A Culture of Violence Against Women: More Than Rape Kits

Amie Newman

If rape victims have been charged for rape kits in Wasilla, Alaska, under Sarah Palin's leadership, we deserve to know why. But we deserve to know a lot more than that. Which set of candidates will pro-actively create policies that address the root causes of rape and sexual assault?

Americans have recently learned that during the 1990s, Wasilla, Alaska,
then under the mayoralty of Sarah Palin, charged
victims of sexual assault for the rape kits
used for evidence collection.

Attacks from progressives have been swift and harsh. There
is good reason to hunt down the facts about the rape kits.  But the larger issue – of rape, sexual
assault and how we deal with violence against women in this country – has been

First the facts:

Last week new evidence arose revealing that under Palin’s
administration, Wasilla cut funds
that paid for the rape kits and shifted the burden onto the victims
themselves  or their insurance companies
(kits generally cost between $500-$1200). Under Wasilla Police Chief Irl
Stambaugh, the town had included the cost of rape kits in the budget. But Palin
fired Stambaugh and replaced him with Charlie Fannon, who then took the money out of the budget – a budget Palin
approved. Fannon evidently did not have a problem with billing victims, though
he admitted that he would rather see the perpetrator pay for the rape kits
(without elaborating on how that realistically or successfully might occur).

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The town law did not change until Alaska state legislators
got wind of what was happening (in Wasilla and other small towns) and
introduced a bill, signed into law in 2000, making it illegal for "any law
enforcement agency to bill victims or victims insurance companies for the costs
of examinations that take place to collect evidence of a sexual assault or
determine if a sexual assault did occur."

Fannon immediately objected, stating in an article on
May 23, 2000 that "…the law will require the city and communities to come up
with more funds to cover the costs of the forensic exams…I just don’t want to
see any more burdens on the tax payer." Fannon did not explain why rape victims
should pay for their evidence collection kits while victims of burglary, for
example, would not.

Since the story broke, Sarah Palin has been taken to task by
progressives and rape victim advocates who are furious about the policy and
demanding an explanation as to why Palin not only allowed this practice under
her leadership, she oversaw its institution. Thus far, Palin’s response to the issue has been denial.
Said a spokesperson for her campaign:

"[Sarah Palin] does not believe, nor has she ever
believed, that rape victims should have to pay for an evidence-gathering
test…To suggest otherwise is a deliberate misrepresentation of her commitment
to supporting victims and bringing violent criminals to justice"


Though no one, as far as I’ve read, has been able to
successfully explain Wasilla’s detrimental policy, conservatives have fought
back, raising the fact that other states, towns and municipalities have charged
rape victims for their kits as well. The National Review Online called
out Illinois
for "charging some rape victims." The practice of charging
rape victims for evidence collection still occurs more often around the country
than it should. US News & World Report recently reported on the problem:

In order to qualify for federal grants under the Violence
Against Women Act, states have to assume the full out-of-pocket costs for
forensic medical exams, as the rape kits are called. But according to a 2004
bulletin published by the NCVC [National Center for Victims of Crime], "[F]eedback from the field indicates
that sexual assault victims are still being billed." [emphasis mine]


And while a policy charging sexual assault victims for any
kind of evidence collection, treatment or care is heinous, there is a larger
issue at play. It’s easy to get caught up in the partisan anger – the volleying
of stories back and forth that "prove" the deceitful intent of one campaign or
another, the information that will surely reveal how evil one or another
candidate truly is. But the media has been missing the most important part of
the story.

To discuss the rape kit story without addressing what kinds
of policies, as a nation, we must put forward in order to address violence
against women – the causes of violence, the symptoms and how it can be curbed –
does nothing to further the dialogue, find solutions and heal some of our most
gaping wounds.

Bigger Questions About Rape and Sexual Violence in Alaska

According to Amnesty International, one out of every three
women in the world has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her
lifetime. In the United
States, a woman is raped every 6 minutes. In
global conflicts and wars, rape is widespread – a tool of war.

Instead of hashing and re-hashing a budget line under Sarah
Palin’s mayoralty, we need to put forward questions to be asked about and of
the candidates that will allow us to understand what they have done or will do,
concretely, to reduce violence against women, at home and abroad.

According to the National
Coalition Against Domestic Violence
, Alaska’s
rape rate is 2.5 times the national average. Alaska also has the highest rate per capita
of men murdering women. Ninety percent of Alaskans would vote to increase
funding for victim service programs because, according to the coalition,
"programs are in dire need of more funding in order to serve the sheer volume
of victims." Seventy-five percent of Alaskans have been or know someone who has
been the victim of sexual assault or domestic violence. Alaska’s domestic violence shelters, sexual
assault services and programs for survivors have seen a relatively small
increase in funding. In 2008, the state
included an additional $300,000 in funding for victims services
programs. In 2009, according to Alaska’s Council
on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault
, Governor Palin’s budget
includes an increase in funds to help shelters offset the higher costs of fuel,
utilities and insurance.

But the extraordinary levels of violence against women in the
state of Alaska
and the underlying causes still require a much greater level of state-level
funding and oversight.  According to the Alliance for Reproductive Justice, who
lobbied to address Alaska’s
rates of domestic violence and sexual assault, when explicitly asked to address
these issues in 2007, the Governor did not respond. The Alliance has this to say on their web site:

Governor Palin did not deliver and did not take a
leadership role on any of these issues. In fact, this year, when there was a 7
billion dollar state surplus she did not step up to the plate for the women and
children of Alaska…we
were truly disappointed with her lack of action on this critical public health


Most of Alaska’s
funding for sexual assault and violence against women programs comes from the federal

Pro-Active Policy Addressing Violence Against Women

What does
responsible policy look like for dealing with violence against women?

In Illinois
one out of every seven adult women are the victims of forcible rape. This
number does not include women who have been the victims of attempted rape,
young women and men – including children – under the age of 18 years old, or
male victims of rape.

In Illinois
an amendment
to the Crime Victims Compensation Act was passed in 2001, co-sponsored by
Sen. Barack Obama, to ensure that sexual assault victims (or victims
of other violent crimes) can be reimbursed
for expenses
they may incur. In addition, Illinois has on the books the Sexual
Assault Emergency Treatment Act
, which mandates reimbursement for (among other services) STI testing, emergency contraception
and rape kits if Illinoians don’t have public aid or private health insurance.

legislators considered sexual assault, rape, domestic violence and other
violent crimes where women make up the majority of the victims important
enough an issue to address it pro-actively and with conviction. Illinois has enacted a range of legislation that seeks to
address the multiple layers of responses needed to adequately address sexual
assault including the Violent Crimes Victime Assistance Program, The Sexual
Assault Nurse Examiner Program, and the Illinois Victims
Assistance Academy.

And while it is true that only three out of every 10 rapes go
reported to law enforcement, Illinois
saw a decline in the
number of reported rapes and sexual assault from 1998 to 2006; from 6,146 in
1998 to 5,646 in 2006.

Candidates Take Stands on VAWA

The mother of all legislation dealing with violence against
women is the Violence
Against Women Act
(VAWA), spearheaded by Sen. Joe Biden and after years of
lobbying, passed in 1994. VAWA was signed into law by President Bill Clinton,
renewed in 2000 and expanded in 2005 (signed by President George W. Bush).

VAWA’s intent is to improve the national response to
domestic violence and sexual assault. VAWA combines a series of federal
sanctions and initiatives as well as national, state, and local resources to
improve the response to crimes against women. These funds are committed to four
specific areas: prosecution, law enforcement, victim service, and courts.

Sen. Biden foresaw the need for such legislation to,
among many other things, infuse crucial funds into state systems to fight
violence against women.  In fact, Alaska’s Council on
Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault relies on monies from this act. The act requires
federal fund grantees (states, Indian tribal governments or local governments)
to cover the costs associated with forensic medical exams (including rape kits) in
order to receive any VAWA funds. In order to receive these funds, therefore, Alaska state legislators
in 2000, under Democratic Governor Tony Knowles, instituted the state law banning
law enforcement departments from charging rape victims for their rape

Curiously, while Alaska
receives crucial funds from the VAWA act in order to administer its sexual
assault programs, Sen. John McCain voted against VAWA twice.

Sexual Violence Against Military Women, Native Women

There’s another layer of complexity to any story about the
candidates and sexual violence. John McCain’s military service to this country
is well known; his experience as a POW is a narrative he uses to explain how he
has and will prioritize our military should he become president.

It is worth asking, then, how a leader for whom a soldier’s
life is so important will deal with the rates of sexual assault against women
in the military. One in three women are sexually assaulted in the military.
Women serving in the U.S.
military are more
likely to be raped
by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire.  The situation is so dire Congress called a
hearing this summer specifically to examine sexual assault in the military.

What about Barack Obama? In the wake of the congressional
hearings, will he take a lead in examining what the Pentagon could and should
do to deal with this issue?

These are not the only stories of rape and violence against
women in this country. One in three Native women will
be raped
in her lifetime. Many of those women live on reservations where it
is often the case that, because of bureaucratic confusion over just whose
domain they fall under – Bureau of Indian Affairs, state government or federal
government – perpetrators are rarely prosecuted.

What steps would Senators Obama and McCain take to address
the devastating "maze
of injustice"
that Native women on reservations face when dealing with
protection from or prosecutions for rape and sexual assault?

These are the questions to which I want answers. These are
the central issues of a campaign, of an election to which Americans must pay
attention.  If rape victims have been
charged for rape kits in municipalities, towns, cities and states around this
country, we deserve to know why. But let’s not sell ourselves short. We deserve
to know a lot more than that. The system is broken. Revealing a hole here and a
scratch there unearths some superficial problems. If women are going to decide
this election, we should do so based on the policies that impact women most,
and which candidates will actually help women outside of politics. We can do
this by asking the important questions:

Which set of candidates understands best how to remedy the
culture of violence perpetuated against women in this nation and globally?
Which set of candidates pro-actively creates policies that address the root
causes of rape and sexual assault? Which set of candidates do we trust to raise
the status of women in this country and work internationally to do the same?
Which set of candidates’ legislative and leadership records reveal genuine
attempts at fixing the problems their various constituents face when it comes
to rape, sexual assault and other forms of violence against women? 

Asserting these questions in media coverage and exploring
the answers requires a deeper investigation. But the process will bring us
closer to what we really need to know about how our candidates prioritize
violence against women and the kinds of policies they would or wouldn’t

Rape kits are but one part of the story.

Commentary Contraception

Hillary Clinton Played a Critical Role in Making Emergency Contraception More Accessible

Susan Wood

Today, women are able to access emergency contraception, a safe, second-chance option for preventing unintended pregnancy in a timely manner without a prescription. Clinton helped make this happen, and I can tell the story from having watched it unfold.

In the midst of election-year talk and debates about political controversies, we often forget examples of candidates’ past leadership. But we must not overlook the ways in which Hillary Clinton demonstrated her commitment to women’s health before she became the Democratic presidential nominee. In early 2008, I wrote the following article for Rewirewhich has been lightly edited—from my perspective as a former official at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about the critical role that Clinton, then a senator, had played in making the emergency contraception method Plan B available over the counter. She demanded that reproductive health benefits and the best available science drive decisions at the FDA, not politics. She challenged the Bush administration and pushed the Democratic-controlled Senate to protect the FDA’s decision making from political interference in order to help women get access to EC.

Since that time, Plan B and other emergency contraception pills have become fully over the counter with no age or ID requirements. Despite all the controversy, women at risk of unintended pregnancy finally can get timely access to another method of contraception if they need it—such as in cases of condom failure or sexual assault. By 2010, according to National Center for Health Statistics data, 11 percent of all sexually experienced women ages 15 to 44 had ever used EC, compared with only 4 percent in 2002. Indeed, nearly one-quarter of all women ages 20 to 24 had used emergency contraception by 2010.

As I stated in 2008, “All those who benefited from this decision should know it may not have happened were it not for Hillary Clinton.”

Now, there are new emergency contraceptive pills (Ella) available by prescription, women have access to insurance coverage of contraception without cost-sharing, and there is progress in making some regular contraceptive pills available over the counter, without prescription. Yet extreme calls for defunding Planned Parenthood, the costs and lack of coverage of over-the-counter EC, and refusals by some pharmacies to stock emergency contraception clearly demonstrate that politicization of science and limits to our access to contraception remain a serious problem.

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Today, women are able to access emergency contraception, a safe, second chance option for preventing unintended pregnancy in a timely manner without a prescription. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) helped make this happen, and I can tell the story from having watched it unfold.

Although stories about reproductive health and politicization of science have made headlines recently, stories of how these problems are solved are less often told. On August 31, 2005 I resigned my position as assistant commissioner for women’s health at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because the agency was not allowed to make its decisions based on the science or in the best interests of the public’s health. While my resignation was widely covered by the media, it would have been a hollow gesture were there not leaders in Congress who stepped in and demanded more accountability from the FDA.

I have been working to improve health care for women and families in the United States for nearly 20 years. In 2000, I became the director of women’s health for the FDA. I was rather quietly doing my job when the debate began in 2003 over whether or not emergency contraception should be provided over the counter (OTC). As a scientist, I knew the facts showed that this medication, which can be used after a rape or other emergency situations, prevents an unwanted pregnancy. It does not cause an abortion, but can help prevent the need for one. But it only works if used within 72 hours, and sooner is even better. Since it is completely safe, and many women find it impossible to get a doctor’s appointment within two to three days, making emergency contraception available to women without a prescription was simply the right thing to do. As an FDA employee, I knew it should have been a routine approval within the agency.

Plan B emergency contraception is just like birth control pills—it is not the “abortion pill,” RU-486, and most people in the United States don’t think access to safe and effective contraception is controversial. Sadly, in Congress and in the White House, there are many people who do oppose birth control. And although this may surprise you, this false “controversy” not only has affected emergency contraception, but also caused the recent dramatic increase in the cost of birth control pills on college campuses, and limited family planning services across the country.  The reality is that having more options for contraception helps each of us make our own decisions in planning our families and preventing unwanted pregnancies. This is something we can all agree on.

Meanwhile, inside the walls of the FDA in 2003 and 2004, the Bush administration continued to throw roadblocks at efforts to approve emergency contraception over the counter. When this struggle became public, I was struck by the leadership that Hillary Clinton displayed. She used the tools of a U.S. senator and fought ardently to preserve the FDA’s independent scientific decision-making authority. Many other senators and congressmen agreed, but she was the one who took the lead, saying she simply wanted the FDA to be able to make decisions based on its public health mission and on the medical evidence.

When it became clear that FDA scientists would continue to be overruled for non-scientific reasons, I resigned in protest in late 2005. I was interviewed by news media for months and traveled around the country hoping that many would stand up and demand that FDA do its job properly. But, although it can help, all the media in the world can’t make Congress or a president do the right thing.

Sen. Clinton made the difference. The FDA suddenly announced it would approve emergency contraception for use without a prescription for women ages 18 and older—one day before FDA officials were to face a determined Sen. Clinton and her colleague Sen. Murray (D-WA) at a Senate hearing in 2006. No one was more surprised than I was. All those who benefited from this decision should know it may not have happened were it not for Hillary Clinton.

Sometimes these success stories get lost in the “horse-race stories” about political campaigns and the exposes of taxpayer-funded bridges to nowhere, and who said what to whom. This story of emergency contraception at the FDA is just one story of many. Sen. Clinton saw a problem that affected people’s lives. She then stood up to the challenge and worked to solve it.

The challenges we face in health care, our economy, global climate change, and issues of war and peace, need to be tackled with experience, skills and the commitment to using the best available science and evidence to make the best possible policy.  This will benefit us all.

Analysis Human Rights

From Protected Class to High-Priority Target: How the ‘System Is Rigged’ Against Unaccompanied Migrant Children

Tina Vasquez

Vulnerable, undocumented youth who pose no real threat are being stripped of their right to an education and instead sit in detention awaiting deportation.

This is the first article in Rewire’s two-part series about the U.S. immigration system’s effects on unaccompanied children.

Earlier this month, three North Carolina high school students were released from a Lumpkin, Georgia, detention center after spending more than six months awaiting what seemed like their inevitable fate: deportation back to conditions in Central America that threatened their lives.

Wildin David Guillen Acosta, Josue Alexander Soriano Cortez, and Yefri Sorto-Hernandez were released on bail in the span of one week, thanks to an overwhelming community effort involving pro bono attorneys and bond money. However, not everyone targeted under the same government operation has been reprieved. For example, by the time reports emerged that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had detained Acosta on his way to school in Durham, North Carolina, the government agency had already quietly deported four other young people from the state, including a teenage girl from Guatemala who attended the same school.

Activated in January, that program—Operation Border Guardian—continues to affect the lives of hundreds of Central American migrants over the age of 18 who came to the United States as unaccompanied children after January 2014. Advocates believe many of those arrested under the operation are still in ICE custody.

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson has said that the goal of Operation Border Guardian is to send a message to those in Central America considering seeking asylum in the United States. But it’s not working, as Border Patrol statistics have shown. Furthermore, vulnerable, undocumented youth who pose no real threat are being stripped of their right to an education and instead sit in detention awaiting deportation. These youth arrived at the border in hopes of qualifying for asylum, but were unable to succeed in an immigration system that seems rigged against them.

“The laws are really complicated and [young people] don’t have the community support to navigate this really hostile, complex system. That infrastructure isn’t there and unless we support asylum seekers and other immigrants in this part of the country, we’ll continue to see asylum seekers and former unaccompanied minors receive their deportation orders,” said Julie Mao, the enforcement fellow at the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild.

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“A Grossly Misnamed” Operation

In January, ICE conducted a series of raids that spanned three southern states—Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas—targeting Central American asylum seekers. The raids occurred under the orders of Johnson, who has taken a hardline stance against the more than 100,000 families who have sought asylum in the United States. These families fled deadly gang violence in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala in recent years. In El Salvador, in particular, over 400 children were murdered by gang members and police officers during the first three months of 2016, doubling the country’s homicide rate, which was already among the highest in the world.

ICE picked up some 121 people in the early January raids, primarily women and their young children. Advocates argue many of those arrested were detained unlawfully, because as people who experienced severe trauma and exhibited symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety, and depression, they were disabled as defined under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and ICE did not provide reasonable accommodations to ensure disabled people were not denied meaningful access to benefits or services.

Just a few weeks later, on January 23, ICE expanded the raids’ focus to include teenagers under Operation Border Guardian, which advocates said represented a “new low.”

The media, too, has also criticized DHS for its seemingly senseless targeting of a population that normally would be considered refugees. The New York Times called Operation Border Guardian “a grossly misnamed immigration-enforcement surge that went after people this country did not need to guard against.”

In response to questions about its prioritization of former unaccompanied minors, an ICE spokesperson told Rewire in an emailed statement: “As the secretary has stated repeatedly, our borders are not open to illegal migration. If someone was apprehended at the border, has been ordered removed by an immigration court, has no pending appeal, and does not qualify for asylum or other relief from removal under our laws, he or she must be sent home. We must and we will enforce the law in accordance with our enforcement priorities.”

DHS reports that 336 undocumented Central American youth have been detained in the operation. It’s not clear how many of these youth have already been deported or remain in ICE custody, as the spokesperson did not respond to that question by press time.

Acosta, Cortez, Sorto-Hernandez, and three other North Carolina teenagersSantos Geovany Padilla-Guzman, Bilmer Araeli Pujoy Juarez, Pedro Arturo Salmeron—have become known as the NC6 and the face of Operation Border Guardian, a designation they likely would have not signed up for.

Advocates estimate that thousands of deportations of low-priority migrants—those without a criminal history—occur each week. What newly arrived Central American asylum seekers like Acosta could not have known was that the federal government had been laying the groundwork for their deportations for years.

Asylum Seekers Become “High-Priority Cases”

In August 2011, the Obama administration announced it would begin reviewing immigration cases individually, allowing ICE to focus its resources on “high-priority cases.” The assumption was that those who pose a threat to public safety, for example, would constitute the administration’s highest priority, not asylum-seeking high school students.

But there was an indication from DHS that asylum-seeking students would eventually be targeted and considered high-priority. After Obama’s announcement, ICE released a statement outlining who would constitute its “highest priorities,” saying, “Specifically individuals who pose a threat to public safety such as criminal aliens and national security threats, as well as repeat immigration law violators and recent border entrants.”

In the years since, President Obama has repeatedly said “recent border crossers” are among the nation’s “highest priorities” for removal—on par with national security threats. Those targeted would be migrants with final orders of removal who, according to the administration, had received their day in court and had no more legal avenues left to seek protection. But, as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reported, “recent border entrant” is a murky topic, and it doesn’t appear as if all cases are being reviewed individually as President Obama said they would.

“Recent border entrant” can apply to someone who has been living in the United States for three years, and a border removal applies “whenever ICE deports an individual within three years of entry—regardless of whether the initial entry was authorized—or whenever an individual is apprehended by Customs and Border Protection (CBP),” explained Thomas Homan, the head of ICE’s removal operations in a 2013 hearing with Congress, the ACLU reported.

Chris Rickerd, policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington Legislative Office, added that “[b]ecause CBP refuses to screen the individuals it apprehends for their ties to the U.S., and DHS overuses procedures that bypass deportation hearings before a judge, many ‘border removals’ are never fully assessed to determine whether they have a legal right to stay.”

Over the years, DHS has only ramped up the department’s efforts to deport newly arrived immigrants, mostly from Central America. As the Los Angeles Times reported, these deportations are “an attempt by U.S. immigration officials to send a message of deterrence to Central America and avoid a repeat of the 2014 crisis when tens of thousands of children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala arrived at the U.S. border.”

This is something Mao takes great issue with.

“These raids that we keep seeing are being done in order to deter another wave of children from seeking asylum—and that is not a permissible reason,” Mao said. “You deport people based on legality, not as a way of scaring others. Our country, in this political moment, is terrorizing young asylum seekers as a way of deterring others from presenting themselves at the border, and it’s pretty egregious.”

There is a direct correlation between surges of violence in the Northern Triangle—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—and an uptick in the number of asylum seekers arriving in the United States. El Salvador, known as the murder capital of the word, recently saw an explosion of gang violence. Combine that with the possible re-emergence of so-called death squads and it’s clear why the number of Salvadoran family units apprehended on the southern border increased by 96 percent from 2015 to 2016, as Fusion reported.

Much like Mao, Elisa Benitez, co-founder of the immigrants rights’ organization Alerta Migratoria NC, believes undocumented youth are being targeted needlessly.

“They should be [considered] low-priority just because they’re kids, but immigration is classifying them at a very high level, meaning ICE is operating like this is a population that needs to be arrested ASAP,” Benitez said.

The Plight of Unaccompanied Children

Each member of the NC6 arrived in the United States as an unaccompanied child fleeing violence in their countries of origin. Acosta, for example, was threatened by gangs in his native Honduras and feared for his life. These young people should qualify as refugees based on those circumstances under international law. In the United States, after they present themselves at the border, they have to prove to an immigration judge they have a valid asylum claim—something advocates say is nearly impossible for a child to do with no understanding of the immigration system and, often, with no access to legal counsel—or they face deportation.

Unaccompanied children, if not immediately deported, have certain protections once in the United States. For example, they cannot be placed into expedited removal proceedings. According to the American Immigration Council, “they are placed into standard removal proceedings in immigration court. CBP must transfer custody of these children to Health and Human Services (HHS), Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), within 72 hours.”

While their court proceedings move forward, HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement manages the care of the children until they can ideally be released to their parents already based in the country. Sometimes, however, they are placed with distant relatives or U.S. sponsors. Because HHS has lowered its safety standards regarding placement, children have been subjected to sexual abuse, labor trafficking, and severe physical abuse and neglect, ThinkProgress has reported.

If while in the care of their family or a sponsor they miss a court date, detainment or deportation can be triggered once they turn 18 and no longer qualify for protections afforded to unaccompanied children. 

This is what happened to Acosta, who was placed with his mother in Durham when he arrived in the United States. ICE contends that Acosta was not targeted unfairly; rather, his missed court appearance triggered his order for removal.

Acosta’s mother told local media that after attending his first court date, Acosta “skipped subsequent ones on the advice of an attorney who told him he didn’t stand a chance.”

“That’s not true, but it’s what they were told,” Benitez said. “So, this idea that all of these kids were given their day in court is false. One kid [we work with] was even told not to sign up for school because ‘there was no point,’ it would just get him deported.”

Benitez told Rewire the reasons why these young people are being targeted and given their final orders of removal need to be re-examined.

Sixty percent of youth from Central America do not ever have access to legal representation throughout the course of their case—from the time they arrive in the United States and are designated as unaccompanied children to the time they turn 18 and are classified as asylum seekers. According to the ACLU, 44 percent of the 23,000 unaccompanied children who were required to attend immigration court this year had no lawyer, and 86 percent of those children were deported.

Immigration attorneys and advocates say that having a lawyer is absolutely necessary if a migrant is to have any chance of winning an asylum claim.

Mao told Rewire that in the Southeast where Acosta and the other members of the NC6 are from, there is a pipeline of youth who arrived in the United States as unaccompanied children who are simply “giving up” on their valid asylum claims because navigating the immigration system is simply too hard.

“They feel the system is rigged, and it is rigged,” Mao said.

Mao has been providing “technical assistance” for Acosta and other members of the NC6. Her organization doesn’t represent individuals in court, she said, but the services it provides are necessary because immigration is such a unique area of law and there are very few attorneys who know how to represent individuals who are detained and who have been designated unaccompanied minors. Those services include providing support, referrals, and technical assistance to advocates, community organizations, and families on deportation defense and custody issues.

Fighting for Asylum From Detention

Once arrested by ICE, there is no telling if someone will linger in detention for months or swiftly be deported. What is known is that if a migrant is taken by ICE in North Carolina, somewhere along the way, they will be transferred to Lumpkin, Georgia’s Stewart Detention Center. As a local paper reported, Stewart is “the last stop before they send you back to whatever country you came from.”

Stewart is the largest detention center in the country, capable of holding 2,000 migrants at any time—it’s also been the subject of numerous investigations because of reports of abuse and inadequate medical care. The detention center is run by Corrections Corporation of America, the country’s largest private prison provider and one that has become synonymous with maintaining inhumane conditions inside of its detention centers. According to a report from the National Immigrant Justice Center, Stewart’s remote location—over two hours away from Atlanta—hinders the facility from attracting and retaining adequate medical staff, while also creating barriers to visitation from attorneys and family members.

There’s also the matter of Georgia being notoriously tough on asylum seekers, even being called the “worst” place to be an undocumented immigrant. The Huffington Post reported that “Atlanta immigration judges have been accused of bullying children, badgering domestic violence victims and setting standards for relief and asylum that lawyers say are next to impossible to meet.” Even more disconcerting, according to a project by Migrahack, which pairs immigration reporters and hackers together, having an attorney in Georgia had almost no effect on whether or not a person won their asylum case, with state courts denying up to 98 percent of asylum requests. 

Acosta, Cortez, and Sorto-Hernandez spent over six months in Stewart Detention Center before they were released on baila “miracle” according to some accounts, given the fact that only about 5 percent of those detained in Stewart are released on bond.

In the weeks after ICE transferred Acosta to Stewart, there were multiple times Acosta was on the verge of deportation. ICE repeatedly denied Acosta was in danger, but advocates say they had little reason to believe the agency. Previous cases have made them wary of such claims.

Advocates believe that three of the North Carolina teens who were deported earlier this year before Acosta’s case made headlines were kept in detention for months with the goal of wearing them down so that they would sign their own deportation orders despite having valid asylum claims.

“They were tired. They couldn’t handle being in detention. They broke down and as much as they feared being returned to their home countries, they just couldn’t handle being there [in detention] anymore. They’d already been there for weeks,” Benitez said.

While ICE claims the average stay of a migrant in Stewart Detention Center is 30 days, the detention center is notorious for excessively long detainments. Acosta’s own bunkmate had been there over a year, according to Indy Week reporter David Hudnall.

As Hudnall reported, there is a massive backlog of immigration cases in the system—474,000 nationally and over 5,000 in North Carolina.

Mao told Rewire that the amount of time the remaining members of the NC6 will spend in detention varies because of different legal processes, but that it’s not unusual for young people with very strong asylum cases to sign their rights away because they can’t sustain the conditions inside detention.

Pedro Arturo Salmeron, another NC6 member, is still in detention. He was almost deported, but Mao told Rewire her organization was able to support a pro bono attorney in appealing to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) to stop proceedings.

Japeth Matemu, an immigration attorney, recently told Indy Week’s David Hudnall that “the BIA will tell you that it can’t modify the immigration judge’s ruling unless it’s an egregious or obvious miscarriage of justice. You basically have to prove the judge is off his rocker.”

It could take another four months in detention to appeal Salmeron’s case because ICE continues to refuse to release him, according to the legal fellow.

“That’s a low estimate. It could be another year in detention before there is any movement in his case. We as an organization feel that is egregious to detain someone while their case is pending,” Mao said. “We have to keep in mind that these are kids, and some of these kids can’t survive the conditions of adult prison.”

Detention centers operate as prisons do, with those detained being placed in handcuffs and shackles, being stripped of their personal belongings, with no ability to move around freely. One of Acosta’s teachers told Rewire he wasn’t even able to receive his homework in detention.

Many of those in detention centers have experienced trauma. Multiple studies confirm that “detention has a profoundly negative impact on young people’s mental and physical well-being” and in the particular case of asylum seekers, detention may exacerbate their trauma and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. 

“People are so traumatized by the raids, and then you add detention on top of that. Some of these kids cannot psychologically and physically deal with the conditions in detention, so they waive their rights,” Mao said.

In March, Salmeron and fellow NC6 member Yefri Sorto-Hernandez received stays of deportation, meaning they would not face immediate deportation. ICE says a stay is like a “legal pause.” During the pause, immigration officials decide if evidence in the case will be reconsidered for asylum. Sorto-Hernandez was released five months later.

Benitez said that previously when she organized around detention, a stay of deportation meant the person would get released from detention, but ICE’s decision to detain some of the NC6 indefinitely until their cases are heard illustrates how “weirdly severe” the agency is being toward this particular population. Mao fears this is a tactic being used by ICE to break down young people in detention.

“ICE knows it will take months, and frankly up to a year, for some of these motions to go through the court system, but the agency is still refusing to release individuals. I can’t help but think it’s with the intention that these kids will give up their claims while suffering in detention,” Mao said.

“I think we really have to question that, why keep these young people locked up when they can be with their communities, with their families, going to school? ICE can release these kids now, but for showmanship, ICE is refusing to let them go. Is this who we want to be, is this the message we want to send the world?” she asked.

In the seven months since the announcement of Operation Border Guardian, DHS has remained quiet about whether or not there will be more raids on young Central American asylum seekers. As a new school year approaches, advocates fear that even more students will be receiving their orders for removal, and unlike the NC6, they may not have a community to rally around them, putting them at risk of quietly being deported and not heard from again.


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