Get Real! Why Am I So Paranoid About Sex?

Heather Corinna

It's not paranoid to be concerned about pregnancy with sexual activities which can result in pregnancy. It's not paranoid to worry about pregnancy happening when it isn't what you want or are ready for.

alsexnikkah asks:

I’m 13. I want to have sex really bad but I still don’t have a
boyfriend and blah blah blah. I KNOW how to not have sex with a guy
that I JUST met. I like to go out with a guy for awhile before I do
anything like sex. But when I do have a boyfriend for like a year I
would like to have sex. But I am always freaking out about getting
pregnant! But I can’t wait if I find someone that I like for awhile and
stuff! And like I would like to do oral. But I am scared if I will get
herpes or something. I’m always so paranoid about this! :|

Heather replies:

I dig in here, I want to make clear that I don’t think there is any one
right age, right time, or right kind of relationship for everyone when
it comes to what makes sex right or best. That varies from
person-to-person a lot, and isn’t usually based on something as simple
as only how old we are. I do think — and working with people and their
sex lives for as long as I have, feel comfortable saying I know —
there are some core things that tend to make for best sexual choices
with people of every age, though, so I want to address some of those
with you. I also want to present some things which are going to
be more challenging for you with partnered sex at your age, things
which often won’t be as challenging just a few short years from now.

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I hope you’ll know that my interest is in doing what I can to help people figure out what’s right for them
sexually, not what I or anyone else thinks is right for you. I want
everyone to have a sex life — whenever they have it, and at every
stage of your life — that’s beneficial to you, that’s healthy, and
that’s about where you’re at right now and who you are right now.
here’s hoping I can help you figure that out for yourself.

First let’s unpack in this is the idea that worrying about sexually
transmitted infections has anything to do with paranoia. It doesn’t.

To be paranoid about something means to have irrational or
delusional concerns. If I was worried that penguins from Mars were
going to sneak into my house at night to do experiments on my pug, that
would be paranoid. Being certain I was going to become pregnant via
oral sex or from a toilet seat are also things we could say are
paranoid, since pregnancy can’t happen those ways.

Sexually transmitted infections are very real and very common,
especially among young people: those under 24 have the fastest rising
rate of STIs. That’s because of where you’re body is at with its
development and because young people so often go without safer sex,
don’t get tested and treated for STIs too often — and the younger
someone is, the more likely it is safe behaviors don’t happen — and
tend to switch partners more frequently than many older people do. All
that while at the same time, young people often come to sexual
partnerships assuming they’ll be lifelong and singular even though
that’s rarely the case. While STIs are far more often transmitted via
vaginal or anal intercourse, some STIs can also be transmitted orally,
such as Chlamydia, HIV and, yep, Herpes.

Pregnancy is also very real. It’s not paranoid to be concerned about
pregnancy with sexual activities which can result in pregnancy. It’s
not paranoid to worry about pregnancy happening when it isn’t what you
want or are ready for. You absolutely should be concerned with both
these things, and do what you can to prevent them if you don’t want
those outcomes, either by taking a pass on the kinds of sex where they
are potential results or by doing things like using safer sex and
reliable methods of birth control.

Age-in-years, all by itself, is not usually the best way to figure
out if someone is ready, or in a good place in their life, for
partnered sex. But even though age-in-years isn’t all there is to these
choices, let’s also not kid ourselves.

13 is very young when it comes to partnered sex,
especially genital sex like oral sex or intercourse. Just so you have a
sound idea about the sex lives of others your age, especially since a
lot of young people aren’t honest with each other about sex, in the
United States, less than 13% of teens under 15 have had sex with a
partner. For those who have intercourse, most teens do so for the first
time around 17. What’s best for your peers may or may not be best for
you, but those figures are smart to consider: there are reasons most
teens wait until they’re older than 13 to have sexual partners.

Very few countries — and no states in the United States — have an
age of consent that is as low as 13. Many states provide a window in
which some or all sexual activities between same-age partners below the
age of consent are lawful, but there are usually still some
restrictions even then. In the United States, it is not lawful in most states for you to terminate a pregnancy
without a parent being notified or giving their permission. While you
or I may or may not agree with some or all of these laws and policies,
they are what they are, regardless, and can impact you or any sexual
partners you may have.

At 13, you probably don’t have the resources you need to get your
own sexual healthcare and contraception by yourself, or to manage an
accidental pregnancy (not to mention dealing with the emotional and
practical aspects of that). Even just getting transportation to those
services may be tricky for you. At 13, you’re probably having a tough
time with the family you’ve got: some sex does pose risks of pregnancy,
and dealing with a kid on top of your family is likely more than you
can handle or want to handle. Let’s also be frank: at your young age, a
pregnancy could pose some serious risks to your health. At 13, you
probably won’t feel able to be honest with your folks or even some of
your friends about having sex, which would make it a secret: not a good
recipe for a healthy sexuality. Sex can present challenges and hard
feelings sometimes even without unwanted outcomes, and to have a
healthy sex life, we usually need some good support from people we
aren’t having sex with.

At 13, you and your friends are just getting used to having sexual feelings
about one another, and have usually barely gotten started learning how
to manage those feelings, let alone enact them with genital sex. You
may find that partners or friends are without the maturity
to handle you being sexual with kindness and care: some people can be
very cruel to the youngest people when they’re sexually active, and
that can really hurt and become very isolating. You and partners also
may not even feel that comfortable with your bodies all by yourselves,
yet: if we rush in to intimacy, we can wind up feeling very overexposed
and insecure. Many people your age don’t have the communication skills
yet for a sex life that’s healthy, safe and equitable. You may not feel
able to be assertive enough with every partner, for example, to make
clear that you want to reduce your risks of STIs and need a partner to
use safer sex with you. (And since a lot of people assume that the
youngest teens are easy to take advantage of sexually, you may need
those skills even more than someone older does.) Developing that kind
of confidence and assertiveness, especially with sex, tends to be
something that takes young people some time, and which few people at 13
are very good at just yet. A lot of women still aren’t great at it at
30, but they also usually have better resources than you do. While an
STI, unwanted pregnancy or having a partner tell friends you’re a slut
isn’t something anyone wants, older people won’t tend to find their
lives, well-being or health as derailed by things like that as someone
your age can.

One other thing we know statistically is that the younger a person is, the more unrealistic
their expectations of sex tend to be. So, when younger teens say they
want sex, they usually have an idea of what it is that doesn’t resemble
reality or meet those expectations. Statistically, the younger someone
starts being sexually active — when we’re talking about genital sex
like oral sex and intercourse — the more often they later report it
was either unwanted or unpleasant for them. In other words, we don’t
hear from many young women your age who are sexually active in that way
where everything is awesome: quite the opposite, really. With anything
in life, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to try something that can carry
a lot of risks unless we’re pretty sure it’s going to be worth it. And
if your expectations aren’t sound, we can’t assess that very well.

When your expectations are more realistic, for example, you’ll know
that just being with someone for a certain amount of time and having
sexual feelings about them isn’t enough to decide if someone is a good
choice in a sexual partner. The quality of the relationship you’re in
with someone matters a lot, so, when we’re considering a partner, we
usually pay attention to how they treat us and others, we listen to how
they talk about sex to know if they have the maturity for it, we see
how they deal with other parts of life and our relationships which
require a lot of care and responsibility.

Lastly, as I’ve also talked about here at the site before, it’s
really tough for us to know what sexual activities we might want to do
in the abstract. For example, I like oral sex a lot, and do know what
it’s like, but that doesn’t mean I am going to want to do it with just
anyone, or with every partner at any given time. And there have been
things in my life I wanted to try in the abstract, expecting I’d like
them, but discovered I didn’t, or didn’t in a certain context or
relationship. There have been things I didn’t think I’d like or have
interest in which I’ve discovered I did. One thing we know about sex
and sexuality is that it often tends to surprise us.

I think in some ways, you’re putting the cart before the horse. You
CAN wait for partnered sex, of any and every kind, until it’s something
both you and whomever else you have it with are both ready for it,
including until a relationship has all of what you want and need in it.
And if you really, truly feel you can’t — if you feel you cannot
control your own actions — then that’s a sure sign that sex right now
would be a very poor choice for you. For sex with others to be healthy,
the people involved need to be able to have a good deal of
self-control, as well as the ability to think clearly and not too

What I hear you saying through your question is that you’re feeling
very scared about unwanted outcomes with sex, and that you also have
yet to find yourself in a relationship which has what you need in order
to be okay with sexual partnership. Additionally, you make clear that
you are feeling sexual desires very strongly, which you’re having a
tough time with and I also hear you saying that you worry you can’t
control your own sexual actions or choices if you meet someone you like.

To me, all that suggests that the best thing for you when it comes
to genital sex right now is probably simply to masturbate. Masturbation
is something we can all do — and the majority of all people do
masturbate — to meet our own sexual needs, to answer our own sexual
desires, to experience a release of those pent-up sexual feelings that
can make us feel so antsy sometimes. It’s also a great way to get to
know your own body and sexual responses, which is valuable to you, but
also will be valuable when you do have sexual partners. Extra bonus?
Unless you’re masturbating with hands or other objects that aren’t
clean, you don’t have to worry about STIs. You also don’t have to worry
about pregnancy or about someone else’s sexual wants and needs. When
we’re not feeling ready for or up to all that partnered sex requires,
or who we’d choose as partners aren’t, masturbation is a great answer,
whether that time of not having all we need for good, healthy sex with
partners happens when we’re 13 or 33. And it will tend to happen more
than once in our lives. Too? Most men and women do not reach orgasm for
the first time, and learn to be orgasmic, with a partner, but with

The idea, should you have it, that sexual needs can only be met by
sexual partnership isn’t sound. Plenty of people in sexual partnerships
find their sexual needs are not met, even when those
partnerships have some things they want and need, such as a given level
of commitment or having what they need to take care of their health.
It’s also very common for younger women to find they have a
particularly tough time getting both emotional and physical needs met
in early sexual relationships, especially if they happen too soon for
them or their partners. Masturbation meets most people’s physical needs
when it comes to sex, as well as many emotional needs. It is different
from partnered sex in that a) there are some things you really can’t do
only by yourself, and b) there are emotional wants and needs, like
having companionship, that can’t be met with masturbation. However,
this is another area where very young people’s expectations are often
unrealistic. If you think partnered sex is, sexually, RADICALLY
different than masturbation is — especially physically, where it’s
most similar — chances are that your ideas about what partnered sex
can or will provide are off-kilter.

Plus, it doesn’t sound like you’re not currently with someone you
are interested in a sexual relationship with, so it doesn’t make sense
to get too hung up on making sexual choices with partners just yet. And
when all of this is abstract — it’s not about another person you
actually are involved with and know well — none of us can know what we
want in a real way: we can only know what our fantasy is about what sex
could be like.

Way back at the top of the page, I mentioned that in even just a few
years, this is likely to be a pretty different situation. That might
seem hard to fathom, because it’s so easy to feel like the way we are
is how we’ll always be, but know that in the teen years, we change a
LOT and often very quickly and unpredictably. Who we are at 13 is often
very different from who we are at 16. What we’re capable of handling
and what kinds of skills and resources we have at 17 usually differs
from what we’ve got going on at 14. Later on in life, we don’t see such
big changes from, say, being 35 to being 40. But in a lot of ways,
adolescence is all about enormous changes happening all the time, and
every single year often bringing a world of differences with it. The
fact of the matter is that based on all we know, sex with a partner for
you now is way less likely to be something you both enjoy and that is
healthy for you all around than it is in a few years.

Don’t forget that for most people, sex is something progressive. In
other words, rather than leaping right to oral sex or intercourse, more
young people will spend months or years with things we call
"outercourse" like kissing and making out, dry sex (people rubbing
their bodies together while clothed) or petting ("feeling up"):
activities where there is not direct, unclothed genital contact. That
often makes sense, especially when all of sex is new, because spending
time with those things helps you and a partner get to know one another,
get practice communicating about sex with lower-risk activities, and
helps you make good choices about if a given partner is someone you
even want to do more with.

For now, you can certainly take the time you need to find out about
how to protect yourself as best you can from unwanted outcomes like
STIs, and how you can talk about that together with a potential partner
to make agreements. Reducing the risk of STIs is about practicing safer
sex with partners, not about being with someone for a certain amount of
time. That means a combination of behaviors you both do which include
using latex barriers and getting tested. To find out more about how to
practice safer sex and what it entails, check out the links I’ll give
you at the end of this page.

You also can research reliable methods of birth control now, and
find out how to use them right. If we’re going to have intercourse with
someone, using reliable methods of birth control consistently and
correctly is what reduces the risk of unwanted pregnancy, just like
practicing safer sex massively reduces the risk of STIs. You can also
take formative steps now to choose healthy relationships where you’re
not only cared for and treated with respect, but where everyone is on
board and committed to sex and everything around it being healthy and

I’d encourage you to trust your instincts in this. Often, when we
feel really nervous about something, or fearful, it’s for good reason.
Fear is how our minds and bodies give us cues about what is and isn’t
safe. I think right now a lot of why you’re feeling fearful now is
because sex would probably be too much, too soon for you. When it
isn’t, and when you’ve also been with someone who you care for and have
had time to build some trust with — as well as time to find out about
how to prevent unwanted outcomes of sex — I think you’ll feel a lot
better and less freaked about all of this.

Last but not least, I’d encourage you to talk to an adult in your
life you trust and who loves you about all of this in-person, rather
than just interacting with someone like me who doesn’t know you or your
life: you could talk to a parent or guardian, an older sibling, a
doctor, a teacher, a counselor, a coach, a mentor. Someone who knows
you is going to have a better idea of what you probably are and are not
ready to handle, and can probably better help you suss out your own
unique needs than I can. I also will again say that if anything at all
in our lives has to be a huge secret from the people who love us, it
usually isn’t good news. I know it can be intimidating to talk to
adults about sex, but it usually is worth taking that plunge so you
have someone who cares for you and has some perspective to connect with
about this.

I’m going to leave you with some links to look at, to figure out
your real readiness right now and to get a handle on what you’ll need
to do with things like managing risks of pregnancy and sexually
transmitted infections. So, look things like this over, then be sure to
give yourself the time and space to digest and process them.
Opportunities for sex really don’t go away, and as I like to remind
people of all ages, the good stuff that feels good on all levels is
always worth waiting for, especially since the substandard stuff not
only can be a real bummer, it can also result in some rough unwanted
consequences, too.

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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