This summer, Refugees International interviewed migrant women’s rights advocate Stacie Girón. Originally from San Salvador, Stacie is a coordinator at Espacio Migrante, a community and cultural center and shelter in Tijuana. Refugees International first met Stacie in 2019, when she and her family were in the “Remain in Mexico” program, a Trump-era policy that required asylum seekers to wait in danger in Mexico while their asylum cases were pending.
Four years on, Stacie now advocates for access to reproductive health care for migrant women in Mexico. We caught up with her and asked her to reflect on her past experiences and current work. The following Q&A is a modified version of that conversation. The piece contains potentially distressing content, including descriptions of sexual and physical abuse.
Why did you leave El Salvador?
The violence came to my family because of our store. Gangs demanded that we pay them, and at one point we couldn’t pay anymore… they threatened us, and I was a victim of sexual abuse by a leader of the gang. They came to our house with guns to get me. We ran away that same day. We spent one or two weeks in Guatemala, but gangs found us. There was a shoot-out in the area where we were staying. All we wanted was to be safe. Since we couldn’t be safe in Guatemala, we went to Mexico.
Did you find safety in Mexico?
We stayed for about a month in Tapachula but did not feel secure from the gangs there. I also had a pregnancy. Then an abortion. And my health and my mental health was not good. A psychologist helped me to get transferred to a hospital in Mexico City, where Doctors without Borders paid for me and my family’s medical treatment and psychological help.
We stayed in and near Mexico City for about six months. I worked in a clothing store that was robbed. Because I was a witness to the robbery, I went with the store owner to report it to the authorities. Ten days later, the suspects were caught, but one of them was freed. That person followed me and my sister all the way home after work and pulled a gun on us. He told us that if we do not give him the money that was due to him at the robbery, that he would kill us. So we knew we had to leave. We left the next day, abandoning everything that we had. We had just purchased furniture and tried to reconstruct our lives and home, but we just left. We got to Tijuana in early March 2019.
In Tijuana, we were on a list to cross into the United States. When we were able to cross, we were returned to Tijuana [under the Remain in Mexico program]. From 2019 to 2020, we went to [U.S. immigration] court in San Diego every two months for our hearings. We were treated terribly. We would be cuffed at the hands and feet as if we were terrorists or criminals. They would not give us food, and we spent all day waiting to be seen by a judge. We also could not afford to pay our lawyer, who anyway told us that he did not see how we could win our case. We were also told that if we continued with the case, we could lose the humanitarian visa we had in Mexico and would be deported to El Salvador. We were issued a deportation order by the judge for abandoning our case.
In Mexico, we were able to get our residence, and we started to work in a restaurant and we rented a house. When I arrived in Tijuana, I got to know a man, and in 2021 we got pregnant, and I had my baby. This was a very difficult process and led me to work on projects related to migrant rights at Espacio Migrante. I have been working for about a year at Espacio Migrante’s shelter. And I am trying to return to school, to pick up where I left off in my studies. I am now in the naturalization process in Mexico, my father has a good job, and my sister is studying law.
How did you begin advocating for improved access to reproductive health care for migrant women?
I started last year when a pregnant girl was refused services at the hospital and then mistreated. They tied her to the bed so she could give birth, they touched her in an inappropriate manner, and made her bleed. Given that I was a witness to all of this, we presented a complaint to the CNDH [Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission] with a lawyer from the shelter.
I came to see that my personal experience was part of a larger problem for pregnant migrant women. Something similar happened to me when I was pregnant. Whenever I would go to my appointments, they’d ask me: Why did you let yourself get pregnant? Why didn’t you use protection? They forced me to have my baby before it was time and handled my body in an inappropriate way that caused me to contract an infection. It went really badly for me, but I was able to connect with a midwife [working with the Refugee Health Alliance in Tijuana]. All of this I suffered without having any understanding. But I realized after witnessing what happened to the other woman that there had to be more cases [like ours]. I started to work closely with midwives and clinics and got to know more women [victims].
There was another case of a girl from Guatemala. She was Indigenous, and when she got to the health center to be seen, they yelled at her and insulted her because she did not speak Spanish well. Rather than help her, they said she should attend to herself because she would be the one giving birth. We filed another complaint before the CNDH, and we shared our grievances on television.
I am leading an initiative at Espacio Migrante’s shelter focused on ending [obstetric] violence against women, because all of that is normalized, those comments, that treatment, how women are touched. For them it is normal in the health centers, but we have to change that. I spoke about this issue at the migrant parliament in Tijuana. Currently, I am working with a lawyer to soon present a case before the congress of Baja California. I am also participating in a training program with midwives. This is to help mothers register their children and get birth certificates because even that is a problem here for migrant women. And even if they do have documentation, sometimes migration officers do not accept it. If the midwives are not certified here in Tijuana, they can attend to deliveries, but they are not allowed to issue a birth certificate. There are babies who are one or two years old, and they still are not registered because the midwives are not certified. If you look at this closely, midwives are of great help to many people. So we are presenting complaints and visiting with the Health Secretary with them to push for change.
What are you hoping to achieve in your work? What are your goals?
A principal goal is ending discrimination and racism towards migrants. I want everyone to know what migration really is. That we migrate not because we want to, or to abandon our country, it’s for different reasons. It is a right, but it also hurts a lot. I have lost a lot of friends who I met on the journey and died. I have lost a lot. But all of this helps you to be stronger. So I throw myself more into the work to keep on helping the people not because it’s my job. I do it because I create connections with each of them. I would like to create a sanctuary or a safe place for all migrants. That’s another one of my goals. I know that we will not achieve this now, but where I work, we have created a secure space for families, free from discrimination, from racism, and that also allows migrants to remember where they come from, their culture, their customs.
Featured Image: Stacie Girón speaks at a parliamentary session in Tijuana, Mexico on April 15, 2023, organized by the Parlamento Migrante in collaboration with Espacio Migrante and Oxfam Mexico. Photo Credit: Marisol Domínguez, Espacio Migrante.