Every month, Kirsten Zittlau leads a group of volunteers with the nonprofit Border Angels through the mountainous Jacumba Wilderness in eastern San Diego county, near the Mexico border. The group drops gallon jugs of water along the paths where migrants typically travel to help prevent deaths from dehydration.
Along the way, Zittlau said she comes across discarded items that give an inkling as to who has already made the arduous journey. There was the Little Mermaid backpack. A purple hood detached from a girl’s jacket. A dirty diaper.
The pair of torn women’s underwear.
“That was the harshest thing I’ve come across in the desert,” said Zittlau, an immigration attorney with Talamantes Immigration Law Firm in San Diego. “And I’ve seen a lot of pretty hardcore things.”
Thousands of protesters hit the streets across the U.S. last week to urge the Trump administration to reunite migrant families that were separated in recent months under the president’s zero tolerance immigration policy. They’re also demanding answers regarding the whereabouts of migrant girls who have been largely absent from images released by the government.
But advocates, like Zittlau, say to fully piece together the entirety of the current border crisis, more information is needed about the wellbeing of mothers and female caregivers, many of whom have faced severe trauma, including sexual assault. They are often reluctant to share the scope of what they’ve been through.
“It’s really, really difficult to get this information [from them],” Zittlau said of her female asylum-seeking clients.
The attorney and other advocates say that women, many of whom are mothers, are usually fleeing particularly cruel abuse and gang violence at home, often only to encounter assailants on their way here. According to a 2014 Fusion Media Group report, 80 percent of women and girls crossing into the U.S. by way of Mexico are raped during their journey.
Zittlau is new to immigration law. She decided to make the switch from education law after seeing the direction the Trump administration was headed with regard to the issue. Her first few cases underscored just how prevalent sexual assault is among women seeking asylum.
One of Zittlau’s clients is from Mexico and was born of rape. She was raped by a number of family members and was raped by the coyote who led her to the U.S.
Another one of Zittlau’s asylum clients was repeatedly raped and beaten by her husband in Guatemala. She went to the police for help, but they dismissed her claims and told her to apologize to her husband, Zittlau said. She continued to endure the abuse until she learned that her husband was molesting one of her children. She came to the U.S. last February with two of her daughters.
Part of the struggle, Zittlau said, is conveying to her clients that assault shouldn’t be a part of everyday life.
While preparing for a recent hearing, for example, Zittlau said her client from Guatemala repeatedly used the Spanish word for “annoying” to describe how she felt about her husband’s abuse.
“No. Him raping and beating is not ‘annoying,’ it goes beyond that,” Zittlau told her client. “No, that is not something you deserve or a normal way of life,” she added.
Once women migrants cross the border into the United States, they risk losing their children and may struggle to get a hold of basic necessities, like clean underwear and menstrual hygiene products. In addition to offering help with obtaining asylum, nonprofits and immigration attorneys offer these women a safe space where they can have some time to focus on their own needs, instead of just the needs of their children.
“The journey has been so treacherous for some,” said Brenda Riojas, communications director for Catholic Charities Respite Center, a McAllen, Texas-based group that caters to migrants who were freed from detention and need a place to regroup before connecting with relatives. “Because we have so many volunteers, they can trust somebody to watch their children. They can finally rest.”
About 50 to 200 migrants show up to the center each day where they can get a hot meal, clean clothes, a shower and some help with navigating the next leg of their travels. Riojas said it’s often the women who have had the most trying journeys.
Riojas said one woman from Honduras recently arrived to the center with her 2-week old baby in hand. She had given birth to her baby in Mexico while on her way to the U.S.
Though modest in size, the center tries to keep all supplies on hand that a migrant who’s already been traveling for weeks might need. One section of the facility is dedicated entirely to menstrual hygiene products, bras and underwear, Riojas said.
Riojas said the organization has a steady list of organizations it can reach out to for those very types of products.
Support the Girls, a Maryland-based nonprofit that donates menstrual hygiene products and bras to women in need, is one of them. Over the course of two days in June, it sent more than 13,000 products to groups supporting migrants in need at the Texas border.
“Life is pretty horrific when you’re struggling to figure out how your next meal is coming through, you’re managing your familial expectations, and with everything else that’s going, you’re also having to deal with your period,” said founder Dana Marlowe. “Periods don’t stop because of a border crisis.”
For many of these women, this is the first time anyone has validated the trauma they’ve experienced, Zittlau said.
Zittlau’s client from Guatemala is currently residing in a small studio in California with her daughters who are enrolled in public school there. She’s trying to get a work permit. Zittlau thinks there’s a “slim” chance she’ll win this case and the client will be granted asylum. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a ruling last month, which could exclude domestic violence victims from obtaining asylum.
If her client is denied asylum, the attorney plans to appeal, which ― at the very least ― will give the woman some additional time in the U.S. while her case is decided.
“If she doesn’t get asylum,” Zittlau said, “She’ll go back to Guatemala with some money saved, and independence with her girls having had some education here.”