|ALAMO, April 30 - Sexual assault has recently been in the headlines in South Texas. Especially now, since April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
Sadly, it should always be like this because sexual assault can affect anyone regardless of sex, gender, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic class, and it can happen anywhere.
Sexual assault happens on the street. Stranger rape, as it’s often known, is the stuff of real life, not just of TV shows and horror movies. More often, however, the victim knows the perpetrator. Approximately two-thirds of individuals who were sexually assaulted knew the person who raped them.
Sexual assault also happens at work and at home, as part of domestic violence. It happens to servers in restaurants, domestic workers in private homes, migrant workers in the field, even spouses and partners at home. In an abusive relationship, where one partner tries to control what the other does, sexual assault can be a way of trying to show who is in control: a punishment for “bad” behavior or a warning about what can happen if you don’t act “right”.
Here, near the border, sexual assault often has yet another dimension: immigration status. The journey to the US sometimes has a high, incalculable cost: many immigrants have reported being raped by their smugglers as a condition for “safe” passage from Central America through Mexico and into the United States. But the danger doesn’t end once they have crossed the border, as shown most recently in March when a Border Patrol agent picked up three Honduran women, including two teenagers, and raped them. The situation is similarly dire in immigration detention, where reports of sexual assault by officials are not brought to justice and the application of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) is recent and incomplete.
For many undocumented victims, the fear of being deported overrides just about every other consideration, making them seem like easy targets for assailants. The Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) has succeeded in helping many undocumented survivors of domestic violence, including sexual assault, break away from their abusers thanks to the protections of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).
Another immigration program helps undocumented crime victims, including survivors of sexual assault, who cooperate with law enforcement. This U Visa, as it is called, requires the individual survivor to get a certification from a law enforcement official certifying that she has been helpful, and different jurisdictions have different standards for granting this certification.
Here in Hidalgo County, a top law enforcement official has refused to grant these certifications after publicly taking the position that these immigrant victims knew—and accepted—the risks of entering the US without authorization. In his view, being raped is a fair price to pay for trying to enter this country. The result is a routine denial of certifications—and justice—for victims of rape and other human rights abuses.
Sexual Assault Awareness Month is a time to honor survivors of sexual assault, condemn victim-blaming tactics, and take steps that can prevent sexual assault and improve justice for survivors.
Anjela Jenkins and Efrén C. Olivares work for the South Texas Civil Rights Project.