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Women Migrants in Detention in Mexico: Conditions and Due Process
By Gabriela Diaz and Gretchen Kuhner
A woman sits in the yard of the Mexico City Detention Center.
Mexico, similar to other countries across the globe, has restrictive migration policies to address regional security, irregular migration, and the rule of law. The most stringent policy relates to transit migrants trying to reach the United States.
Approximately 400,000 migrants transit through Mexico each year in order to reach the United States (see Part 1:
Women Migrants in Transit and Detention in Mexico). Although men dominate this flow, a migration survey by Mexico's National Population Council (Consejo Nacional de Población or CONAPO) found in 2004 that Guatemalan women accounted for 18 percent of the flow along the Mexico-Guatemala border.
As many solutions to the transit migration problem — including strong commitments from Central American countries — are neither politically nor economically viable in the short term, Mexico has opted for a policy that focuses on apprehension, detention, and expedited deportation.
While Mexico has increasingly streamlined this system in recent years, issues of due process and proper screening for cases requiring special protection remain unresolved. Existing reports on detained women migrants in Mexico show they are vulnerable to sexual harassment and abuse.
This article analyzes the situation of women migrants held in detention centers in Mexico. It explains the detention system's structure and some of the recurring problems, highlighting the latter with information from women interviewed in the Mexico City Detention Center.
Finally, it discusses some of Mexico's new procedures for migrant detention, why they may further jeopardize due-process guarantees, and what they mean for women requiring protection.
Migrant Detention in Context
In 2005 and 2006, the researchers conducted documentary research and interviewed 90 women migrant detainees in Mexico City, government and consular officials, and NGO staff. Additional interviews with authorities and NGOs, and documentary research were conducted in 2007 to incorporate information on new procedures.
The Mexico City Detention Center was chosen because all migrants from countries outside of Central America were concentrated there. In addition, at the time of the interviews, all Central American migrants apprehended in central or northern Mexico were transferred to the Mexico City Detention Center for processing, making it possible to interview these women as well.
The interview pool was selected based on the percentages of nationalities of women detainees in the Mexico City Detention Center during 2004, but the sample framework was variable (each day the population was different). It was not a random sample as there was some control over the nationality, age, and place of detention of the women interviewed.
Nonetheless, the 90 women interviewed are a representative sample of the women detained during the spring of 2005.
Ninety-one percent of the women (2,674 of 2,912) in the Mexico City Detention Center in 2005 were Latin American. Those from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras made up nearly half of the Latin American female population and 42 percent of the total female detainee population.
The remaining 9 percent of women detainees came from countries including Bulgaria, China, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Hungary, Sri Lanka, Ukraine, and the United States.
Although women from 22 countries were interviewed, 93 percent of the interviewees were from Latin American countries.
In the last decade, the practice of detaining migrants has intensified worldwide as transit and destination countries attempt to address irregular migration.
The United Kingdom's Border Agency recently announced it plans to increase its detention space 60 percent on top of hundreds of new detention beds already planned. In the United States, Immigration and Customs Enforcement more than tripled the number of detention beds for noncitizens between 1994 and 2006, from fewer than 7,500 to 26,500 according to a recent analysis by US journalist Forrest Wilder.
Analyzing the situation of detained migrants, especially across countries, is difficult for various reasons.
First, most governments do not easily grant researchers access to their facilities.
Second, detention policies and practices vary from one country to another, complicating comparisons.
Third, as governments respond to changing migration flows, they are constantly changing the number of centers, personnel involved, and procedures to manage migrants.
Finally, regarding the treatment of detained women migrants, few statistics are disaggregated by sex. Reports by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have revealed that such women need specific types of medical care and should be screened for certain abuses and protection needs.
Detention Centers in Mexico
The Mexican Migration Institute (Instituto Nacional de Migración or INM) reports that it maintains 48 permanent detention centers and as many as 116 additional spaces for housing migrants on a national level. These include immigration offices and, on occasion, jail cells.
In line with trends elsewhere, the number of detention centers has more than doubled since 2000, when INM reported having just 22 detention centers.
INM began ramping up its infrastructure in 2000 by expanding the detention center in Mexico City and then remodeling some of the smaller centers. In 2006, INM opened its largest detention center in Tapachula, Chiapas, which holds 960 migrants.
The 48 centers are located in 23 of Mexico's 32 states and the Federal District (Mexico City). They are divided into three categories according to space, types of facilities, and administrative capacity.
For example, three large detention centers are authorized to carry out administrative procedures and have separate spaces for men, women and families, and medical facilities. These are located in Saltillo, Coahuila, near the northern border; Mexico City; and the new Tapachula center, which is near the border with Guatemala.
In addition to these centers, two others — in Acayucan, Veracruz, and Juhro, Chihuahua — are currently under construction. INM manages the centers with security from local or federal police forces.
The executive order on detention facilities of November 26, 2001, provides for separating men and women and for setting aside areas for families, psychiatric patients, and carriers of infectious diseases. The guards in the women's sleeping quarters must be women.
In addition, the executive order states that detained individuals must be assigned a dormitory and given a mat and articles for personal hygiene. They also have the right to receive food three times a day.
Despite the executive order, the United Nations and Organization of American States (OAS) Special Rapporteurs, the Mexican National Human Rights Commission, and Mexican civil society have highlighted recurring problems with Mexico's detention centers.
The most often mentioned and most highly visible are related to overcrowding, lack of hygiene, poor access to or poor-quality food, and poor treatment by authorities.
Concerns specific to women migrants include the fact that some security guards and attending physicians are men, which has occasionally resulted in accusations of sexual harassment and abuse. In addition, women have specific medical problems that they may want to disclose only to female medical personnel.
The reports also point out that the administrative procedures for determining deportation often lack fundamental elements of due process, such as consular protection and the right to legal assistance.
Women in the Mexico City Detention Center
According to INM, women migrants detained and deported from Mexico represent approximately 20 percent of annual flows. While the majority of these women are from Central America (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador), some 5 percent are from other Latin America countries and various parts of the world.
Based on the total number of detentions during 2005 and 2006, approximately 42,000 women migrants were detained per year on a national level, and approximately 2,000 of these were from countries outside of Central America.
The Mexico City Detention Center held 2,912 women in 2005. It has a separate area for women with 100 beds. In 2005, the average stay for women from Central America was between two and seven days, while women from outside of Central America stayed from two weeks to three months or more depending on their nationality, access to consular protection, and whether or not they had filed a legal claim.
The interviews that were held with women migrants in detention included a series of questions that covered the moment that they were detained, how they were transferred to the Mexico City Detention Center, what conditions they had experienced, and a series of questions about treatment and administrative procedures (due-process guarantees) (see Sidebar for details on methodology).
We were detained by one INM agent who told us that we couldn't get on the bus because we were "illegals." He took us to a jail in León (Guanajuato) where we were detained for seven days. We couldn't bathe and we were not allowed to make a phone call. The food was horrible — they served us rotten eggs and beans.
Rosa, Guatemalan, 20 years old
We were detained for five days in Mazatlán, but it was much better there than it is here [in the Mexico City Detention Center]. Even though we slept on the floor there, they treated us much better, they brought us food that we asked for from the store. The guards were very kind. They let us watch their television — the channel and the shows that we wanted — and they let us go outside and use the phone. It was Mother's Day, and they brought us a cake. It was the best cake that I have ever tasted, with cream and everything...
Eulalia, Salvadoran, 19 years old
The majority of the women interviewed were first taken to an INM office, detention center, jail, or other location "habilitated" for detaining migrants. More than 90 percent of these women were held in these locations for less than a week.
In most cases, the women were held in an INM office, but in some cases they described being held in a jail with Mexicans awaiting criminal proceedings. As of 2006, and after several recommendations from the Mexican National Human Rights Commission pointing out the unconstitutionality of the practice, INM has enacted a policy against detaining migrants in jail cells.
The women described very different conditions depending on where they were first held, demonstrating a need for improved infrastructure and uniform procedures.
Physical conditions in the Mexico City Detention Center
The women are allowed to remain in an enclosed patio area during the day and are locked in the sleeping quarters at night. Each sleeping cell has three to six bunk beds and a private bathroom with communal showers.
During the day, the women are fed three meals and have access to drinking water. They are also allowed to do craft projects. There is a small store where they may purchase snack foods, telephone cards, and personal hygiene items.
Overcrowding and food/water access improved after the detention center was remodeled in 2002. While some women still sleep on mattresses on the floor, new deportation procedures implemented in 2006 mean overcrowding has been further reduced, and women rarely sleep directly on the concrete floor.
Access to water for bathing and washing clothes is restricted, but this is a result of a general problem in the neighborhood where the detention center is located. The three meals are generally adequate although the women complained about the lack of variety and spoiled food.
Treatment in the detention center
The guards mistreat me because I don't understand them. They shout at me as if I can't hear them instead of trying to explain the directions I need to follow. It's rough to be in a place where I don't understand anything… and nobody understands me. Nobody talks to me or helps me… They wouldn't let me visit the doctor at first, and when I finally did get to see him, he didn't understand me…"
Kelly, Jamaican, 34 years old
One-fourth of the women interviewed stated they had been treated with violence or aggression by INM personnel since arriving at the detention center. The majority of these women complained about aggressive and discriminatory comments, while two women said they had been physically mistreated.
Only five of the women mistreated had formally complained. The rest said they did not complain because they did not want to create more problems, they thought complaining would prolong the deportation process, or they did not know how to make a complaint.
Due to the stress that detention represents for women migrants, many become sick once arriving at the detention center, or they try to attend to injuries or illnesses they were trying to ignore during the journey. Of the women we interviewed, 52 percent said that they had felt sick during their stay in the detention center.
Basic due-process guarantees include the right to information, translation, and interpretation, the right to be heard, the right to an impartial and accountable adjudicator, the right to legal representation, the right to judicial review, and the right to consular access.
The Mexican government faces the challenge of providing due-process guarantees to unauthorized migrants while also helping the majority return home safely and quickly.
In practice, the government implements due-process guarantees unevenly. One problem is that many authorities participate in the detention process before turning migrants over to migration officials. As a result, the initial information collected about the circumstances leading to detention is not always clear.
In theory, a recent reform decriminalizing undocumented entry should return migration control to INM agents and Federal Preventative Police. However, even if INM officials detain Central Americans they presume to be irregular migrants, and if those individuals cannot produce any legal migration documents, they will be placed in deportation proceedings with little time to clarify their situation.
Once migrants are in the custody of migration officials, the procedures vary among regional offices. For example, some officials allow migrants to make phone calls while others do not.
Consequently, one of the due-process guarantees — the right to legal assistance — is offered to migrants only in Tapachula or Mexico City even though migrants accept that they have received these guarantees by signing the INM statement.
The women interviewed discussed their experiences during the detention process from the moment that they were apprehended.
Information about rights at the moment of apprehension
In 77 percent of the cases, the women said that they were not informed of any rights during the first moments of the detention or before being transferred to the INM office or detention center.
Among those who were informed, a Honduran woman said they told her she would receive food and a safe place, and that she would be sent back to her country. A Salvadoran woman, on the other hand, was told she did not have the right to be in Mexico.
Information about rights while in the detention center
During the detention process (either upon arriving at the first detention location or the Mexico City Detention Center), 71 percent of the women stated they received no information about their rights.
Of the 29 percent who said they had been informed of some right, they mentioned the right to contact their consulate, the right to make a phone call, the right to call an attorney or legal representative, and the right to have visitors. One woman was told she had the right to an interpreter.
The information the women received came most often from other detainees. For example, while only 24 percent of the women had been informed they could use the telephone, 60 percent had been able to call their consulate or family.
Ten women had received visits from family or friends, and 20 of the women had received some type of legal orientation from an external person, lawyer, NGO worker, or, in the case of asylum seekers, from a Mexican refugee protection officer.
The administrative deportation procedure
In Agua Prieta they told me to sign a paper — is this the declaration? It was a piece of paper that said that they gave me food and that I was from Guatemala.
Eugenia, Guatemalan, 19 years old
The declaration process involves signing a document declaring one has violated the General Population Act. Once migrants sign, the government has a legal basis for deporting them. Considering that more than 90 percent of those initially apprehended are deported, whether or not the person understands the document is important.
Only one woman interviewed had refused to sign the declaration. Of the women interviewed, 63 percent said that they had understood what they were signing. In addition, 44 percent said INM personnel who prepared the declaration had explained some aspect of it.
However, upon reviewing the declarations with the women interviewed, we found that most were reading it for the first time. For women whose native language was not Spanish, the declaration included the phrase, "I speak and understand Spanish so it is not necessary that a translator be designated."
In many cases, the women did not understand the complicated legal terminology or its implications. But even if they had, they would have had to refuse to sign the declaration to access any of their rights.
Access to communication
For the women interviewed, access to the telephone was paramount. Many were trying to reach family members to tell them they were detained but safe. Other women were trying to seek legal assistance or make contact with their consular officers. Several women who lived in Mexico were desperate to ensure their children were safe.
The women's section of the detention center has five to six public pay phones. The phones require a calling card, which detainees can purchase in the detention center store — but only if they have the money. They have no privacy while making their calls, and the women have to scream to be heard.
Access to consular protection
Although some irregular migrants may refuse to disclose their nationalities or attempt to claim different ones, INM is often slow to inform consular officials that one of their citizens has been apprehended.
Indeed, migrants may be transferred to several facilities before notification occurs. In many cases, Central American migrants may not receive consular protection until they are in the Tapachula Detention Center set for deportation.
Foreign governments also play a role. For instance, many of the consulates are understaffed and are overwhelmed by the number of irregular migrants they need to protect. Those countries that do not have consular representation in Mexico cannot react that quickly, since they rely on consulates elsewhere, most commonly in the United States, to arrange the necessary travel documents.
In addition, some consulates either refuse to give assistance or are slow to recognize and document their nationals.
Access to legal representation
While legal representation is theoretically guaranteed, migrants have minimal access to pro bono legal representation; only two organizations work on specific kinds of cases.
Also, some private attorneys and legal workers are not honest with their clients. They do not tell them they have limited legal recourse when they have already signed a declaration stating they entered the country in an irregular manner.
Others have been known to charge excessive amounts of money and then disappear, confident their clients will soon be deported.
Access to a complaint system
The women have several options if they would like to make a complaint about the procedures, conditions, or treatment in the detention center.
New Detention Policy
- They can complain directly to the security guards in the women's section of the detention center.
- They can make a written (anonymous if they wish) complaint and deposit it in the complaint box posted in the hallway near the phones.
- They can call the Mexican National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos or CNDH) or request to see CNDH personnel; CNDH has an office in the detention center's administrative offices. CNDH personnel also make regular walk-throughs, and the women are allowed to approach them.
- They can complain to their consul. However, the consuls interviewed said they had received few complaints.
INM began implementing new procedures in 2006-2007 partly as a response to the violations documented by CNDH, Mexican NGOs, and Special Rapporteurs.
The main change is that citizens of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua now have the opportunity to sign a repatriation form that may expedite their removal from the country. Those who immediately admit to unlawful entry and who waive their rights to an administrative procedure are taken to the nearest INM office for processing.
Rather than remaining in the office or detention center as in the past, these migrants are placed within hours on an INM bus. The bus then travels from office to office, collecting migrants until it is full. During 2007, 63 percent of Central American migrants opted for repatriation or were repatriated.
This process usually takes between one and three days depending on the location in which the migrant is first detained. Upon arriving at the Tapachula Detention Center, migrants are usually deported on buses within 24 hours.
There is scant public information on these new procedures, and no evaluation has been issued either by the INM nor an independent source. Some concerns include whether the administrative process of taking the migrant's declaration will occur in the place that she is first apprehended, or whether she will sign the repatriation declaration once in Tapachula.
For Central American women in situations of domestic violence who cannot prove their status immediately, these expedited procedures may lead to due-process violations.
In one case, a woman who was carrying only a copy of her migration documentation (because her spouse had taken the original) was apprehended from a public bus near Mexico City and immediately transferred to an INM office in Veracruz. She was then placed on a bus to Tapachula and deported, allegedly without ever signing any document.
Another concern is when consular notification will occur. It is also unclear how male and female migrants will be separated on the buses, and what they will do if they have a complaint, a medical concern, or need legal assistance as the bus only stops along the route three times per day to allow migrants to eat and use the restrooms.
Women Needing Protection
The majority of migrant women detained each year in Mexico are transiting through the country to reach the United States and to a lesser extent Canada. A small percentage are asylum seekers or have been trafficked or have had their human rights violated in a smuggling situation gone wrong.
For example, among the 90 women interviewed, one was fleeing a severe case of domestic violence and would have applied for asylum had she received better information. Another woman described being held in a trafficking situation of forced labor for several months in a small Mexican town. She was not told she may be able to remain in Mexico and was deported to Venezuela.
Yet Mexico has protection mechanisms for trafficking victims and asylum seekers. The government has ratified all of the relevant international instruments related to women and the migration process, including the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, the 1990 Migrant Workers Convention, the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, and the UN Convention on Transnational Organized Crime and its protocols related to trafficking and smuggling.
A new federal law to combat trafficking was passed in November 2007. INM has recently created discretionary procedures to issue visas to trafficking victims, certain victims of crimes, and witnesses. Officials from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Mexico can help trafficking victims.
INM also provides humanitarian protection to certain migrants who are not recognized as refugees. Asylum protection officers have access to some of the detention centers.
There is also limited pro bono legal representation for migrant women who have been victims of domestic violence or who may have a legal basis to remain in Mexico, either through their relationship with a Mexican partner or because they have Mexican children.
The challenge is to establish procedures that will allow most migrants to return home quickly and safely while screening out those with protection needs so they can access social and legal assistance.
For Central American women, this screening process should occur before they are transferred to the Mexico-Guatemala border as legal assistance for asylum and trafficking cases is more readily available in Mexico City. In addition, if migrant women are residents (whether documented or undocumented) in Mexico, assistance from family members will be easier to obtain near their homes.
Screening procedures in the most transited airports could also be effective. For example, an INM airport agent interviewed stated there is no routine screening for potential asylum applicants or trafficking victims at the Mexico City airport. Yet 90 to 95 percent of rechazos (migrants who are returned to the country from which they traveled without officially entering Mexico) occur in this airport.
While the Mexican government focused on increasing efficiency in detention and deportation procedures in recent years, due process for migrants has clearly not had the same attention. Addressing issues such as consular notification and access to legal redress will allow Mexico to protect migrant women and others who have suffered human rights abuses.
This article is based on information from a report entitled Globalization, International Security and Human Security: Experiences of Women Migrants Detained in Mexico. The research was made possible by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and from the Center for Inter-American Studies and Programs at ITAM.
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