An Elegy for Neomí
AN ELEGY FOR NOEMÍ. 4 YEARS AFTER THE DEATH OF NOEMÍ ÁLVAREZ QUILLAY UNACCOMPANIED MIGRANT CHILDREN CONTINUE TO BE ENDANGERED BY AUTHORITIES IN BOTH MEXICO AND THE U.S
“In recent months, there has been a staggering increase in the apprehension of UACs [Unaccompanied Minors] and Family Units from Central America crossing the southern border and being released into the United States... Thousands of these unaccompanied children—particularly young teenage girls—are subjected to sexual abuse by smugglers, criminals, and even government officials along their journey to the United States. Many also never make it to the United States, instead pressed into service at brothels and bars in Mexico and Guatemala.”
March 11, 2018 marks the 4th anniversary of the death at the U.S-Mexico border of Noemí Álvarez Quillay, a 12 year old migrant girl of indigenous origin from Ecuador who was a victim of sexual and psychological violence. According to official accounts Noemí committed suicide in a state-funded youth shelter in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, five days after being intercepted by local police in the Anapra neighborhood. This was the the last leg of her arduous journey to the U.S. Both Noemi and one of her alleged smugglers were detained.
Evidence of Noemi’s rape by unknown assailants was initially suppressed by local authorities. It has been estimated that between 60 to 80% of the women and girls who migrate towards the U.S through Mexico are victims of rape and/or sexual abuse, often including trafficking, with the routine participation or collusion of Mexican civil, police, and/or military authorities at the federal, state, or municipal levels. Many of these women and girls are of indigenous origin. Their structural vulnerabilities because of gender, age, migration status, and poverty are reproduced and intensified by the criminal conduct of government officials in such cases.
This issue of Frontera Facts is dedicated to Noemí, and to the challenge her case presents to our conscience, and to our responsibility to act in the face of manifest injustices such as those which characterize her story.
Noemí had been separated from her parents since she was an infant. Her parents live in New York City and are undocumented. They arranged for Noemi to be smuggled over 6,500 miles from their remote Andean region of origin to the U.S, a 33 day odyssey. U.S immigration policy makes it virtually impossible for families that have been separated in this way to be legally reunited.
Juárez is associated with recurrent patterns of gender violence (including feminicide, the intentional killing of women because of their gender), according to international human rights monitors, including UN Special Rapporteurs, the CEDAW Committee, and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. According to Fregoso and Bejarano (id.), "feminicide" is not only the murder of women for being women, but "gender-based violence that is both public and private, implicating both the state...and individual perpetrators...(and) systemic violence rooted in social, political, economic, and cultural inequalities". Ciudad Juárez has also been the site of some of the most concentrated overall violence related to Mexico’s “drug war”, including at least 9,000 civilian deaths between 2006 and 2011.
Meanwhile, the numbers of migrant families and unaccompanied minors brought under circumstances similar to those experienced by Noemí continue to increase. U.S authorities insist on criminalizing these trends and their human protagonists within the context of networks of human smuggling and human trafficking. Some of the human smugglers allegedly involved in her case have been prosecuted, including Noemi’s great-aunt. But none of the Mexican, U.S., nor Ecuadorian authorities, who share responsibility for the convergent vulnerabilities which led to her death have been held accountable.
Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) investigated her case and issued detailed findings and recommendations in 2015 regarding the denial of Noemi’s rights to physical and psychological integrity and to due attention to her “best interests” as a child as well as her needs and rights as an unaccompanied minor. These recommendations have not yet been fully implemented. This includes findings holding state authorities in Chihuahua specifically responsible for covering up evidence of her rape.
Relevant standards regarding the rights of unaccompanied minors under conditions such as those confronted by Noemí include the Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ detailed advisory opinion regarding the rights of migrant youth and a UN resolution regarding the rights of migrant children which was recently adopted. The Court issued its historic opinion in August 2014, only 4 months after her death, and a resolution along similar lines was adopted by the UN’s Human Rights Council in September 2017, which calls upon all States:
“to promote and protect effectively the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all migrants, especially unaccompanied migrant children and adolescents, regardless of their migration status, and to address international migration through international, regional or bilateral cooperation and dialogue and a comprehensive and balanced approach, recognizing the roles and responsibilities of countries of origin, transit and destination in promoting and protecting the human rights of all migrants and avoiding approaches that might aggravate their vulnerability” (para. 4 of UN resolution).
The UN resolution also stresses the need to “ensure appropriate, integrated and gender-sensitive child protection care and services” to unaccompanied minors. Mexican authorities fell far short of all of these obligations in Noemi’s case. U.S authorities generally fail to implement the kind of integral approach which is mandated by these standards under equivalent circumstances as well.
U.S immigration policy generally ignores the U.S’ role in generating and reproducing the structural conditions which result in migration processes of this kind. These include intertwined dimensions of state and criminal violence, the drug war, as well as the promotion of free trade and “development” policies that foment poverty and inequality. Responsibilities and consequences pursuant to conditions of this kind are attributable both to the U.S and to the governments of relevant countries of origin and transit, according to international human rights law and international criminal law. Authorities at the federal, state, and municipal level in Mexico, as well as their counterparts in the U.S and Ecuador, share responsibility for the circumstances which made Noemi’s death and suffering predictable, and thus preventable.
Neomi’s death coincided with a mass exodus of migrant families and unaccompanied youth, primarily from Central America, that intensified between 2013 and 2014. Noemi’s case is also important because it highlights the increasing diversity of migration flows of this kind from beyond the Mesoamerican region, and specifically from the poorest communities of the Andean region, Brazil, and the Caribbean, as well as Africa and Asia. The surge of such migration between 2013 and 2014 precipitated the declaration of a humanitarian crisis at the U.S-Mexico border, detailed in reports issued by the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). These reports highlighted the large number of women and children that were entitled to, but often denied, treatment as asylum seekers during this period, and these trends persist today. Sadly the UNHCR’s “Children on the Run” report was presented a couple of days after Noemi’s death.
Noemi’s case also underlines the dimensions of forced migration from the poorest Andean indigenous communities of Ecuador such as her home region, El Cañar, where families separated by U.S immigration policy and the migration of youth have become recurrent phenomenons. Her case arises out of the same circumstances as those of the 5 young Ecuadorian victims of the San Fernando (Tamaulipas) Massacre of August, 2010, which resulted in the death of 72 migrants from 6 countries due to collusion between Mexican officials and drug-traffickers associated with the cartel known as the Zetas.
Migration flows of this kind from Ecuador’s most marginalized indigenous communities have intensified in the wake of the country’s adoption of the dollar as national currency in 2000. The “dollarization” of Ecuador’s economy, like that of El Salvador, has contributed to this trend. The imposition of free trade through NAFTA in Mexico and CAFTA in Central America has had similar effects. Analogous factors are also at work here in terms of comparable conditions of dispossession in the indigenous regions of Central America and Mexico and those documented in Ecuador.
The emergence of the “forced migration” paradigm in migration studies and scholarship related to human rights also raises deeper issues as to the complexities of conceptualizing and implementing a right to human mobility or to freedom of movement. This includes an insistence both on recognition of a right to migrate and of a right not to be forcibly displaced (or not to migrate, or more affirmatively, to “stay home”)
as corollary, interdependent dimensions. It is thus especially ironic given Noemi’s case and its characteristics that Ecuador is the first country in the world which has recognized both a right to migrate and a right not to be forcibly displaced in Articles 40 and 42, respectively, of its reformed 2008 constitution.
What does and what should the “right to migrate” mean, in practice, in a case such as Noemi’s? Migrant organizations and movements and their defenders and allies, and experts from throughout the Western Hemisphere and on a global scale will be wrestling with questions such as these within the framework of UN summits on migration issues in New York in September and Morocco in December, and of the VIII World Social Forum on Migration in Mexico City in November. Hope Border Institute will be joining our colleagues there to share the concerns of immigrant families and communities in the U.S-Mexico border region, and the implications of cases like Noemi’s.
Meanwhile, her case continues to cry out to us for reflection, justice, and action, on both sides of the border.