What Survivors of Gender-Based Violence are Facing at the Border

One woman from Cameroon, after over a month of waiting, had finally heard her number called. It was her turn to cross the border. Her chance to have a Credible Fear Interview—and, if she is lucky, to be given an opportunity to make her case for asylum once in the U.S.

But she only had a copy of her passport, as the original had been lost along the perilous journey to the border. 

Despite her pleading and her obvious fear, not only of returning home to Cameroon, where gender-based violence is so widespread that even the U.S. State Department recognized in 2018 that the high rate of violence against women was due in part to government inaction, but also of staying one more night in Tijuana, ranked in 2018 as the most dangerous city in the world, she was denied entry in flagrant violation of the law. 

Protestors at a Close the Camps rally for immigrant rights. (Peg Hunter / Creative Commons)

Under the Migrant Protection Protocols policy, also known as “Remain in Mexico,” the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is forcing asylum seekers to stay in Mexico for the duration of their asylum proceedings, which can take months or even years. This policy creates a logistical nightmare for DHS agents and already overburdened immigration courts, which currently have a backlog of over 850,000 pending cases nationwide. And still, the system is attempting to deal with hearings for people who are not even in the same country and do not have an address where they can receive notice of those hearings.

After experiencing rape, domestic violence, threats of murder and other trauma, desperate migrants trying to save their lives make the dangerous, exhausting journey to get here. They have a right to a fair process to seek asylum, which they are not likely to get if they are forced to remain far away from U.S. courts, lawyers and service providers who are here and willing to help them.

Asylum seekers need lawyers. The system is complex, and the law is changing more rapidly than ever. In the past few years, for example, the administration issued a number of decisions that significantly impact who qualifies for asylum and that unnecessarily confuse heavily litigated and settled areas of asylum law. Just earlier this summer, the administration announced a new policy barring most migrants from applying for asylum at the U.S. southern border.

To explain the law amidst so many changes to the asylum system, applicants have the right to an attorney—but finding an affordable attorney who is an expert in asylum was already difficult in the U.S., and now, for applicants forced to remain in Mexico, it seems nearly impossible. We are here, and our potential clients are over there.

In addition, we know that survivors of domestic and sexual violence often struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and may find it impossible to present their cases without counseling, medical help and safe housing, among other things. Forcing survivors of violence to live in unstable conditions and worry about the safety of their children is not only inhumane—it compounds their trauma and places potentially insurmountable challenges in front of them

And what about the children? Children who have fled unspeakable fear in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are waiting in Tijuana. They are often alone and terrified, but carry with them the hope of exercising their right to seek asylum and to live a life of safety and with dignity. Without the help of an attorney to advocate for them, they too, are turned away.

While in Tijuana, I asked if there were shelters we could refer people to if they did not have a place to stay for the night. The question was received with a heavy, exasperated sigh from the seasoned staff and volunteers in the room. Their unofficial list of shelters, short as it was, had been torn up long ago as most were no longer functioning and others could not be trusted either due to safety concerns or government corruption, or often a combination of both. As it stands, only minors and individuals facing serious, imminent risk of harm that day can be accommodated by staff who work informal networks to find a place to stay for those most vulnerable. But even then, there is no guarantee of safety. 

In December of 2018, soon after “Remain in Mexico” was announced, two teenage Hondurans were referred to one of the few shelters in Tijuana serving minors that still had space available. On their way back to the shelter one evening, they were killed—stabbed and strangled to death while waiting for their chance to seek asylum in the U.S. 

Organizations that work with asylum seekers on a daily basis are hard-pressed to deploy enough lawyers to Mexico to screen cases, let alone conduct in-depth interviews, build trusting relationships with our clients and help them prepare to testify in court. Where I volunteered, the space is bursting with 20 to 30 migrants a day, seven days a week, seeking one-on-one consultation with immigration advocates and attorneys volunteering in Tijuana. As it stands, they have capacity to provide individualized legal education to each person for a maximum of 30 minutes. It would be wholly unmanageable for these advocates to add on to that the necessary social services support for victims waiting in Mexico so they can begin to heal as they confront their pasts and tell their stories to the courts.

The deck is stacked against us, which means that survivors of violence stand little chance of getting to safety. 

At the first hearing after “Remain in Mexico” went into effect, the immigration judge gave the only man who was able to appear more time to find a lawyer, sending him back to Mexico to look. But the judge himself said “it will be difficult to try to get an attorney from there.” Even he realized how ridiculous this scenario is.

Each day volunteering in Tijuana started with a briefing from folks who, that morning, had been to El Chaparral, the U.S. port of entry in Tijuana, to witness the execution of the “Remain in Mexico” policy—a “system” which involves a black and white composition notebook full of names and small scraps of paper with numbers on them. Volunteers would share the last number called, the last number given and the total number of people that were allowed to cross the border that day. Conservative estimates put the number of people on the list at around 4,500, but advocates believe that number is likely closer to 8,000.

On my final day in Tijuana, the last number called was 2,310. The group consisted of just 12 people. Only 10 of those called were permitted to cross the border. Where the others would stay that night, and the days and nights that would follow while they and their children wait for their number to be called, was entirely uncertain—to us and to them.


Casey Carter Swegman is the Forced Marriage Initiative project manager for Tahirih Justice Center and also leads the Forced Marriage Working Group, a coalition of advocates and allies from around the U.S. dedicated to creating a coordinated national response to the problem of forced marriage in the country.