Opinion: The cost of crossing

Why do many lawmakers insist that the law only applies to immigrants when it criminalizes them but not when it protects them?

Editor's note: Trigger warning — The following story mentions rape and similar themes. For immediate assistance, call ASU's 24-hour crisis line at 480-921-1006.

Sex trafficking and sexual assault is an epidemic across the nation, with nearly 11,000 cases reported by the National Human Trafficking Hotline in 2018 alone. But the face of sexual assault and human trafficking is particularly disturbing in border states like Arizona. 

Female immigrants are often subjected to brutal rape and sexual assault caused by human traffickers on their journey from Latin America to the U.S. border. These traffickers use sex as payment for helping the immigrants cross the dangerous border terrain. According to Amnesty International, six in 10 immigrant women and girls are sexually assaulted during their travels. 

This has been going on for decades, and yet Arizonans are only just now becoming aware of how widespread the problem truly is. A number of people fail to see the magnitude of human trafficking and rape at the border. 

The traumatic and gruesome sexual violence women face crossing the border rightfully receives the anger of those on many sides of the political spectrum, but this public outrage fades when immigrant women face sexual violence at the hands of federal immigration officers, figures vested with authority who are supposed to uphold the law and be held to a higher standard.

It is crucial to draw the line between morality and legality. Without this, people may mistake the law as a morally-binding system. The justice system, however, often completely lacks empathy and even humanity.

In 2004, 16-year-old Cyntoia Brown killed a man in self-defense, after being forced by her pimp to have sex with him. She was sentenced to life in prison. The justice system completely lacked compassion and understanding of her intense circumstances, until they finally released her from prison upon gaining national attention and serving 15 years. 

While Brown was lucky enough to garner celebrity attention and genuine sympathy from the Twitter mob, many others are not so lucky and suffer due to a frequently unforgiving legal system.

Many people view immigrants entering the U.S. illegally with distrust and disdain, as evidenced by the comment sections on the Breitbart and Infowars websites, but fail to empathize with the reasons and hardships driving their immigration to the U.S.

Undocumented immigrants need to be viewed as human beings fleeing humanitarian crises instead of as components of crime statistics.

“When a crime is committed against an undocumented migrant, too many people will say, ‘Well, because of your legal status, you do not deserve any legal protection.’ This makes it extremely difficult to hold people accountable,” Reslie Cortes, graduate teaching assistant specializing in gender communication at ASU, said.

This is not to say that illegal immigration is a positive thing, as it increases opportunities for sex trafficking to occur and proves to be a heavy financial burden on American taxpayers, with dollar estimations at $54 billion, according to Robert Rector, a senior research fellow for the Heritage Foundation. 

But the way that many extremists view immigrants who cross the border illegally is dehumanizing and disturbing. The fact that anyone could justify the rape or violence toward an individual because of another crime they committed is morally and objectively horrifying. 

Immigrants who come to America illegally are still subjected to this country’s laws. We use these laws to persecute people and highlight their criminal behavior, and yet fail to use the law as a source of protection. Why are so many Americans supportive of the law when it criminalizes undocumented immigrants but silent when crimes are committed against immigrants? 

The inhumane treatment toward immigrants by lawmakers extends beyond the immigrants themselves, imposing serious criminal penalties on anybody who is found helping an immigrant. ASU professor Scott Warren was arrested and is facing felony charges for providing undocumented immigrants with water, food and linens near the border. 

Criminalizing humanity will be the downfall of our free society. Legislators have been doing this for years without enough people realizing it. Law exists to provide order to a chaotic world, not to crush the humanity that seeks to live in it. 

Rape and sexual assault should be debated and talked about more seriously than crossing the border illegally, but in America, they are not. This violence is so deeply ingrained in our society that even “respected” figures of authority are frequent perpetrators of this violence. 

“While ICE bears responsibility for what happens to immigrants, the reality is that is our legal system has prevented people to come to the U.S.,” said C. Elenes, an associate professor at the School of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies. “As a public, we are not holding our elected officials accountable for not passing comprehensive immigration reform, even when most people do believe something needs to be done. To me, ICE is a symptom of a larger problem.”

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers have had multiple sexual assault and rape cases filed against them. In recent years, there have been thousands of alleged cases of sexual assault and rape in immigrant detention centers, many by federal immigration officers specifically.

In July 2019, a Yuma ICE officer allegedly groped a 15-year-old girl under her bra during a “routine” pat-down inspection. She claimed that he laughed about it with the other officers and spoke in English during the assault, according to a report obtained by NBC News. 

There have been thousands of immigrants like her nationwide, including young children, who have reported cases of sexual assault by supposed authority figures. These authority figures, like the human smugglers who exploit female immigrants during their travels, have full control of immigrants. This includes controlling where they sleep, what they eat and what they are allowed to do. 

If society cannot hold law enforcement officers — described as the “very best” by the president — up to its own standards, how can it expect others to follow?

Any ICE or U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent who sexual assaults or rapes an immigrant — or anyone else — should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. In order to prevent America from turning into a police state, society must stop giving massive breaks to authority figures. It is the job of authority figures to uphold laws, but it’s up to society to hold law enforcement to a higher standard.

“If ICE officers have a job to keep immigrants out, they are not going to have a very humanistic perspective on this group of people they have been employed to control and deport,” Cortes said. “(Immigrants) can make up such a vulnerable population that it becomes difficult for (ICE) to see any reason not to take advantage of this power that they have.”

ICE agents are allegedly some of the biggest perpetrators of dehumanizing immigrants who cross the border illegally. This is most clearly seen through the revelation of an incredibly disturbing Facebook group chat, which includes thousands of border control agents posting dehumanizing, violent messages and photos involving undocumented immigrants.

The group, which is called “I’m 10-15,” includes racial slurs and generally degrading comments about immigrants. 

This depicts a disgusting display of authority abusing power. We, the people, need to hold these officers accountable for their actions in the same way that we hold immigrants illegally in the United States accountable for theirs.

We must stop imposing this judicial bias on undocumented immigrants. The violation of crossing a border illegally will never compare to the violation of someone’s autonomy, and the law should reflect that. 

This is not a plea to give legal breaks to immigrants who cross the border illegally but rather just to see and promote the humanity of immigrants. Committing an illegal act should not subject one to disturbing and humiliating treatment, especially when their crime is less morally reprehensible than the one inflicted on them. 

It is possible to see the humanity in others while still upholding the law. It is impossible to justify abusers upholding the law while simultaneously excusing repeated human rights violations. 

The allegations faced by CBP officers for sexual assault and rape may only be the tip of the iceberg, and we should be prepared to fight back against violent and oppressive authority figures in order to preserve the ability to see humanity among humans.

Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author's and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.


Reach the columnist at amsnyde6@asu.edu or follow @AnnieSnyder718 on Twitter.

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