I am the only thing they have; they depend on me. I love my daughter and granddaughter. Please pray for me so that I can be reunited with them."
Overall, the majority of undocumented women described living a moment-by-moment existence, where nothing can be taken for granted in their lives. Yet they repeatedly referenced the compassionate people who helped them along the journey. Above all, they spoke of the power and omnipresence of their religious faith that gave them strength and the ability to keep going. I was struck at how their portrayal of their lives was constructed not to elicit pity, but to demonstrate their conviction that they are good people and deserve to be treated fairly with social justice, human dignity, and equality:
"And when immigration officers caught me, I learned a great lesson: that men and women are equal and have equal value...It is true we are going to the U.S. out of necessity not for pleasure. We are not thieves or delinquents. We are just looking for a better life."
American Psychological Association, Presidential Task Force on Immigration. (2012). Crossroads: The psychology of immigration in the new century.
Bashah, E. T., Baca, L. M., & Suyemoto, K. L. (2015). Undocumented Latinas’ cross-border experiences: A qualitative study of detained/deported immigrants & implications for social policy. Manuscript in preparation.
Kaiser, K. (2009). Protecting respondent confidentiality in qualitative research. Qualitative Health Research, 19(11), 1631-1641. doi:10.1177/1049732309350879
NVivo Qualitative Data Analysis Software (2015). QSR International Pty Ltd. (Version 10) [Computer Software]. Available from http://qsrinternational.com/default.aspx
Prilleltensky, I. (2008). The role of power in wellness, oppression, and liberation: The promise of psychopolitical validity. Journal of Community Psychology, 36(2),116-136.
Authors: Emily T. Bashah, Psy.D., Arizona School of Professional Psychology at Argosy University; Louise M. Baca, Ph.D., Arizona School of Professional Psychology at Argosy University; and Karen L. Suyemoto, Ph.D., University of Massachusetts, Boston.
This posting is dedicated to the many immigrants and families who suffered any form of cultural oppression, ethnic intolerance, social injustice, human rights abuses, persecution, and spiritual suffering.
Correspondence concerning this posting should be addressed to Emily T. Bashah, Psy.D. at Email: email@example.com