Crossing the Line: Lived Experiences of Undocumented Immigrants

Dr. Emily Bashah
Dr. Emily Bashah

This is a guest post from Dr. Emily Bashah, who worked with Florence Project staff to prepare clinical summaries and statements in support of VAWA and UVISA applications. She currently works under supervision of forensic psychologists, Dr. Toma and Dr. Kirkley, providing culturally competent psychological evaluations for immigrants, refugees, or asylum seekers held in Florence detention centers.

Dr. Bashah completed her Doctorate in Clinical Psychology at the Arizona School of Professional Psychology at Argosy University, Phoenix. She successfully defended her doctoral dissertation, “Honoring Undocumented Latinas’ Resiliencies: Impacts of Anti-Immigrant Oppression and Healing through Culturally Responsive Group Therapy.”  She completed her predoctoral internship at Southwest Behavioral & Health Services in Mesa outpatient clinic on August 2015. She is currently a postdoctoral resident at Phoenix Professional Practice Associates, LLC, under supervision of Dr. Wooten. 

This post was originally published in Psychology Today.

By Emily T. Bashah, Louise M. Baca, and Karen L. Suyemoto

Authors’ Note

This posting is dedicated to the many immigrants and families who suffered any form of cultural oppression, ethnic intolerance, social injustice, human rights abuses, persecution, and spiritual suffering.

Scope of the Problem

Many undocumented immigrants have endured extensive suffering, trauma, oppression, abuse, violence, victimization, and cross-border human rights abuses (Bashah, Baca, & Suyemoto, 2015).  Common risks include exploitation, separation from support systems, poverty, and threats to survival (American Psychological Association, 2012). Amnesty International (2013) conservatively estimated that 60% of women and girls are raped or experience sexual violence during their journey crossing. A study conducted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (2014) on unaccompanied children leaving Central America and Mexico for the U.S. identified push and pull factors that influenced decisions to endure life-threatening conditions to cross. The perilous journey that many undocumented immigrants take in crossing the Southwestern U.S. border involve using life savings or borrowed monies to pay coyotes, hired guides who cross immigrants through the U.S. – Mexico desert. Many immigrants face extreme and unrelenting conditions along the journey (Bashah, Baca, & Suyemoto, 2015), as illustrated in the following quote:

immigrant women and children
Source: Photo Courtesy Getty
I crossed through the Rio Bravo… we walk and walk, we ran out of water. By chance we found a water dispenser for cows… We endured a lot… in that journey there was a pregnant woman who crossed the river with us. The temperature had decreased a lot when we were told to undress to cross the river. We passed through the river naked… the person I was most worried about was the pregnant lady, she crossed the river with all of her clothes on… We walked like 2 miles and the lady started feeling very sick, we told her to remove her wet clothes and among us we gave her some of our clothes. We felt that lady was going to die on us. What kept me going is my daughter, at the end I reached my objective but I suffered a lot, something I will never forget.

Unique considerations of trafficked women include physical and sexual threat, forced prostitution, rape, extortion, and gender-based violence (Bashah, Baca, & Suyemoto, 2015).  Although not all undocumented immigrants who cross the Southwest border face coercion, exploitation, or other violations of human rights that constitute human and sex trafficking, the risks are prevalent (Bashah, Baca, & Suyemoto, 2015), as depicted in the following testimonial from an undocumented woman:

They forced me to get me to the alley…. Inside were about 20 young women and six other women in a very ugly place. They stared at me. Then they took me out of there in the dark, and I was taken to another uglier house.  Then, they put me in there with my head down and shouted to me to give them information to take money from relatives… Then came a tall, graying man who said that if I did not give the telephone of my family, then I would have to pay with my body. When I saw that one was going to have sex with me, I began to cry and asked him how much he wanted. He asked for $8,000. I told him I was a woman alone and poor and would work in the U.S. with a friend who was helping me. I told him all scared and crying. I said, “I only have $5,000,” and was told it was fine. I was not going to be raped. He took me away to a corner. I waited a long time. I heard they called each other and raped a girl. She just cried.

The risks and harm described above demonstrates the need for advanced state and national policies, social justice, and humanitarian efforts addressing the ongoing crisis and the need for international protection of vulnerable populations.

Why You Should Care

The risks and harm described above are antithetical to the values at the core of the United States constitution and to the foundation of human rights and justice. No person, citizen or not, documented or undocumented, should be subject to such experiences.  If we can shape policy to prevent trauma, we should do so. Furthermore, the women who told these stories hold on to hope for a better life, especially for their children and their families. One third of the 11.4 million undocumented immigrants have at least one U.S. citizen child residing with them in the U.S. (Migration Policy Institute, 2015).  First and second generation immigrant children are exposed to abhorrent living conditions that are related to immigration policies resulting in these families living within the margins of society (Suarez-Orozco, 2011).  These conditions and related traumas impact educational, physical, psychosocial, and emotional development (American Psychological Association, 2012). Such trauma creates even greater risk for children with caregivers who may be suddenly separated, detained, or deported.

Hidden trauma and domestic violence prevalence rates are unknown, especially considering that many abuses occurring in homes remain unreported due to vulnerability, limited options for assistance, and fears of deportation and separation from children. The Immigrant Power and Control Wheel depicts how undocumented immigrants can become trapped in violent relationships with increased physical, economic, and emotional abuse (National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence, 2012; see Figure 1).

Source: National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence. (2012). Immigrant power and control wheel.

Figure 1.  IMMIGRANT POWER AND CONTROL WHEEL (English and Español), adapted from the Power and Control Wheel developed by Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs), Duluth, MN.

Costs of Keeping 11.4 Million Undocumented vs. Contributions of Immigrants

With limited options for health care access, undocumented immigrants present to emergency rooms to obtain medical treatment, incurring approximately one-quarter of all uncompensated health costs (Congressional Budget Office, 2011).  Solutions that permit immigrants to make equitable contributions through special visas that provide immigrants with affordable health care coverage could offset these costs.  U.S. economic health and vitality is interdependent upon the immigrant population, who supplies labor across industries: hospitality, agriculture, construction, food service, healthcare, high-tech manufacturing, information technology, and life sciences (Cárdenas & Treuhaft, 2013).

Call for Action

The actual immigrant experience is generally neglected by mainstream media, and when it is depicted, often grossly misrepresented. Anti-immigrant political rhetoric only serves to further dehumanize and vilify immigrant populations, creating a polarized political narrative on immigration policy.

An important question to consider is how our current policy may be contributing to the destabilization of our borders and actually fueling cartel power and humanitarian crises. By providing legal channels, undocumented immigrants will have increased options without resorting to desperate acts that endanger them and removes the stronghold of cartels preying upon vulnerable populations. Thus, a call for action includes the following areas:

  • Need for immigration policy reform.
  • Need to include safeguards that protect immigrants from violence, victimization, sex and human trafficking, and human rights abuses.
  • Need to present immigrants with better options so they are not prey for cartels, human traffickers, or agents who abuse their power of authority to victimize immigrants.
  • Need for international protection of at-risk populations.
  • Need for inclusion to restore human value, dignity, respect, and human rights with which immigrants are being treated.

Policy Recommendations

The following policy recommendations are based on the study of undocumented immigrants’ lived experiences, and are intended to serve as actionable steps to address preventable risks and harm. They are not meant to be a comprehensive or an exhaustive solution-focused approach to the damaged immigration system.

  • Support bipartisan immigration bills that authorize additional visas for undocumented immigrants to live and work in the U.S.
  • Advance policy that allows for families with mixed immigration status to remain intact, access support systems, and coexist with legal protection.
  • Propose policy that enables undocumented immigrants to make equitable contributions through granting special visas that tax wages and require health care coverage that provide many economic and public health benefits.
  • Safeguard vulnerable populations by supporting legislation such as, I-VAWA (S.2307; H.R. 3571) and authorizing special visas and legal protections for victims of violence (H.R. 629 Violence Against Immigrant Women Act of 2013).
  • Strengthen accountability standards on detention and deportation processes to protect against abuses of undocumented immigrants.

Emily T. Bashah, Psy.D., Arizona School of Professional Psychology at Argosy University; Louise M. Baca, Ph.D., Arizona School of Professional Psychology at Argosy University; Karen L. Suyemoto, Ph.D., University of Massachusetts, Boston

Correspondence concerning this posting should be addressed to Emily T. Bashah, Psy.D. at Email: (link sends e-mail)


American Psychological Association, Presidential Task Force on Immigration. (2012). Crossroads: The psychology of immigration in the new century.

Amnesty International (2013) Migrants in Mexico: Invisible Journeys. Retrieved from… (link is external)

Bashah, E. T., Baca, L. M., & Suyemoto, K. L. (2015).  Undocumented Latinas’ cross-border experiences: A qualitative study of detained/deported immigrants & implications for social policy. Manuscript in preparation.

Cárdenas, V., & Treuhaft, S. (Eds.). (2013). All-In nation: An America that works for all. Center for American Progress & PolicyLink.

Congressional Budget Office. (2011). Trends in the distribution of household income between 1979 and 2007.

National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence. (2012). Immigrant power and control wheel. Retrieved from (link is external)

Suarez-Orozco, C., Yoshikawa, H., Teranishi, R. & Suarez-Orozco, M. (2011). Growing up in the shadows: The developmental implications of unauthorized status. Harvard Educational Review, 81(3), 438-472.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (2014). Children on the run: Unaccompanied children leaving Central America and Mexico and the need for international protection.

Zong, J., & Batalova, J. (2015). Frequently requested statistics on immigrants and immigration in the United States. Migration Policy Institute.