MCALLEN, Tex. — She trembled as she sat on the witness stand. She kept her head down and avoided looking at the man at the defense table only a few feet away.
In the blue-carpeted courtroom in the Texas border city of McAllen, she was identified only by her initials, M.M.U.T. She had come from Honduras, she told the court, and the smugglers who helped her cross the border had placed her with about a dozen other migrants at a stash house near McAllen. The man in charge was known as El Gordo — the Fat One.
When one of the migrant women escaped one morning, El Gordo forced M.M.U.T. to go with him in his truck to search for her, she testified. He drove her to an unoccupied trailer some distance away.
“He raped me,” she said.
It was a small, nearly whispered moment one day in 2017 in one of the busiest federal courthouses on the southwest border. It was also a #MeToo moment for a category of women whose long history of sexual assault has gone largely unpunished for decades. Undocumented women rarely get the chance to face their accused rapists in court. Attacks are most often never reported, and if they are, the perpetrators are often never found.
This case was different. The woman had agreed to testify, and the man she said attacked her was in custody, facing sentencing on a different charge: Adan Hernandez-Nunez sat facing his accuser in court.
One other thing was different: The federal judge hearing the case was a native of the Texas border region, a woman, and the daughter of migrant farmworkers.
“I wanted more than anything else for her to feel that the court had listened to her as a human being,” Judge Micaela Alvarez said later, in an interview.
The federal prosecutor, Alexandro Benavides, urged M.M.U.T. to go on with her story. “While that was happening, did he tell you anything?” he asked.
“He told me that if I ever said this, that he would kill me,” she said.
She stopped talking. “I’m afraid,” she said softly.
Judge Alvarez reassured the witness that federal marshals were in the courtroom to keep everyone safe.
This judge had seen several cases like this. Before being nominated to the bench in Texas’ Southern District by President George W. Bush in 2004, Judge Alvarez had been a social worker for the state’s Child Protective Services. She is a native of the nearby border town of Donna and, out of hundreds of federal judges around the country, one of only 29 Latinas on the federal bench.
“You can take as much time as you need,” Judge Alvarez told the witness. “I can assure you that you are safe here.”
When the witness was ready, Mr. Benavides, the prosecutor, asked her if she saw the man she knew as El Gordo in the courtroom.
“That’s him,” she said as she pointed at Mr. Hernandez-Nunez.
And then she said, again, “I’m afraid.”
She began crying. Judge Alvarez stepped down from the bench, walked to the witness stand and crouched down next to her. She called Mr. Hernandez-Nunez’s lawyer over so he could hear.
She said later that it was the first time in her 14 years as a federal judge that she had left the bench to console a witness.
Mr. Hernandez-Nunez had already pleaded guilty to harboring an undocumented alien and was headed to federal prison; the question at the sentencing hearing that day was for how long.
Prosecutors hoped for a stiff sentence because of the rape accusation. But Mr. Hernandez-Nunez, now 32, denied the attack, and investigators were unable to locate either the stash house where M.M.U.T. said she was held, or the trailer where she said the rape occurred.
Norman E. McInnis, the federal public defender, reminded the judge that investigators had declined to pursue sexual assault charges against his client in state court. “If they really felt like this was injustice, then they could have pursued other charges,” he said.
Judge Alvarez, having heard the arguments from both sides, started speaking. She found the victim to be credible, she said. And she said the woman was not alone — she had seen a number of migrant women coming forward lately with allegations of sexual assault, beginning to break a silence that has long been part of the price of crossing illegally into the United States.
“I don’t know if it was because those instances have increased, or maybe the victims are more willing to step forward now because, you know, they’ve lost some of that fear,” she said in the courtroom. “Certainly the victim here, you know, demonstrated a lot of fear.”
Judge Alvarez said she found the penalty recommended under the federal sentencing guidelines, about two and a half years, to be too short. She sentenced him to four.