White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Friday that President Donald Trump finds the high risk of sexual assault faced by women migrating through Mexico to seek entry to the U.S. “simply unacceptable” and said the issue will need to be looked at, though she provided no indication of what the administration may do to address the problem.
Sanders faced questions at Friday’s press briefing following comments by President Trump at a tax reform event in West Virginia Thursday in which he recalled one of his most controversial campaign statements and attempted to link it to violence migrant women face south of the border.
“And remember my opening remarks at Trump Tower, when I opened,” Trump said. “Everybody said, ‘Oh, he was so tough,’ and I used the word ‘rape.’ And yesterday, it came out where, this journey coming up, women are raped at levels that nobody has ever seen before. They don’t want to mention that.”
It was not immediately clear what he was talking about. The White House has since pointed to a 2014 Fusion story the president has cited before that claims 80 percent of migrant women are sexually assaulted while crossing Mexico.
Sanders referred to a Los Angeles Times article posted Wednesday that mentioned robberies, rapes, and assaults are common for people making the arduous journey through Mexico, but it made no reference to the risk being higher than before. Some have also questioned how that information relates to the 2015 comment about undocumented immigrants and crime that Trump recalled.
"When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” Trump said in the 2015 Trump Tower speech that launched his campaign. “They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people."
Critics have accused Trump of race-baiting and fear-mongering by reviving his baseless claim that Mexico sends rapists to the U.S. in this context.
“This should not be brushed off simply as Trump ‘at it again’ or ‘just playing to the base,’” wrote Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post. “Trump is inciting racial animosity and smearing millions of immigrants by making a racially incendiary allegation not backed up by facts.”
Confusion was also caused by the fact that Trump’s comments came minutes after a mention of the caravan of Honduran asylum-seekers that has drawn his attention all week. Members of that caravan told reporters no rapes have occurred, and one reason the large group traveled together was to prevent anyone from being subject to abuse or violence.
“I’ve been with the caravan for 12 days and haven’t seen or heard of anyone being ‘raped at levels that nobody has ever seen before,’” tweeted BuzzFeed reporter Adolfo Flores, adding, "To be clear I haven’t heard of anyone being raped in or around the caravan."
Just asked one of the caravan organizers if there were any reports of rape on the caravan.— Adolfo Flores (@aflores) April 5, 2018
"No," said Rodrigo Abeja. "None whatsoever."
The White House maintained that Trump was referring generally to the sexual assaults of women attempting to reach the U.S. through Mexico.
"Not sure why the media is acting like this isn't a well-established fact --women and young girls are brutally victimized on the journey north," Sanders said in a statement to Fox News. "Strikes me as quite bizarre that reporters would try to cover up the gross atrocities perpetuated by smugglers and coyotes."
There is no dispute that many female migrants are sexually victimized while traveling to the U.S., but exact numbers are hard to come by. There have been reports of women and girls carrying birth control pills and condoms to avoid being impregnated by those they encounter on the way.
Estimates by experts and advocacy groups vary. Fusion’s 80 percent figure is based on data from migrant shelter directors. Amnesty International reported in 2010 that 60 percent of women trying to cross the border are raped.
“Every year, thousands of migrants are kidnapped, threatened or assaulted by members of criminal gangs,” Amnesty wrote in its 2010 report titled “Invisible Victims: Migrants on the Move in Mexico.” “Extortion and sexual violence are widespread and many migrants go missing or are killed. Few of these abuses are reported and in most cases those responsible are never held to account.”
Based on a survey of 467 migrants and refugees and data from its clinics, a 2016 report by Médecins Sans Frontières stated that nearly one-third of the women had been sexually assaulted. The report, “Forced to Flee Central America’s Northern Triangle,” also found that 68.3 percent of all respondents—many of whom were fleeing violence and abuse in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala—were victims of some kind of violence during their transit through Mexico, primarily by gangs and corrupt members of Mexican security forces.
“What we can say is it’s actually quite prevalent…,” said Christopher Wilson, deputy director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center. “It’s something that happens way more often than it should.”
Mexico has taken some steps to combat human trafficking and violence against migrants in the border region, but the U.S. State Department has said more work is needed.
According to the State Department’s 2017 Trafficking in Persons report, Mexico is “making significant efforts” to meet the minimum standards to eliminate human trafficking. Trafficking convictions are rising, victims being identified and provided with support, and new anti-trafficking measures have been implemented in the travel and tourism sector.
However, official complicity and corruption remained a largely unaddressed problem, shelters were inadequate, and victim services were unavailable in much of the country, creating a risk of re-trafficking. The Mexican government identified 707 victims of sex trafficking in 2016, down from 784 in 2015.
“There’s been an effort in Mexico to protect migrants along their journey, but those efforts are complicated by the fact that if someone is in the country in an authorized fashion, they’re unlikely to turn to authorities for protection,” Wilson said.
Also complicating those efforts is an inability to effectively prosecute those who commit the sexual assaults if they are reported.
“The overall challenge is the Mexican justice system,” Wilson said. “The level of impunity for many crimes is very high.”
Since these assaults are happening in Mexico, the U.S. role in combatting them is limited. One option is to help Mexico improve its justice system so migrants can be confident their cases will be handled appropriately. Another is to process Central Americans as refugees and approve their entry before they leave their home country so they can travel legally without fear of being sent back.
“The best solution would be finding a way to regularize flows of people seeking asylum or refugee status to escape violence and poverty in their home communities,” Wilson said.
The U.S. has already been working with the Mexican agency that handles refugee and asylum applications to increase its capacity to process claims quickly. When applicants can get approved to stay in Mexico, they are increasingly choosing to stay there rather than continuing on to the U.S. border.
Another option favored by some conservatives is to make coming to the U.S. illegally so unappealing and so onerous that people no longer try. Wilson acknowledged that may work in some cases, but he observed that it is already quite difficult and dangerous.
“It’s hard to imagine a journey more difficult than one where you have a high possibility of being sexually assaulted, and thousands of people are taking that path,” he said.
If one’s concern is for the migrant’s wellbeing, though, that approach does not solve the problem. It just leaves them at risk of violence in a different place.
“Unfortunately, they’d still be in harm’s way at home, which is why they’re leaving in the first place,” Wilson said.
An expectation that Trump will implement hardline immigration policies may already be discouraging some from venturing to the U.S. Apprehensions for illegal border crossings fell to their lowest levels in four decades during his first year in office, though they spiked by 37 percent in March 2018.
“People have re-evaluated and they’re starting to come back again,” Randy Capps of the Migration Policy Institute told Time. “This looks like the beginning of another pretty significant wave of people coming, but obviously with one month data point, it’s too early to tell.”
If those considering coming to the U.S. illegally have come to doubt that Trump’s heated campaign rhetoric on immigration will translate into policy, dramatic measures like deploying the National Guard to the border may be aimed at sending the message that the trip is not worth the risk.
The Justice Department announced Friday that it is implementing a “zero tolerance” policy for prosecuting those who attempt to cross the border illegally. U.S. attorney’s offices along the border are being directed to prosecute all cases referred to them by the Department of Homeland Security.
“To those who wish to challenge the Trump Administration’s commitment to public safety, national security, and the rule of law, I warn you: illegally entering this country will not be rewarded, but will instead be met with the full prosecutorial powers of the Department of Justice,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement.
“To the Department’s prosecutors, I urge you: promoting and enforcing the rule of law is vital to protecting a nation, its borders, and its citizens. You play a critical part in fulfilling these goals, and I thank you for your continued efforts in seeing to it that our laws—and as a result, our nation—are respected.”
According to Wilson, the U.S. has been increasing prosecutions and formal removals for several years, and it has had some impact.
“It’s proving to be much more effective with Mexican migrants than with migrants from Central America,” he said.
The women and children who are traveling from countries like Honduras are not trying to slip across the border illegally, though. They often plan to turn themselves in to be processed for asylum legally.
“Those who are most vulnerable along the journey are those who will be least deterred by those types of changes to border enforcement policy,” Wilson said.