Gendering the Border Discourse

Gendering the Border Discourse

by Pedro Cárdenas Casillas

The Mexico-U.S. border has once again reached a critical point in the political debate in the United States. The national emergency declared by President Trump on February 15th, is a political move towards displaying power and circumnavigating the government shutdown of the previous weeks. A product of the stalemate between a Democrat-controlled Congress and the President’s original USD 5.7 billion demand for the construction of a border wall, this shutdown became the longest in U.S. history.

The call to protect the border comes with an implied sense of urgency: “This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!” tweeted President Trump on October 29, 2018. His discourse may be one of the most explicit examples of securitizing immigration. However, he is not the first, nor will he be the last American president to strategically describe migrants coming to the United States as a threat.

Migrants, refugees and asylum seekers have long been viewed with suspicion by political actors in the United States. In a 2006 speech on immigration reform President George W. Bush stated that the border should be shut for “criminals, drug dealers, and terrorists” before outlining an elaborate plan to increase border security using advanced technology at the border. As a Senator, Barack Obama explicitly stated that “[…] terrorists are challenging our borders, we cannot allow people to pour into the US […]”. Once he became president, Obama was famously labelled “Deporter-in-Chief” for his own immigration policies, which led to the deportation of more than 2.5 million people between 2009 and 2015.

President Trump and his administration have taken an even more explicit stance by infamously and directly characterizing most migrants as rapists, drug-traffickers, terrorists and even as animals. He has particularly focused on the threat that these foreign men pose to American women: “Our women don’t want them […] women want security”. Particular cases like the murder of Mollie Tibbetts were taken by Trump himself as examples of this threat. The President spoke of the case online: “A person came in from Mexico illegally and killed her. We need the wall.”

The gendered implications of such rhetoric are clear. By invoking images of criminals, drug dealers and terrorists when characterizing migrants, calls to secure and fortify the border are justified by the belief that foreign migrants, particularly those who are male are coming to take away American jobs, attack American women, and alter the American way of life.

Yet, data tells us that this so-called invasion of foreign men may not be taking place after all.  The Pew Research Center reports that, since 1975, there has been an increase in the number of women moving across borders—today, 49.6 percent of migrants are women. Similarly, the Migration Policy Institute states that while the United States does not have an increase in women immigrants, the female migrant population globally has consistently hovered around 50 percent or above since 1975. Additionally, government sources indicate that, for nonimmigrant residents in the U.S., the percentages vary. For example, in 2016, slightly more than 60 percent of temporary workers were male, 55 percent of students were male, and slightly more than 50 percent of exchange visitors were women. Women were also the majority of naturalized persons in the U.S. in 2017.

Did the migrant caravan, a major trigger for the government shutdown and ensuing declaration of national emergency, follow these patterns? The numbers are unclear and differ by source but seem to portray a similar picture of even percentages of men, women, and children. While Customs and Border Protection officials and the Trump administration reported that up to three-fourths of the caravan were men, the numbers were never confirmed. Mexican officials and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had estimated differing numbers not only of the caravan, but also of its general makeup. In fact, most news outlets and witnesses reported large numbers of women and children alongside men. The United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund also estimated that at least 2,300 children were among the group of travelers.

The numbers do not seem to match what Trump and previous U.S. presidents describe as the face of immigration. Legal and illegal migration show close numbers of men and women traveling to the United States in search of a better life. The caravan is an example of a gendered discourse being used to incite fear and justify border expenditure.  

The male enemy, the invader, the gang member, and the potential terrorist might in fact be a teenager looking for better living standards; a single mother carrying her children, fleeing from the same violence she is being accused of; or one of the dozens of transgender women escaping the current rise of violence against the LGBT community in Honduras.

When Mexico and other countries send their people to the United States, they are not sending their worst people, and they are not sending an invasion of men; they are sending their tired women, their poor children, and their huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

Image: Asylum Seeker to Reach Tijuana

Courtesy of Daniel Arauz / Flickr


Pedro Cárdenas Casillas is a 2nd year M.A. in Law and Diplomacy student with concentrations in public international law and human rights, as well as a Certificate in Human Security. Pedro is currently doing research on protection mechanisms for human rights defenders in Latin America and did an internship at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Prior to Fletcher, he worked with Peace Brigades International accompanying human rights defenders in Guatemala, served as an international business representative at the Mexican Embassy in Colombia, and became a teacher while volunteering to support families of the disappeared in Mexico. He graduated from Tec de Monterrey, in his hometown of Monterrey, in 2013 with a degree in international relations and a certificate in political studies from Sciences Po Aix, France.

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