The Crisis for Asylum-Seekers Is Gender-Based Violence

The new series Migrant Futures is aimed at pushing forward our thinking and action about immigration and borders. Read series curators Geraldo Cadava, A. Naomi Paik, and Catherine S. Ramírez’s introduction here.
Why do women and feminized people flee Central America? What do they find when they reach the United States?

Why do women flee Central America? What do they find when they reach the United States? The answer to both questions is, in part, gender-based violence. Consider, for example, women who own small businesses run out of their homes or elsewhere in the Northern Triangle region, comprising Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. These women must pay the gangs “protection money” (called impuestos, or the anglicized las taxas, because of their structured regularity). The gangs raise these protection fees consistently, with the ulterior motive of forcing women and girls into coerced sexual relationships from which it is extremely difficult to extricate themselves.1 Once a woman can no longer pay, gang bosses will give her an ultimatum, demanding that the woman become a “girlfriend” to a gang member or hand over a pubescent daughter.2 This is most often the precipitating event that causes women to flee, bringing with them as many children as their finances afford. At the US border, they find government officials who, in the last six years, have received tens of thousands of complaints of sexual assault and rape against women, queers, trans people, and even minor children. Should they end up living and working here, these same double threats of violence make them some of the most vulnerable workers in the United States.

When does a “crisis” cease to be a crisis and become a mode of life? This is a particularly pertinent question for the Biden administration: this most recent border “crisis” of women and children entering the United States from the Northern Triangle in search of asylum stretches back at least as far as Biden’s first term as vice president. The influx is the effect of a now permanent aspect of the global drug economy. Like any other economy, it depends on the reproductive labor of women, girls, and feminized people—all the labor that goes into reproducing humans and “home” that is generally considered women’s work and goes uncompensated, including food preparation, cleaning, laundry, and so on, and the physical and emotional work of caring for people, including those who are sick, elderly, disabled, or children—ensuring the well-being and reproduction of the workforce and the production and distribution of goods. Their labor is subject to extra-economic means of coercion, as is all domestic work.

The Mara Salvatrucha (also known as MS-13) and Barrio 18, henchmen for the Northern Triangle region’s drug cartels, use methods of coercion akin to the sexual and gendered violence used by right-wing national guards and paramilitaries in the Guatemalan and Salvadoran civil wars to secure territorial control and subordinate the population during the late 20th century.3 Rape, beatings, concubinage of girls, repeated verbal threats of sexual assault, extortion of sexual favors, and kidnapping are all forms of gendered violence regularly employed to extract feminized labor.4 Indeed, gender-based violence has become a normalized part of doing business for these gangs. Their methods blur distinctions that liberalism has traditionally drawn between public and private spheres, productive and reproductive labor, and economic and political refugees.5

Sexuality, kinship, and gender-based violence have been weaponized on the northern side of the US border as well, at least since the 1990s. The Trump administration policy of separating and even disappearing the children of those who sought asylum from 2017 to 2019 underscored the violence of US policy toward immigrants. But it wasn’t new. The Clinton administration militarized the border, leaving open only the physically grueling and dangerous crossing through the Sonoran Desert. In so doing, the administration exposed the implicit labor contract between the United States and low-wage workers who live in the global South: the most able-bodied workers are welcome, but not children, elders, or other dependents.

In the decades since, the aggressive criminalization of undocumented people has resulted in regimes of deportation, detention, and, not incidentally, sexual violence in immigration enforcement, including in Office of Refugee Resettlement shelters for children.

The violence of immigration enforcement reiterates the shape of mara violence against children, women, and feminized people. We know this because we’ve spent years working with women and children in detention centers and offering expert-witness testimony for many asylum cases. Until and unless advocates for immigrants, and their conservative detractors, recognize that gender-based violence is a real and important human rights issue, meriting asylum in its own right, the misconception will persist that this is a temporary “crisis” that can be addressed by US administrative pronouncements.


The Northern Triangle

Women in the Northern Triangle are regularly required to provide free meals for gang members, either at the luncheonettes the women may run or in the privacy of their homes. Gang members often join the women’s family members around the table. Women will be required to do the laundry of gang members without families of their own.

Such relatively benign forms of reproductive labor become blurred with productive labor, as women are coerced into providing shelter within their homes for gang members hiding from police or rival gangs. Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 also force women to hide weapons and drugs in their homes.6 Perversely, evangelical women are especially susceptible to this form of extortion: gang members target them precisely because police are less likely to suspect them. Young children, especially girls, are coerced into becoming gun and drug runners for the same reason.

Thus, the space of family and home has been forcibly transformed into part of the narcotics-distribution chain, blurring the line between public and private labor in the service of capitalism.7 As noted above, one of the most common ways this blurring takes place is the extortion leading toward sexual coercion and terrifying “relationships” that so often results in women trying to flee.

Yet the violence against women is not limited to extortion. Gang members will pick girls to groom as “girlfriends.” Once an MS-13 or Barrio 18 gang member succeeds in convincing a girl that he is in love with her and gets her to agree to a sexual relationship, he will let other gang members rape her, an initiation that marks her as their property. Alternately, girls will simply be kidnapped off the street and subjected to gang rape, making them gang property.8

Domestic, reproductive labor is required by the drug and care economies. Both of these motivate gender-based violence and migration.

In one case, an imprisoned gang leader targeted an evangelical girl he had known at Bible camp as a child. Assuming she was a virgin, he ordered his underlings to beat her brutally until she agreed to come to prison for conjugal visits. This gang member raped her over the course of two years during these visits, threatening to kill her family if she did not comply. When she managed to escape during a moratorium imposed on family visits to the prison, she did so with his infant in tow.9

The gender-based violence underwriting the drug war goes unmentioned in our national debates about Central American migration and the border “crisis.” Nevertheless, the Biden administration should move with urgency to stop it.

The deadly combination of US 20th-century interventions in Central America, the drug war in the Caribbean, and US deportation policies is responsible for the presence and growth of MS-13 and Barrio 18 in the Northern Triangle, and for the role the gangs play in the transportation and distribution of cocaine from South America to the United States. Moreover, the hemispheric drug economy would collapse without the high rates of US drug consumption, with consumers reaping the benefits from the coerced labor of women.


U.S. Immigration Enforcement

Sexual violence also awaits migrating women, feminized people, and children on the US side of the border at the hands of immigration enforcement. This violence is an implicit aspect of the US policy of “prevention through deterrence” (limiting migration through fear) and expectations for feminized labor.10

Over the course of six years, nearly 15,000 complaints were filed against ICE for sexual assault in detention and almost none investigated by the Department of Homeland Security. Kids transferred to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, where they are supposed to be safer and more humanely treated than in Border Patrol or ICE custody, have also filed thousands of reports of sexual assault and abuse.11

As generations of feminists have argued, home is also a workplace.12 In the United States as in the Northern Triangle, the liberal illusion of a sacred private sphere apart from the hubbub of capitalism is a crumbling edifice, requiring ever more rhetorical scaffolding to keep it standing. Neoliberalism has shredded the US safety net and redistributed wealth upward, dumping ever more care labor onto households, even as nearly every adult is forced into the paid workforce. Yet we still demand the appearance of the family: the pretense that somehow it’s possible for women in particular to do multiple full-time jobs at once, caring for dependents “at home” while earning a wage “at work.”


Refuge: Denied. Asylum: Pending

By Evan Taparata et al.

A diminished middle class struggles to maintain this juggling act by relying on paid care labor performed by transnational-migrant workers as nannies, domestic workers, and home-health aides. Because employers feel most comfortable with women in these jobs, this huge labor market has drawn ever more female and feminized workers into care work that ultimately supports capitalism.13

But there’s another catch. The conditions of this care work—low-paid labor requiring long hours, night shifts, and maximum flexibility—mean US employers expect these women to be free of responsibilities to their own families. They prefer care workers to come without children or elderly parents. Domestic workers exist outside the federal system of labor protections (like the minimum wage). Moreover, the millions of undocumented immigrants who fill these jobs work under the shadow of deportation, expected to work still more cheaply as a consequence.14 A 2012 study reported that behind the closed doors of family homes, domestic workers in the United States reported routine sexual harassment, abuse, and assault.15 As a result of their undocumented status, immigrant women and feminized people doing care work have few ways to contest the conditions of their employment.

For decades, Mexico and Central America functioned as a labor reserve for the United States. Children stayed in their home countries to get educated, get health care, and grow to an age when they could be of use as workers.16 In times of labor oversupply in the United States, migrant workers were sent back to Latin America, but in times of shortage, more could be recruited. Workers could also be forced back across the border if they became too old, disabled, or otherwise unable to work. US employers and local communities never bore the costs of reproducing the labor force. This was left up to the workers, their communities, and their home countries.

This tacit bargain is over. In the Northern Triangle, the drug economy has grown and the environmental conditions have worsened. Evidence of these changes can be seen in the arrival of significant numbers of unaccompanied children applying for asylum in this century.

Conservatives in particular responded angrily to the presence of a growing number of children. The Trump administration may today seem like the most notorious separator of children from the adults who brought them. After all, in Trump’s first year in office, his administration began terrorizing asylum seekers by taking away their children in the hope of forcing the accompanying parents into withdrawing their asylum claims. But George W. Bush was the first president who separated children from their parents, sending them to detention alone as part of the “hardening” of the US immigration system after 9/11.17 And this was deliberate, to make the immigration system harsher: deporting more people and trying to evade the requirements of the asylum system under international law after 9/11. During the Obama years too, conservatives successfully demanded that unaccompanied minors be deported, in many cases without even hearings on their asylum claims.18

The violence of immigration enforcement reiterates the shape of mara violence against children, women, and feminized people.

As harsh as the Trump administration’s family-separation policies were, deportations over the past two decades are most responsible for tearing migrant families apart. Workplace raids under the second Bush administration and targeted deportation by the Obama administration left behind tens of thousands of children.19 Trump engaged in both workplace raids and sending ICE after specific individuals.

The Biden administration has continued to deport migrants at a high rate, expelling virtually every adult who crosses the border—even those who might qualify for asylum—under Title 42 of the public-health code. Despite Biden’s calls for a break with the previous administration, Title 42 is a Trump-era program, one that many legal scholars have said is illegal and that the Centers for Disease Control says does not protect anyone from the spread of COVID.20

The Biden administration has carved out an exception for unaccompanied minors. But even this seemingly humanitarian act has only dramatically incentivized families to send their children across alone, especially as those who remain in Mexico have continued to face high rates of kidnapping, extortion, and violence.21



Gender-based violence south of the border and a gendered division of labor north of it drive the “crisis” of migration from the Northern Triangle of women, children, and feminized people. The situation is unlikely to be much improved by Vice President Kamala Harris’s message of “Do not come.”

The liberal commitment to the separation of the domestic sphere from the public sphere leads to the belief that sexual assault, intimate partner violence, and threats to children are strictly private matters. This not only contributes to covering up human rights abuses in US immigration enforcement but also conceals how a globalized drug economy in the Northern Triangle depends on gendered violence and sexual exploitation.

Allegedly, US-based conservatives are alarmed by the increase in women, children, and feminized people seeking asylum. But this is a misapprehension: the conservatives simply prefer that this labor take place in migrants’ home countries while remaining invisible in the United States.


As American as Child Separation

By Rachel Nolan

However, capitalism has always been global; it is time that US migration policies match the hemispheric labor market and our hemispheric drug policies match the demands of global consumers. A rational system of work visas for the kinds of labor these women and feminized people perform in the care economy needs to be implemented across North America. We also need a rational approach to drug consumption that would decriminalize the production, distribution, and consumption of narcotics, thereby minimizing the incentives to use gendered violence to increase profit margins.

We must come to terms with the fact that domestic, reproductive labor is required by the drug and care economies, and that both of these motivate gender-based violence and migration. If we turn a blind eye to the interconnection of our hemispheric consumption of feminized, immigrant domestic labor—to how push and pull factors combine to draw women and children to the US border—we will fail to implement comprehensive policies that make life safer for them in the Northern Triangle and in the United States.


This article was commissioned by Geraldo Cadava. icon

  1. Tristan Clavel, “Extortion and Sexual Violence: Women’s Unspoken Suffering,” InSight Crime, April 26, 2019.
  2. María Josefina Saldaña-Portillo, “The Violence of Citizenship in the Making of Refugees: The U.S. and Central America,” Social Text, no. 141 (2019), pp. 11, 13.
  3. On Central American criminal-gang association with drug cartels, see Hal Brands, “Crime, Violence, and the Crisis in Guatemala: A Case Study in the Erosion of the State,” Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, 2010; “‘Se enviaron pandilleros a Guatemala y México’: Mara Salvatrucha expandió su poderío desde El Salvador y buscó alianzas con carteles,” Prensa libre, October 10, 2019.
  4. Clavel, “Extortion and Sexual Violence.”
  5. Saldaña-Portillo, “The Violence of Citizenship in the Making of Refugees,” pp. 1–22.
  6. Laura Pedraza Fariña, Spring Miller, and James L. Cavallaro, No Place to Hide: Gang, State, and Clandestine Violence in El Salvador (International Human Rights Clinic, Harvard Law School, 2010), p. 88.
  7. Fariña, Miller, and Cavallaro, No Place to Hide, p. 12.
  8. Harry Vanden, “Maras, Contragoverned Spaces, and Sovereignty,” in US National Security Concerns in Latin America and the Caribbean: The Concept of Ungoverned Spaces and Failed States, edited by Gary Prevost et al. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), p. 87.
  9. On gang leaders’ ability to perpetrate crimes from jail, see Gladys Olmstead, “In Guatemala’s VIP Prisons, the Powerful Are Safe and Committing Crimes,” Insight Crime, February 28, 2018.
  10. Jason De León, The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail (University of California Press, 2015).
  11. Lomi Kriel, “ICE Guards ‘Systematically’ Sexually Assault Detainees in an El Paso Detention Center, Lawyers Say,” ProPublica, August 14, 2020; Lulu Garcia-Navarro, “Immigrant Detainees Say They Were Sexually Abused In CBP Custody,” NPR, March 24, 2019; Matthew Haag, “Thousands of Immigrant Children Said They Were Sexually Abused in U.S. Detention Centers, Report Says,” New York Times, February 27, 2019.
  12. Silvia Federici, Wages against Housework (Falling Wall, 1975).
  13. Rhacel Salazar Parreñas, Servants of Globalization: Women, Migration, and Domestic Work (Stanford University Press, 2001).
  14. Nicole Prchal Svajlenka, “Undocumented Immigrants in the Care Economy,” Center for American Progress, February 2, 2021. See also Leah Zallmen et al., “Care for America’s Elderly and Disabled People Relies on Immigrant Labor,” Health Affairs, vol. 38, no. 6 (2019); Otavio Blanco, “Immigrant Workers Are Most Likely to Have These Jobs,” CNN Money, March 1, 2017.
  15. Linda Burnham and Nik Theodore, Home Economics: The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work (National Domestic Workers Alliance, 2012).
  16. Arlie Russell Hochschild, “Love and Gold,” The Scholar and Feminist Online, vol. 8, no. 1 (2009).
  17. In 2005, the House Appropriations Committee held hearings about the separation of children from their parents by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), including separating nursing infants from their mothers. “Children who are apprehended by DHS while in the company of their parents are not ‘unaccompanied,’” the committee wrote into their annual funding bill, warning the agency to stop the practice. A member of the California delegation introduced the “Keeping Families Together Act.” Christopher Nugent and Steven Schulman, “Giving Voice to the Vulnerable: On Representing Detained Immigrant and Refugee Children,” Interpreter Releases, vol. 78, no. 39 (2001).
  18. Nugent and Schulman, “Giving Voice to the Vulnerable”; Dora Schriro, “Weeping in the Playtime of Others: The Obama Administration’s Failed Reform of ICE Family Detention Practices,” Journal on Migration and Human Security, vol. 5, no. 2 (2017).
  19. Ajay Chaudry et al., “Facing Our Future,” Urban Institute, June 4, 2010; Seth Freed Wessler, “Thousands of Kids Lost from Parents In U.S. Deportation System,” Colorlines, November 2, 2011.
  20. Nicole Narea, “Biden Is Quietly Enforcing One of Trump’s Most Anti-Immigrant Policies,” Vox, April 29, 2021; Oona Hathaway, Mark Stevens, and Preston Lim, “COVID-19 and International Law: Refugee Law—The Principle of Non-Refoulement,” Just Security, November 30, 2020.
  21. Human Rights First, The Bridge, and Al Otro Lado, “Failure to Protect: Biden Administration Continues Illegal Trump Policy to Block and Expel Asylum Seekers to Danger,” Human Rights First, April 2021.
Featured image: US Customs and Border Patrol temporary processing facilities in Donna, Texas (2021). Photograph by Jaime Rodriguez Sr. / Flickr