Teens Who Parent Still Need School

Anna Clark

The nation with the highest adolescent pregnancy and birth rates in the industrialized world has not figured out how to meet the educational needs of pregnant and parenting teens. In fact, we're going the other direction - gutting the too-rare programs that have developed to meet the unique needs of teen parents.

"It’s a 24-hour job," Bristol Palin, young mom and newly
anointed teen ambassador of the Candies Foundation, said on Good Morning
America on May 6. "Your priorities completely change when you have a baby." Her
life, she suggested, is consumed by caring for her baby and trying to finish
high school.

But in Palin’s recent television appearances, she didn’t
explain why school is so hard on teen parents, or why only one-third of
adolescent mothers receive their diplomas.

The truth is, the nation with the highest adolescent
pregnancy and birth rates in the industrialized world has not figured out how
to meet the educational needs of pregnant and parenting teens.  In fact, we’re
going in the other direction – gutting the too-rare programs that have developed to
meet the unique needs of teen parents.

In June, a two-year-old residential charter school for teen
mothers in Washington, D.C., will shut its doors for good.  The City Council cited truancy, curricular
problems, and gaps in special education services in revoking MEI Futures
Academy’s charter, and ignored the school’s pleas to support
improvement efforts. Because it is a residential school, the 50 students at MEI
Futures Academy also must find a new place for themselves and their children to

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Similar news came from Baltimore two weeks ago when the City
Council voted to merge a school for pregnant and parenting teen mothers with an
alternative program for boys. The reason? Cost cuts.

These moves follow New York City’s decision to close its
four "p-schools" in 2007 in favor of mainstreaming teen parents. A recent report from the New York
Civil Liberties Union evaluating the consequences of this decision found that
current services for teen parents are too few, too difficult to access, and too
poorly advertised – to an embarrassing degree. The drop out rates for teen
parents in New York schools are as high as 70 percent.

"We didn’t think it was a problem when (the four p-schools
closed) because they were really flawed – students weren’t necessarily going to
them voluntarily, and academically they were far from satisfactory," said Karyn
Brownson, the NYCLU’s teen health initiative director. "But when they closed,
the Department of Education wasn’t really prepared to replace and expand the
services (to pregnant and parenting teens) in traditional schools."

Insufficient data about parenting students makes it
difficult to evaluate existing programs. Beyond the abysmal retention of
parenting students, Brownson said that the NYCLU has heard anecdotally about
pregnant students being pressured out of school and into GED programs because
it was "obvious they’re not college-bound" and "they’re supposedly a bad
influence on other students."

Yet unequal access to education for parenting students is a
violation of Title IX, said Lara Kaufmann, senior counsel with the National
Women’s Law Center. "A student’s pregnancy, childbirth or termination of
pregnancy are all specifically included in Title IX’s protections against sex
discrimination in publicly funded schools," Kaufmann explained.

But while Title IX is famous for its role in ensuring access
to sports opportunities for girls, its protections for equal educational
opportunities for parenting students are less well known and frequently

"People are generally supportive of gender equity in sports,
but many don’t have the same sympathy for pregnant students," Kaufmann said.
"There’s still a stigma that pregnancy is their fault, that they should be
punished, and there’s a great myth that if you support pregnant students, it
will make other teenagers want to get pregnant too."

This myth "defies common sense–young people aren’t getting
pregnant because their school gives them access to childcare," said Kaufmann. "And
stigmatizing or discriminating against pregnant and parenting students is not
only illegal, but it is bad educational policy because it increases the risk
that those students will drop out."

While Title IX affirms the right of parenting students to
equal education, very few legal cases have been filed to enforce these rights.

This is because, Kaufmann said, "it’s really hard to bring a
lawsuit, particularly if you are a teenager. Lawsuits are not only financially
draining–and many of the girls we’re talking about are from low-income
families–but they also can be emotionally draining. ….  And it’s also important to note that many
pregnant and parenting teens are not even aware of their legal rights." 

Given that, Kaufmann added, it is "especially critical that
the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights aggressively and
proactively enforce the law in this area."

Not much of that is happening right now, however. There is
nothing typical when it comes to the services that schools offer to pregnant
and parenting teens because the vast majority of them do not offer any support
at all, said Kaufmann.

But there are some schools that prove the possibilities – and
the worth – of ensuring educational opportunities for young parents.

If we can escape the trap of taking anything we can get,
it’s worth looking at what, exactly, is working best in contemporary p-schools
so that we can develop a strong foundation for advocacy in New York, in
Baltimore, in Washington, D.C., and far beyond.

Catherine Ferguson

Detroit’s Catherine
Ferguson Academy
, a public high school for pregnant and parenting teen
girls, is perhaps the shining star of a school system that’s under emergency
financial management. Despite the school district’s struggles, CFA has won
national recognition over its 20 years of operation for its educational
innovations and high graduation rate.

CFA, which hosts up to 400 students (and 200 children) at a
time, boasts a 90% graduation rate and a 100% college acceptance rate for
students who earn diplomas. These numbers are superior even to many traditional
high schools in Detroit.

"At first, I was a little bit skeptical–an all-girls school?–it’s not going to work … " said Evelyn Locke, a CFA senior, on a
recent episode
of Al Jazeera’s Fault Lines. "But it’s really not that
bad."  Locke became pregnant in ninth
grade; this year she’s graduating and going on to study neo-natal nursing.

Ebony S. Griffin-Williams is a 1996 graduate of CFA who
credits the school for helping her get a high school degree and become an IT analyst. "Before
attending CFA my future was bleak. I was one of many of Detroit … lost children…
and I’m almost positive if I did not attend CFA I would have become a Teenage-Mother-High
School-Drop-Out," wrote Griffin-Williams in
an online review of the school
. "CFA became my family. One of the most
outstanding teaching methods taught to me by the loving staff of CFA was how
important it is to have self-pride."

So what’s helping these teen mothers to defy the statistics?

First of all, CFA takes a standard expectation for
p-schools – free on-site day care – a step further and offers free early education
classes, including kindergarten, to young children.  CFA‘s childcare staff
extends its hours for students taking extra evening classes at a nearby
community college.

The school offers a flexible schedule based on quarters over
nine months and four-day weeks; this leaves teen mothers sufficient time to
keep appointments and make up absences. Among the credits counted for
graduation are parenting education classes, which allow the mothers to
participate in activities alongside their children.

An on-site nursing and midwifery clinic offering pre- and
post-natal support minimizes absences. It also facilitates access to Women,
Infants, & Children (WiC), the federal program that offers supplemental
foods to low-income parents.

Speaking of food: CFA has an on-site organic farm featuring
vegetables, animals, and a student-built barn. The farm is maintained by
students, volunteers, and science teacher Paul Weertz. The project began as
Weertz’s creative response to pregnant students who couldn’t use chemicals in
science class; rather than dissecting animals, the students created a living
laboratory outdoors on vacant land that surrounded the school. Today the farm
serves as an opportunity for science and construction education, healthful food
served regularly in school, and activities for mothers and their children to

One of the greatest challenges p-schools face is a lack of
public awareness about their existence; when school districts and the city
don’t consistently promote educational opportunities for pregnant and parenting
teens, students who need those services are often unaware they exist, making
drop-outs at traditional schools more likely. 
CFA takes the lack of promotion into its own hands. This spring, the
school hosted a citywide baby shower that drew nearly 100 young mothers and
their children to the party. There, Principal Asenath Andrews encouraged them
to enroll at Catherine Ferguson and make the possibilities of pursuing their
education – even higher education – a reality.

And she did it with the spirit of celebration and
possibility-not punishment. Andrews once told me about how other p-school
programs she’d encountered were housed in the same building as programs for
youth who were expelled or in trouble with the law. "You’d think they’d done
something illegal," Andrews said.

Finally, and perhaps most uniquely, is that Catherine
Ferguson Academy is able to offer students essential consistency. Rather than
being a temporary "bridge" program that expects teen parents to move on to a
traditional high school, students are eligible for enrollment at CFA from the
time they become pregnant until the time they graduate.  New students register in August of each year
on a first-come, first-serve basis; there is typically no waiting list.

Lund Family Center

The Lund Family Center in Vermont is not a school, but a
501c3 nonprofit and a multifaceted residential program for teen mothers. While
its student body is primarily drawn from Vermont, Lund occasionally enrolls
students from neighboring states. Lund’s services come at no cost to students; its
programming is funded by a diverse base, including the Vermont Department of
Education, the Department of Human Services, private donations, and school
districts that direct students to Lund.

Among its many services is an education program tailored to
the needs of each student. Lund’s
New Horizons Educational Program is approved by the Vermont’s Department of
Education and serves about 35 students a year on a rolling admission (some
in-residence, others as day students) through an ongoing school year. On staff
in the classroom are three certified teachers, a part-time tutor and a
classroom assistant that work directly with students.

Of the teens that Lund serves, about 50% had previously
dropped out of school and some are coming out of the corrections system. They
are between the ages of 12 and 27, thereby serving a wider range of students
than CFA is able to, though not nearly as many of them.

"(We) … can provide transitional services to assist a
student mother in returning to her high school, or continue to educate the mom
until she obtains a diploma from her high school," Kris Hoffman, the
educational services coordinator, explained. "We develop educational plans one
at a time for each student, and have achieved great success in this model,
although it is very labor intensive for our teachers."

Hoffman is clear that p-schools can’t skimp on resources if
they expect to be successful. From access to diaper-changing, breastfeeding and
milk-pumping, as well as frequent breaks and appropriate maternity leave,
Hoffman emphasized that adolescent student mothers need flexibility. "Our teachers can teach three
kinds of math in the same room while holding a baby," said Kitty Bartlett,
Lund’s communications and development coordinator.

While CFA offers students long-term stability in their
hometown, easing the obstacles towards graduation, Lund’s residential model
gives students a safe space away
from their native cities. "The common misconception is that the early pregnancy
is the only issue facing the student mother," Hoffman said.  But according to Bartlett, most student
mothers at Lund have a "history of poverty, a pretty significant history of
trauma, and often mental illness, medical, and substance abuse issues." Hoffman
contends that the gender-specific environment helps the center to work with
multiple issues simultaneously.

The program offers "maternity leave, post-secondary
educational counseling, referral to substance abuse and mental health
treatment, free lunch and snacks, and peer support," said Hoffman.

Lund makes a commitment to the children of its residents and
day-school students, offering childcare even after the teen parents transition
out of the program if it makes sense for the child. It also helps teens find
quality preschools for their children in the town they return to.

Finally, Lund tries hard to help young mothers be teenagers
as much as possible and appropriate. "We’ve seen that not supporting this
developmental phase [of being a teenager] is detrimental to the vulnerable
families with which we work," Hoffman said. "Adolescence is a time of growth
and change, and simply treating teen moms as adults does not help them to move
forward toward independence."

Some in the teen pregnancy prevention movement are
suspicious of programs for adolescent parents, believing that they serve as an
enticement to pregnancy.  Hoffman argues
that it’s important to overlay such programs with traditional environments,
particularly for very young mothers.

"I’ve noticed that really young mothers, aged 12-15, become
almost institutionalized when they remain in teen parent education programs for
their entire secondary school careers, and might continue to feel entitled to
public assistance and community involvement if they do not move on to a
different academic setting," she said.  "However,
if educational support is provided in a teen parent ed model for these youngest
mothers during the year that they are working on pregnancy and childbirth,
return to traditional high school can be very productive."

White River Online

For adolescent student parents without access to a p-school,
online education is an option to continue schooling. As an alternative program
of the White River School District in Buckley, Washington, White River Online
serves just over 60 full-time students between the ages of 12-21 with a standard
high school curriculum. It issues diplomas and hosts an annual graduation

While it is not a program specifically targeting pregnant
and parenting teens, its flexible schedule and accessibility make it a viable
choice for them. Danielle McIntosh, a White River Online teacher, estimates
that at least 10% of White River’s students are pregnant or parenting, though
the only way the school knows if its students are parents is if they tell them
about it.

If they do so, White River Online is willing to work with
them and their unique circumstances. "I would say we unofficially cut them some
slack that we probably wouldn’t extent to other students," said McIntosh. "For
example, a parenting student recently had a sick baby. Just a cold, but nap
times were disrupted so work times were also disrupted. We just extended her
deadlines to meet the situation."

Ensuring Fair and Equal
Access to Education

School districts and cities that ignore the needs of pregnant and parenting
students would do well to observe that proven, workable p-school models exist.
Therefore, doing anything less than making these models standard and accessible
is at best ill-informed and at worst cruel. Not to mention bordering on
illegal – teenagers have a legal right to public education, no matter what their
parenting status is.

That translates into a requirement for schools to adapt
their policies for unexcused absences, make-up work, doctor’s notes, home
instruction, transportation, individualized graduation plans, counseling, and
class scheduling for the needs of pregnant and parenting teens – without steering
them into inferior or academically lax programs.

"I don’t think there’s one right answer (for how to support
the educational success of parenting students), in terms of whether programs in
traditional schools or separate settings are better," said NWLC’s Lara Kaufmann, while emphasizing that significantly more research and data is needed in
this area.

"We know of promising examples following both models,"
Kaufmann added. "What this tells us is that there is more than one way to
provide the necessary supports, and that’s encouraging. As long as they comply
with the law, schools can be creative about how they help their parenting
students. The important thing is the substance, not the form."

Whether it’s a four-year high school, a multifaceted
residential facility or an accredited online program, the goal should be to
provide several viable options for students to meet their various needs. While
some students need the stability and peer-experience of attending a
comprehensive school like Catherine Ferguson Academy in their hometowns, others
might not find this to be the best option.

When it comes to p-schools, Hoffman has a request: "If you
have these programs in your areas, please
help teens and tweens to see them!"

The thing is, there should be no "if" — these programs need to
be in all of our areas. To paraphrase the NYCLU, not just one but two lives
depend on it.

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) 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.

News Law and Policy

Texas Court Greenlights Discrimination Against Transgender Students

Jessica Mason Pieklo

The ruling was not a decision on the merits of the Obama administration’s policy, but rather whether it followed the correct procedure in crafting it, U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor wrote.

A federal judge in Texas on Sunday issued a preliminary injunction barring the Obama administration from enforcing guidelines designed to protect transgender students from discrimination in schools.

The ruling came in the multi-state lawsuitTexas v. United States, challenging the Obama administration’s guidance to schools that receive federal funding that transgender students must be given access to bathrooms that align with their gender identity rather than their biological sex.

Schools that defy the White House’s guidance would face potential loss of funding or federal lawsuits.

The lawsuit brought by Texas and states including Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, targets various federal memos and statements that served as the foundation for the administration’s position that the Title IX of the U.S. Education Amendments of 1972 federal ban on sex discrimination encompasses gender identity discrimination. The administration charges that transgender people should be allowed to use restrooms consistent with their gender identity.

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The administration overstepped its authority in issuing the statement in violation of both the Administrative Procedure Act and the Constitution, according to the states challenging the guidance.

A nearly identical lawsuit challenging the White House’s policy was filed recently by the state of Nebraska. That lawsuit was joined by Arkansas, Kansas, Michigan, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Wyoming.

U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor wrote that the administration failed to engage in the proper administrative rule making process when directing schools to not discriminate against transgender students in access to restrooms and facilities. The ruling, O’Connor wrote, was not a decision on the merits of the administration’s policy, but rather whether it followed the correct procedure in crafting it.

“This case presents the difficult issue of balancing the protection of students’ rights and that of personal privacy when using school bathrooms, locker rooms, showers, and other intimate facilities, while ensuring that no student is unnecessarily marginalized while attending school,” O’Connor said in his ruling. “The resolution of this difficult policy issue is not, however, the subject of this order.”

Sunday’s ruling comes shortly after the Supreme Court put on hold a federal appeals court ruling ordering a Virginia county school board to allow a transgender student access to the restroom that aligned with his gender identity.


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