Migrant women grapple with restrictive U.S. abortion laws after sexual violence

In recent years, the rise of irregular migration has offered the Gulf Cartel another lucrative opportunity: It is kidnapping migrants for ransom and weaponizing sexual violence as yet another form of extortion. 

“They undressed me in front of my husband and started beating me because I told them I didn’t have any money,” she said. “‘Then you’ll pay us with your body,’” the cartel replied, she said. NBC News couldn’t corroborate her testimony, but three other migrants interviewed for this article described almost identical experiences. 

Throughout the years, organized crime groups have leveraged the long waiting periods migrants have been subjected to on the Mexican side of the border. The waiting periods are the result of policies such as former President Donald Trump’s Title 42, the pandemic-era law that allowed the government to turn away migrants, including asylum-seekers, at the border, as well as the Remain in Mexico program and, more recently, President Joe Biden’s CBP One App process. All of those policies have pushed migrants to wait in some of Mexico’s most dangerous cities until their immigration appointments are scheduled, which may take months.

Jennifer Harbury, an activist and lawyer who has been advocating for human rights in Latin and Central America for over 40 years, denounced the recent policies.

“These are mothers with tiny children, young men who have refused to become drug smugglers, old people who have been pushed out of their homes,” she said. “They’ve been through hell on Earth, and they’re dying because we [the U.S.] keep pushing them back. We’re killing refugees.”  

Custom and Border Protection didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. According to CBP, the “use of the CBP One™ app to schedule appointments at land ports of entry has increased CBP’s capacity to process migrants more efficiently and orderly while cutting out unscrupulous smugglers who endanger and profit from vulnerable migrants.”

Some migrants disagree. 

“Right now, many people are getting on buses and asking [passengers] if they are going to their appointments,” said a young Mexican woman who decided to migrate to the U.S. because of escalating violence from cartel factions operating in her region.

She has seen the way the cartels are systemically exploiting the situation. “Some people say yes and they are taken off the bus, their bags are checked, and they are stripped of all their money. They are also beaten so the captors can send a video to their family members and show that they are truly kidnapped. With these appointments, everything is spiraling out of control.”

Taking matters into their own hands

The politics of abortion in the U.S. is affecting migrants who have been victims of sexual assault on their way to the border, such as the Honduran asylum-seeker who was confronted with the Texas abortion ban.

Weeks after she went through her own self-managed medication abortion, she came across an unexpected opportunity in Texas: She found five doses of misoprostol, one of the abortion pills she once used. She knew she could be penalized for distributing the pills, but she decided to break the state’s law and help other women going through similar situations.

“I have two options: Either I harm my record or I help — I said, ‘I prefer to help, and whatever happens happens.’” She gave her last dose to a recently arrived migrant in Texas who also learned she was pregnant after she entered the U.S. “She told me, ‘I just got here, and I am pregnant. I need the pills.’ I said, ‘OK, I am going to drop them off.’” 

In doing so, not only did the Honduran migrant go against the state’s law, but she also risked her own immigration status in a state that is trying to impose criminal penalties on migrants.

Yet she said the urge to help outweighed her fear. It drove her to lend a hand to a group of people trapped in the dangerous overlap of America’s immigration and abortion policies — a gray zone migrants may not fathom as they’re making their way north, toward that so-called American Dream.

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