They’re found along the US-Mexican border. Trees decorated in bras and underwear in varying colours and sizes, fluttering in the breeze. You might think it’s absurd or even funny, looking at a tree decorated in underpants, except that these trees are much more sinister. They are the ‘rape trees’ used to commemorate conquests, decorated with undergarments from the estimated 60% of women and girls crossing the border who face sexual assault. They are a sinister reminder of the dangers of the border crossing, not something funny at all.
The history of US-Mexican policy is tangled and complex, but one thing is certain: Many of the policies advanced by the US have directly harmed Mexico and the Mexican people, NAFTA among them. That includes policies that destroy agrarian communities, forcing Mexican women into urban areas or along the border to work in the maquiladoras because there is nothing at home for them other than a risk of starvation. And it forces them across the border into the United States in the hopes of jobs and an income large enough to build better chances.
As the fevered debate over immigration policy in the United States persists, a very real cost in human lives continues at the borders. Crossing the desert is dangerous in and of itself; it is hot, it is dry, there are dangerous animals there. If you don’t have a good guide or you attempt to cross on your own with poor directions, you can starve or dehydrate, and your body may not be found for weeks, months, or even years, because the desert is a large place. Meanwhile, you have to dodge the vigilantes who have appointed themselves guardians of the border, along with the actual Border Patrol, an organisation with its own history of rampant abuses.
And, if you are a woman or girl, you must also fear sexual assault. The coyotes who bring women across the border may turn to rape, as do cartel members involved in human trafficking. It’s hard to collect accurate statistics on the epidemic of rape at the border because many women don’t report or discuss it, but the numbers that have been gleaned are staggering, and point to unimaginable horrors perpetrated on those who are willing to cross the border at all costs; and who may not know about those costs until it is too late to change their minds.
Women who have been subjected to sexual assault while crossing the border have few legal options. They cannot exactly report it to US law enforcement, because they have no documents and face deportation. Even if they do, there may be limited opportunities for action when the perpetrators are long-gone, preparing for an assault on a new batch of women and girls getting ready to cross the border. Women caught by the Border Patrol may be afraid to report rapes, especially since the Border Patrol withholds care for rape victims, including abortions for women who end up with unwanted pregnancies.
Anti-immigration advocates have used the rape trees to their advantage, arguing that they’re a clear argument for cracking down on immigration. They’re just, they tell us, thinking of all those innocent women and girls, and they want to protect them from sexual assault while trying to cross the border. They say the solution to this problem is, of course, more border security. More fences, more officers, more drones, more militarisation of the US-Mexico border to make it even more difficult to cross. This, surely, will solve the problem.
There is a determined refusal to accept that cracking down on immigration does not make immigration stop. It drives it even deeper underground. Forcing people to go to more elaborate means to immigrate exposes them to even more risks, because the people controlling the movement across the border have more power. Women and girls who cannot immigrate legally must take their chances in increasingly dangerous situations, including those laden with false promises; women may be promised jobs on the other side, may be assured that there will be opportunities for them, only to arrive and find out that they owe their ‘helpers’ vast sums of money that they’re ‘invited’ to work off; housing and food might even be provided, though of course at a fee.
The more immigration is criminalised, the harder it is to find and tackle the real criminals, those who take advantage of vulnerable and desperate people. And the harder it is for both the US and Mexican governments to take action on the rape crisis at the border. The rape crisis is connected with a larger internal security crisis within Mexico, one which the US wants Mexico to abandon to focus on the drug war, which it considers the main priority. The US is bringing all its pressure to bear on the Mexican government while increasing anti-immigrant rhetoric, and yet, it seems surprised when human rights organisations point out that the border is a human rights disaster, one that should rightly be drawing global attention and commentary, one that the United States should be deeply ashamed of, because it has played a huge role in the manufacture of that crisis.
When immigrants are dehumanised and forced deeper and deeper underground, it is inevitable that they should be viewed as prey, and unsurprising that border crossings should become rife with danger for those who attempt them. All eyes are on the United States right now, and it long past time to see if the nation will do the right thing.