Abortion

Get Real! How Can I Stop Feeling So Guilty About Having Sex?

Heather Corinna

I'm 23 and was raised Christian and sex has always made me feel guilty.  I got married a year ago and now can't enjoy sex at all. Am I being punished for having sex before marriage? Should I just accept a life without sex?

This column is published in partnership with Scarleteen.

chechelle asks:

I am 23. I started having sex with my boyfriend of 7 months at age 17. I was raised Christian, have stayed in the church until now but am seriously questioning what I believe. Ever since I first started having sex I have never been completely ok with it, always wondering whether I was doing something wrong or whether it was even ok. I would often feel extremely guilty once I reached the point of orgasm because it was like that was the time that I realized that I had given in to my desires and have done something wrong-again. (I had/have these same guilt feelings whenever I masturbate which I remember from age 12.) After the high school boyfriend I had sex with someone else a few years later but that one doesn’t affect me nearly as much. A few years after that I met my now spouse. We started having sex after a few months and I always questioned whether what we were doing was ok or not, but I still wanted sex and I still enjoyed it. We got married a year ago and now I just can’t enjoy sex at all. I just don’t want to. When we do have sex it does feel good but not great and I feel like I am being punished for having sex before marriage. I also had a lot of pain starting close to when we got married and I eventually learned I had trich. So I don’t know if I am now terrified of that happening again too? (even though we were both treated and I am supposedly cured) I have a great partner: he isn’t pressuring me to get better and really wants me to be truly wanting sex otherwise he doesn’t want it either. But I know he is getting anxious. How can I let go of the guilt that I have had for half my life? How can I enjoy sex again? What is wrong with me? I’ve discussed the spirituality aspects with several ministers and none of them think God is punishing me or that I have done anything wrong. I am also currently in counseling and we have talked at length about this sex issue and she is stumped too. I am ready to let go of this and move on but I just can’t. Where should I go from here? Or should I just realize that there is no more sex in this life for me?

Heather Corinna replies:

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Count me in as one more voice in the choir saying that I highly doubt G-d is punishing you for having sex outside marriage by somehow making you not want sex within it, or making your sex life in a marriage unhappy.

My own spiritual belief system doesn’t involve a god, but I did more than my fair share of both Bible and world religions study, and I think it’s sound to ask why a god would punish you sexually. What would be the benefit? To whom? How would that benefit you or anyone else or make you or anyone else closer to G-d? I also think it’s sound to consider that fact that the vast majority of people, now and historically, and of all faiths, have not saved sex for marriage. That’d be a whole lot of people to punish, and for what? Who have those people harmed, and how would punishing all of those people help anyone? While again, a god isn’t part of my own beliefs, I imagine that for those of you who do have/believe in a god, he, she, it or they probably has/have much better things to do and bigger fish to fry. I think any god would, for instance, be far more concerned about everyone in Haiti right now than about one person’s consensual sex life, don’t you? And if you’re Christian, you have to know that one of the central messages of Jesus we understand, historically or religiously, is that condemning people — which presumably includes oneself — was not the way to go. And for the most part, Jesus was mighty quiet on the subject of sex: the only kind of sexual immorality that Jesus condemns in the New Testament in the gospels is adultery.

I also always feel that it’s really important to remind people, even though I know some folks don’t approve of this messaging, that there are a world of things the Old and New Testament says are acceptable and unacceptable, and it’s so important to really try and look at the big picture, rather than only reading it or applying it selectively. For instance, I strongly doubt you’d feel it was acceptable to prostitute your daughters or have sex with them (Genesis), or that if you don’t take one day off for every seven, you should be put to death (Exodus). Yet, those messages are part of the Bible, just like the issue of sex inside and outside marriage is. You probably also aren’t on board (at least, I really hope you’re not) with things like the racism, anti-semitism and sexism so omnipresent in the words of the Apostle Paul, with the idea of stoning women to death (Deuteronomy) or the notion that even just LOOKING at a woman who is menstruating isn’t okay (Levictus). You probably don’t think that it’s necessary for all women to be in pain during childbirth because one woman did something G-d didn’t like, nor that even if G-d says it’s okay, that it’s truly okay to sell your children into slavery (both Exodus). Why decide that one thing the Bible says must be right, while easily deciding others obviously aren’t? Why is premarital or extra marital sex something you still feel terrible about while you don’t feel any such guilt for working sometimes on a Sunday?

It might also be of important, especially if you’re not familiar with this history, to bear in mind that for most of history, marriage hasn’t actually been about romance, nor had the aim of a mutually beneficial and pleasurable sex life, especially for women. That isn’t to say there cannot be marriages which are romantic and in which a healthy, satisfying and pleasurable sexual life isn’t a part: there most certainly can be, and there most certainly are. However, when we’re talking about your religion regarding sex in and out of marriage, there’s little to support that any of those guidelines or rules had much, if anything, to do with enjoyment and pleasure. If we’re going to really talk about you, especially as a woman, having healthy sexual desire, enjoying sex and having a pleasurable sex life, we’re far afield of anything in the Bible, because historically, the thinkers and authors represented just were not there yet, largely because the status of women on the whole — insofar as our rights, or the idea that we had or should have any sort of real equity — was so different when it was written.

In addition, not every love relationship is a sexual relationship, and not everyone who loves each other has sexual feelings for, or chemistry with, one another. We all already know that just due to all the kinds of love we may have in our life, like the love a mother may have for a child or the child for that parent; like our platonic friendships or relationships with teachers or mentors. As well, as relationships grow and change, and individual people’s daily lives fluctuate and impact them, it’s not uncommon for people to have times when their sex drives aren’t particularly high, or when sex isn’t working out so well in a given relationship. Because you seem to have always had at least some negative feelings about sex and your sexual choices, I can’t know if your partnership now is or really was a good sexual match for you or not, but I do think that’s something to consider — even if he’s a great guy who you love — particularly when you have a history of second-guessing your own feelings around sex a lot. It’s certainly something to talk with your therapist about.

You express that when you started being sexual with your spouse that you had mixed feelings about it. You say that you enjoyed it, but still didn’t feel totally right about it. You also say that even with not feeling totally right, you chose to engage in these sexual relationships anyway. That right there will tend to impact people’s sex drives and their enjoyment of sex, and will also tend to make it tougher for a person to make their own best choices around sex and sexual partnerships. Have you ever worked to resolve those initial feelings? If not, that’s one place to start, and having talks with your ministers and a counselor, it sounds like you’ve gotten a good start with that. In terms of your counseling, it may just be that you need some more time in that process to work through this. Results from counseling are infrequently instant: working through big issues tends to take time, sometimes months or years, depending. I have to be honest and say that I’m a bit concerned that it sounds like you still are not in a sexual partnership that you chose and felt 100 percent great about from the start. It is likely to be harder for you to resolve these issues without the ability and the freedom to only be in sexual relationships where there isn’t any history of you having sex you didn’t feel good about. Not impossible, just a lot tougher, and it will probably take longer than you want it to.

However, it also sounds like right now, neither of you wants to be sexual with the other, given the situation. There are so many reasons why that could be, and with only this tiny glimpse into one aspect of your relationship and life (and none, really, into his), it’s impossible for me to say much on why that might be happening. But both of you might take a look at this list here to see if anything there might be playing a part in your lack of desire. You can also check in together to be sure that your relationship, as a whole, is working for both of you. Unresolved issues or conflicts in a relationship, including those that aren’t about sex at all, can have a big influence on a couples sex life. If you’ve only been going into counseling by yourself, it may be that it’s also time for couples counseling, especially if there are any issues or conflicts troubling you that you can’t seem to resolve.

I want to also briefly unpack the trichomoniasis for you. Trich is an infection, like say, a sinus infection, that once treated is cured. A person can get it again if someone else they’re intimate with has it or gets it elsewhere, but it’s not going to just show up again out of nowhere. There is no “supposedly” here: if you got treated and now test negative, you don’t have it, plain and simple. If you trust tests for, say, diabetes, there’s no sound reason to be skeptical about the same kind of tests for a sexually transmitted infection. STIs are illnesses just like any other. Illnesses are not punishments. I don’t believe you got trich because you did something morally wrong just like I don’t think my dog got an ear infection because she did. Infections and other kinds of illness are simply part of the unavoidable biology and ecology of all life forms. The first outbreak of the Ebola virus was among nuns very devotedly providing needed care for people in Zaire: do you think G-d was punishing them?

One suggestion I can make for right now is that you try just taking sex off the table for a while. Seriously, worrying about this this much has got to be really wearing you out and causing you a lot of stress. Talking about how everyone wants to want or enjoy sex but how one or both people are not is rarely something that anyone is going to find particularly arousing: in other words, overfocus on sex can be a real turn-off. In long-term partnerships, there will almost always be times when the sexual aspect is particularly high-key and also particularly low-key, either for one or all partners. If you chose to get married, your relationship is probably about more than sex, so why not focus on the parts of the relationship that are going well right now, and which both of you DO enjoy. Sometimes a sexual lull can actually be something we can manifest into an opportunity to explore and further grow other parts of our relationship. How about taking this time now to do that instead? You may even find that just putting your shared energies into other parts of your relationship makes some positive differences in your sex life and sexual feelings over time.

I think you’ll also want to try very hard to not make any of this about what you need to do to meet your partner’s sexual needs or desires. In other words, if you figure you’d better fix this soon because of what he wants, that’s not likely to be healthy for you or your sexuality, and it’s also just going to put more pressure on you, which never helps. If he has needs that are not getting met while you work this out, you two have options. He can meet some of those needs with masturbation. You two can also have physical intimacy he may want without it having to be expressly sexual or about genital sex, such as via things like cuddling and kissing, massage or sensate focus.

One other suggestion I have is to check in with your own sexuality and sex life, the one separate from your partner. In other words, I’m talking about masturbation. Do both of you still masturbate? If so, how are each of you feeling when it comes to sex with yourself? Have you talked about masturbation and trying to get back to a healthy solo sex life with your counselor, too? When your sexuality as a whole is in a bad place, and you’re trying to address it, it’s important to look at the whole picture, not just a sexual relationship with a partner. What your sex life is like all by yourself is going to play a part in all of this.

I’d also encourage you to try and be as open as you can to working through this without being attached to any one result. It may turn out that at the end of the road, you and your spouse wind up creating a great sexual relationship you both desire and enjoy. But it may also turn out that this isn’t the right sexual partnership for you, or that to get to a good sexual place with a partner, you really need a partnership that starts out on the best footing possible, where you were able to walk into it feeling good about it right from the start. If you’re trying to get to a place with this that is about what you AND he wants, rather than trying to get to the place that’s just about you, first, you may well be putting up road blocks to getting to a better place that’s ultimately most right for you, and most right for you both, that given. I know it’s not at all easy to do that when you have already made agreements with someone, but in healthy relationships, agreements should always be flexible enough that, if and when they need to be, they can be adapted to be sure they’re really serving everyone best and really are the right ones for everyone involved per who you each are, what you each want, and what really works in that respect.

I want to make sure that you know, so that you don’t feel alone, that many, many people struggle with guilt and shame around sex, people who have made a wide variety of choices, including those who have never had sex with anyone at all, or those who have only ever had sex with a spouse. Overall, our culture — largely influenced by religion, or perhaps more accurately, how some people or groups enact or interpret a given religion — has a long history of enabling both, and trying to use guilt and shame around sex for social control, especially of women (or more accurately, of people who are women, who identify as women, or who our culture or men identify as not-men).

What you express throughout this post is a very long history of guilt and shame around your sexuality, starting with masturbation in your early teens. If you felt ashamed and guilty that early, chances are good that’s due to negative messages you got in even earlier childhood about sex and sexuality. You also express a long history of what sounds like never quite feeling like sex was right or okay in any context, including in your marriage now, as well as having experienced pain with sex, and having a sexual relationship now where your physical enjoyment of sex isn’t all that. All of that given, we’re more likely talking about guilt you have felt for not half your life, but all or most of your life, so I’d actually be pretty surprised if you were having a sex life you felt really great about right now; surprised if you felt A-OK with your sexuality as a whole.

For some people, guilt and shame around sexuality has been so formative, ongoing and severe that it literally debilitates a person. It’s particularly pervasive among women and GLBT people: groups who are and have been very sexually marginalized. This may well be the case for you and you may need specific help. Is your counselor a sexual therapist? If not, and that counseling doesn’t seem to get you anywhere with this over the next few weeks, you may want to ask for a referral for one. I hear you when you say you’re ready to let this go, and one reason why you and your counselor may not be making any real headway, or why she may feel “stumped,” is that you just need help from someone else more specifically trained in sexuality.

When I asked of our Sexperts, Dr. Ruthie, about your situation, she agreed that although all therapists get a little training on the topic of sexuality, most really don’t get very much. She expressed, as I have, that this problem is very common for women with a religious upbringing but that it is rarely talked about out loud. She says it’s one of the most common situations that she runs into as a sexuality educator with a background in couples therapy. She also agreed that a specially trained therapist, sexuality educator or quality relationship/sex coach will be able to help walk you through the process of letting go of this and moving to a place where you can appreciate her body. You can start your search for that kind of therapist at AASECT’s listings, and if you can’t find someone there you can still write to therapists/educators on that list to ask for referrals. She also suggested you take a look at The Religious Institute which is run by the well respected — and seriously wonderful — Reverend Haffner and brings together many people (leaders and practitioners) of faith to a new concept of sexuality and intimacy.

I want to finish by saying a few things to you about all of this from my own heart and mind. I don’t expect them to be magic words that result in you suddenly feeling all better, but my hope is they may have some positive impact, especially when filed with the other supportive things your ministers and counselor have been telling you.

While I don’t share your religion, I have yet to see any sound evidence that people enjoying pleasure, sexual or otherwise, in ways that do not hurt anyone — that everyone involves wants and engages in with basic care and respect for themselves and others — has anything but positive benefits for people and the world as a whole. Looking at history as well as at the current time, all I can see coming out of a lack of pleasure and real intimacy, and out of repression, guilt, fear and shame around sex are negatives like sexual violence, self-hatred, self-injury or illness (because when people are ashamed or fearful, they’re less likely to protect themselves or others and get sexual healthcare: you want to finger something for STIs, shame is a biggie), people staying in sexually abusive relationships and a host of other ills and harms. Not only do I think you didn’t do anything wrong in choosing to be sexual when you wanted to, I think guilt and shame are more likely to hurt you and others (though more yourself than anyone else) than wanted, consensual sex ever could. I also just can’t imagine anyone’s god would want anyone to suffer like that. Purposefully causing people pain, be it done by a person or a deity, just don’t fit with my understanding of what is sacred, just, enlightened and loving.

I hope if you feel close to a god, that just as I’d hope with any other kind of relationship, that person or being isn’t abusive, but is someone you strongly feel and know would do all they could to keep you safe from harm and pain, not someone who would purposefully try and cause them; I hope that god is someone who loves and respects you for who you are, not whose love is conditional based on what they want for themselves.

I’m of the mind that sexuality has an element of the sacred to it in any permutation it has when it’s something people enact with mindfulness are care and is about one way of humanely expressing who they are and how they feel. I think that can be the case in, outside of or without marriage; for those of us who are gay, lesbian or bisexual just as much as for those who are straight; for those of us who are not monogamous just like for those who are. I also think our bodies, every part and aspect of them, including our sexuality, are just as sacred or holy as our hearts and minds. If you consider any one part of yourself holy, I don’t think it makes any sense to consider another part unholy: all of who we are is a package deal, after all.

In my book, nothing is intrinsically wrong with you or your choices. You have simply likely been, as many people have, deeply and negatively impacted by guilt and shame and need to go through the process of unpacking and ditching them, and give yourself the blessing you need to feel truly comfortable with and accepting of your sexuality, your sexual history and yourself.

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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