Latina immigrant women and children’s well-being and access to services after detention

The information in this blog is part of Esperanza United’s report, available to download at the bottom of this page. Please see the original report for information and proper citation.

Since 2011, the United States has seen a dramatic increase in the arrival of Latina immigrant women and their children, primarily from countries in the northern triangle of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras). During the last two years, the U.S. government apprehended more than 150,000 immigrant family units, primarily Central American women traveling with their children. Evidence suggests that Central American women’s motivations to migrate and experiences during migration are often tied to violence, and yet their experiences after arriving in the U.S. do not always support their rights, recovery, safety, or healing. In fact, Central American women and children apprehended and detained in detention centers in the United States are often fleeing from domestic violence, sexual violence, and the highest rates of femicide in the world. Many women present themselves at the U.S.-Mexico border, seeking safety for themselves and their children, yet may be detained and possibly separated from their children.

Those who travel alone or who have been separated from their children may remain detained for months, or in some cases indefinitely, as they pursue their asylum claims. While any period of time in detention is considered harmful, the longer women are in detention, the greater the risk of re-traumatization for them and their children. Women in the northern triangle of Central America (i.e., El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) experience a range of violence, including domestic violence, sexual violence, and femicide. The most recent global data on femicide, the gender-motivated killing of women and girls, list El Salvador as having the highest rate in the world, with Guatemala and Honduras not far behind. Femicide rates in El Salvador, for example, surpass overall rates of homicide in countries with the world’s highest homicide rates. The United Nations describes femicide as increasing in prevalence and experiencing widespread impunity, particularly in Central America.

A growing body of literature recognizes the role violence plays in motivations to migrate and transnational migration as a strategy to escape or resist violence and oppression. The migration process, however, poses further risks of violence, and Central American women are vulnerable to verbal and physical abuse, sexual violence, exploitation or human trafficking, and other forms of violence on the route through Mexico to the U.S. Furthermore, many women face additional gender-based violence and labor exploitation once in the United States. Gender inequality, social isolation, economic insecurity, and legal vulnerability contribute to their experiences of violence before, during, and after migrating to the U.S.

 Additionally, women face multiple barriers to safety and support, including language barriers, lack of awareness or information (as well as misinformation), fear of immigration consequences, gender role expectations, and shame. Despite potentially being eligible for a variety of immigration relief options, including domestic violence-based asylum, women are often detained, sometimes with their young children, in large residential, locked facilities without access to legal representation or other services.

Negative and enduring bio-psycho-social impacts of detention compound the violence women may have experienced before and during migration, which may result in high levels of trauma. Empirical evidence suggests that the effects of detention on previously traumatized populations may include self-harm, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts, depression, traumatic stress, and anxiety. This negative emotional impact of detention has been well documented in the literature. Detention is related to increased vulnerability to additional traumatic events and suicide and may produce lasting psychological harm, as well as an overall increased need for mental health services. Given this research, in combination with contemporary reports of overt acts of violence, abuse and harassment, the treatment and conditions in detention are the subject of growing concern among activists, practitioners, and immigrant rights advocates. Unfortunately, little is known about the needs and experiences of women in preparation for and following release from detention, though many advocates and practitioners are concerned about social isolation and lack of access to supports and services.

This brief describes findings of a research study that seeks to understand the experiences of Latina women and their children when seeking asylum due to gender based violence and to document the experiences of those who have been detained while seeking asylum for gender based violence, the consequences of detention on survivors of violence, and post-detention service needs. By understanding the process of detention and how Latinas experience detention and possible re-traumatization and re-victimization, as well as the unique needs and services required to assist survivors throughout detention and upon release from detention, well-informed policy recommendations and practice priorities can be developed to promote trauma-informed approaches at every point. Learn what migrant women and children experience when they reach the U.S. border and after they’re detained in the full report below.

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