Truth Is Indeed One of the First Casualties of War

Jon O’Brien

I agree with Jim Wallis that the truth has become a casualty in this war--because both Jim and the Catholic Bishops have twisted it. And if Jim Wallis and his conservative allies have their way, women will become another casualty.

This article was originally published on

Jim Wallis’ protracted lecture
on how abortion has become a central part of the health care reform
debate proves how truth is, indeed, one of the first casualties of
war–even a culture war. Here, I examine just a few of his statements
to show how his version of events is so far removed from reality that
we should reject his premises, arguments and conclusions in toto.

"The culture wars have begun again.

Jim is mistaken. Did the culture wars ever go away?
And if they did, who has reignited the flames? Throughout this process,
we in the pro-choice community have supported health care reform and
worked hard with Members of Congress to pass a comprehensive health
care reform package. We have stayed true to our core values, seeking to
overcome the struggles ordinary Americans have making ends meet. These
struggles mean that many cannot afford basic health care or have to
choose between maintaining their health and paying for other basic
necessities. The anti-choice lobby, with the US Conference of Catholic
Bishops and its Office of Prolife Activities at the helm, has shown
that it is willing to stop at nothing to ensure that its own views,
which are shared by very few Americans, held sway. This lobby, aided by
the 64 Democrats who voted to insert unfounded red herrings into a
critical life-and-death debate over the basic right of access to health
care, exploited the vulnerabilities of the Democratic Party. Wallis is
an exemplar of this lobby, seeking to limit access to abortion at every
turn. He was ably abetted by the self-described "progressive
pro-lifers" like Catholics United and Catholics in Alliance for the
Common Good, whose comparisons of abortion to torture gained resonance
among those who are unyieldingly opposed to women’s reproductive
freedoms. We should not forget that Catholics United and Catholics in
Alliance for the Common Good were founded with the support of senior
Democratic strategists–whose main interest was in a Congressional
majority, and not the goals and principles supported by those who might
vote for such a majority.

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"Those of us who have worked hard to find some common ground in
this debate, it’s now becoming an all win-or-lose situation…. [We
have sought] to help forge some compromise."

Jim is mistaken. He is not interested in any
compromise that includes access to abortion. The pro-choice community
has been working hard to find a middle ground in the abortion debate.
There were those of us who were more than willing to refine the Capps
Amendment that was rejected by the anti-choice lobby, but Wallis and
his friends worked tirelessly to reject any compromise along those
lines. Jim Wallis’ limited discussions with the pro-choice community
have been obstructionist and unhelpful. As regards compromise, there
was, in reality, no room for compromise once the anti-choice movement
decided that it was willing to trade health care reform in their desire
to further restrict access to abortion.

"The bill that was passed by the House was a huge step toward one of
the greatest legislative accomplishments and victories for social
justice in a generation."

Jim is mistaken. The bill, as currently
constructed, is like passing the Americans with Disabilities Act, but
excluding the visually impaired from the protections in the
legislation. Leaving out what Jim coyly refers to, with quotes, as
"women’s health" is anathema to those of us who fight for improved
access to women’s health care services every day. If we exclude access
to abortion for women in this bill, all of the other advances are
compromised. Reproductive justice is the basis of women’s
equality–without it, women become second-class citizens.

"The bill that came out of the House achieves many of the goals
of the faith community by providing health care for 36 million more
people, or almost 96% of Americans."

Jim is mistaken. The reality is that health care
reform was not initiated to achieve the goals of the faith community.
The aim of the bill was to provide health care for those who did not
have it. Americans were promised that if people liked their existing
coverage, they would not lose it. That promise has been broken.

"While we still need to include everybody — especially
immigrants for whom this bill is still very inadequate — the House
vote was a major legislative achievement."

Jim is mistaken. Just as he is willing to throw
women’s health care under the bus, so is Wallis also willing to throw
immigrants’ health under the bus. The needs or rights of any group that
get in the way of Jim Wallis’ definition of what constitutes a "major
legislative achievement" are expendable.

"Although the Capps Amendment was meant as a good faith effort
to find common ground…it failed to address many pro-life
concerns…Capps might have been a fruitful starting point for

Jim is mistaken. Polling has shown that many
Americans are willing to support a compromise on this issue, such as
that outlined in the Capps Amendment. Polls by Catholics for Choice and the Mellman Group prove
this. However, this compromise was not enough for anti-choice
extremists such as Jim Wallis. We should also remember that it is not
always possible to meet people half way. And in such cases, the
majority should hold sway. Sadly, the Democratic leadership decided
that the minority view, and Bart Stupak’s opposition to abortion is the
view of a very small minority, would win the day. And American women
were the losers.

"Sojourners…worked very hard to find a solution here and were one of the very few groups really talking to both sides."

Jim is mistaken. Sojourners’ discussions with the
pro-choice side must have been in whispers, because few recall hearing
from them and as I noted above, what we did hear was described as
obstructionist and unhelpful.

"Because the pro-life side wasn’t really invited into a real
discussion about possible solutions, the "compromise" missed some
important things, misread the real situation, and failed to pass the
tests of maintaining current law, abortion neutrality, and the status

Jim is mistaken. The antiabortion side decided that it
was not interested in any compromise, hence the "my way or the highway"
showdown between on one side Bart Stupak and the US Conference of
Catholic Bishops and Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic leadership on the
other. Therefore they pushed us beyond a compromise, "the current law,
abortion neutrality and the status quo." In fact, this is particularly
hard to fathom–given the demand by Bart Stupak and others that the
bill would fail if their language, and no version thereof was
acceptable, was not given a vote and included in the final bill to pass
the House of Representatives.

"Both sides had seemed to agree with the principle that no one
should be required to fund abortion if their conscience compels them
not to, and that no abortion should be paid for with federal funds."

Jim is mistaken. Both sides had agreed that we
would support a bill that would not further either side’s agenda.
Through our taxes, we are all forced to fund things with which we
disagree. For those who support immigration reform, including Jim
Wallis we understand, funding for unjust immigration policies should be
opposed. Yet we have never heard him support moves that would destroy
legislation over those issues. Why is abortion different?

"The pro-choice side acknowledges the conscience argument, but
wants to ensure access to legal abortion and believes that such access
should not be restricted by those who oppose the law on the grounds of
conscience. This tacit agreement also follows public opinion in that a
majority of the country doesn’t want to make all abortions illegal, but
doesn’t want public funds to pay for it."

Jim is mistaken. His approach to conscience
protections is very one-sided. In fact, we find that a majority of
Catholics supports federal funding for abortion, as do other cohorts of
the population. The claim that the public is unhappy with federal
funding is a myth propagated by those opposed to abortion. Would he
have us disregard the consciences of women and men who support abortion

"How to protect the consciences of both sides here — pro-life
tax payers and the women who want access to legal abortion — is a most
difficult issue to resolve."

Jim is mistaken. This is a false dichotomy. Prolife
taxpayers and pro-choice taxpayers might be a reasonable comparison, or
perhaps those who want to preserve access to legal abortion and those
who wish to deny access to legal abortion. The circle of people who
support choice extends beyond women who want access to legal
abortion–it includes men, women who are not able to or no longer able
to have children and a host of others. It is, in reality, a simple
issue to resolve. All insurance policies, federal and private, should
offer medical coverage for legal health services to those who want
them. If anybody is uncomfortable about what is offered, they can
choose not to avail of those services.

"More than 85% of those women, if present numbers hold up, will
pay for the abortion with private funds, and only 13% will use
health-care plans to pay for it."

Jim is mistaken. This is one of the many
misrepresentations by those who seek to minimize the impact of the
Stupak-Pitts amendment. The claim that only a few women will be
affected is irrelevant and wrong. According to the Guttmacher Institute, the claim is wrong on three counts:

Their study was of all women who had an abortion in 2001, including
women on Medicaid and those who are uninsured–who would not have been
able to access coverage for abortion. If we looked only at privately
insured women, the percentage of procedures billed directly to
insurance companies would be substantially higher than 13 percent.

The 13 percent statistic does not include women who pay for an
abortion up front and then seek reimbursement from their insurance
provider. This is common when a medical provider does not participate
in a patient’s insurance plan, as is often the case with small,
specialized providers, including abortion providers.

Some of the women identified as paying out of pocket would likely
have had insurance coverage for abortion care, but did not know they
had it or chose not to use it for reasons of confidentiality. Given the
stigma that still surrounds abortion, many women do not want their
insurer or employer–or their spouse or parent who may be the primary
policyholder–to learn that they had one.

"We could also take the two bills in Congress that seek to reduce
abortion by supporting low-income women in all kinds of practical ways
— one with support for contraception and one without."

Jim reveals his real agenda. Despite his carefully
nuanced positions, we know that Jim Wallis is anti-choice and opposes
access to comprehensive reproductive health services for women. In this
passage, Jim Wallis lets his guard down. In Jim Wallis’ world, women’s
health care services are expendable. We can see this in his willingness
to allow the debate over abortion to go even further and exclude access
to contraception as well. Is the Stupak amendment not enough for him?
No, it is not.

In short, Jim Wallis’ arguments repeat the talking points of those
who have sought to restrict access to abortion since it became legal in
1973. Wallis lays claim to the mantle of negotiator and centrist, the
voice of reason in an acrimonious and angry debate. In fact he is the
opposite. Wallis is antiabortion, and according to his essay, is open
to seeing health care reform go beyond the abortion issue and also
restrict access to contraception. His is not the voice of reason, but
that of a culture warrior in extremis. The fact that he wears clerical
garb should not distract us from the fact that he is more political
than pastoral and that one of his goals is to make abortion illegal.
Our mantra is "Safe, Legal and Accessible." His is "Dangerous, Illegal
and Inaccessible."

I agree with Jim Wallis that the truth has become a casualty in this
war. But if Jim Wallis and his conservative allies have their way,
women will become another casualty.

News Politics

Missouri ‘Witch Hunt Hearings’ Modeled on Anti-Choice Congressional Crusade

Christine Grimaldi

Missouri state Rep. Stacey Newman (D) said the Missouri General Assembly's "witch hunt hearings" were "closely modeled" on those in the U.S. Congress. Specifically, she drew parallels between Republicans' special investigative bodies—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives and the Missouri Senate’s Committee on the Sanctity of Life.

Congressional Republicans are responsible for perpetuating widely discredited and often inflammatory allegations about fetal tissue and abortion care practices for a year and counting. Their actions may have charted the course for at least one Republican-controlled state legislature to advance an anti-choice agenda based on a fabricated market in aborted “baby body parts.”

“They say that a lot in Missouri,” state Rep. Stacey Newman (D) told Rewire in an interview at the Democratic National Convention last month.

Newman is a longtime abortion rights advocate who proposed legislation that would subject firearms purchases to the same types of restrictions, including mandatory waiting periods, as abortion care.

Newman said the Missouri General Assembly’s “witch hunt hearings” were “closely modeled” on those in the U.S. Congress. Specifically, she drew parallels between Republicans’ special investigative bodies—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives and the Missouri Senate’s Committee on the Sanctity of Life. Both formed last year in response to videos from the anti-choice front group the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) accusing Planned Parenthood of profiting from fetal tissue donations. Both released reports last month condemning the reproductive health-care provider even though Missouri’s attorney general, among officials in 13 states to date, and three congressional investigations all previously found no evidence of wrongdoing.

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Missouri state Sen. Kurt Schaefer (R), the chair of the committee, and his colleagues alleged that the report potentially contradicted the attorney general’s findings. Schaefer’s district includes the University of Missouri, which ended a 26-year relationship with Planned Parenthood as anti-choice state lawmakers ramped up their inquiries in the legislature. Schaefer’s refusal to confront evidence to the contrary aligned with how Newman described his leadership of the committee.

“It was based on what was going on in Congress, but then Kurt Schaefer took it a step further,” Newman said.

As Schaefer waged an ultimately unsuccessful campaign in the Missouri Republican attorney general primary, the once moderate Republican “felt he needed to jump on the extreme [anti-choice] bandwagon,” she said.

Schaefer in April sought to punish the head of Planned Parenthood’s St. Louis affiliate with fines and jail time for protecting patient documents he had subpoenaed. The state senate suspended contempt proceedings against Mary Kogut, the CEO of Planned Parenthood of St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, reaching an agreement before the end of the month, according to news reports.

Newman speculated that Schaefer’s threats thwarted an omnibus abortion bill (HB 1953, SB 644) from proceeding before the end of the 2016 legislative session in May, despite Republican majorities in the Missouri house and senate.

“I think it was part of the compromise that they came up with Planned Parenthood, when they realized their backs [were] against the wall, because she was not, obviously, going to illegally turn over medical records.” Newman said of her Republican colleagues.

Republicans on the select panel in Washington have frequently made similar complaints, and threats, in their pursuit of subpoenas.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), the chair of the select panel, in May pledged “to pursue all means necessary” to obtain documents from the tissue procurement company targeted in the CMP videos. In June, she told a conservative crowd at the faith-based Road to Majority conference that she planned to start contempt of Congress proceedings after little cooperation from “middle men” and their suppliers—“big abortion.” By July, Blackburn seemingly walked back that pledge in front of reporters at a press conference where she unveiled the select panel’s interim report.

The investigations share another common denominator: a lack of transparency about how much money they have cost taxpayers.

“The excuse that’s come back from leadership, both [in the] House and the Senate, is that not everybody has turned in their expense reports,” Newman said. Republicans have used “every stalling tactic” to rebuff inquiries from her and reporters in the state, she said.

Congressional Republicans with varying degrees of oversight over the select panel—Blackburn, House Speaker Paul Ryan (WI), and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton (MI)—all declined to answer Rewire’s funding questions. Rewire confirmed with a high-ranking GOP aide that Republicans budgeted $1.2 million for the investigation through the end of the year.

Blackburn is expected to resume the panel’s activities after Congress returns from recess in early September. Schaeffer and his fellow Republicans on the committee indicated in their report that an investigation could continue in the 2017 legislative session, which begins in January.

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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