No News on Teen Sex (But Only Because We’re Asking the Wrong Questions)

Martha Kempner

It’s time to stop looking at the share of teens who've had sex as an indicator that needs to go down every year and accept that about half of all teens aren’t going to have sex and half are.

Last week, two surveys on teen sexual behavior were released by different divisions of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These surveys which are conducted at regular intervals provide a snapshot of what today’s teens are doing and a way of tracking trends over time.

So the big news of these two studies is, well, that there is no big news.  In recent years, there have been very few changes in the behaviors that we track such as whether teens have ever had sex, whether they are currently sexually active, and if they used condoms or contraception the last time they had sex.

The first of the studies, the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Summaries (YRBS) conducted by the CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health (DASH), surveys high school students every two years.  The results released last week were from the 2009 survey.  It found that 46 percent of all high school students report ever having had sexual intercourse.  This does not represent a statistically significant change from the 2007 results.  And while there has been a decrease since the survey started in 1991 (when 54 percent of high school students reported ever having had sexual intercourse), it has been hovering around the 46 percent mark since 2001.[i] 

The second study, released by the National Center for Health Statistics, is a report on teens ages 15 to 19 who participated in the most recent National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG).  The NSFG surveys women and men ages 15 to 44 and asks questions regarding “family life, marriage and divorce, pregnancy, infertility, use of contraception, and men’s and women’s health.”  The  report, Teenagers in the United States: Sexual Activity, Contraceptive Use, and Childbearing, National Survey of Family Growth 2006–2008, is among the first bits of data to be released from the most current survey.[ii]  Again, this study found that there was very little change in sexual activity among teens; 42 percent of never-married females and 43 percent of never-married males ages 15 to 19 reported having ever had sexual intercourse which is not significantly different from the numbers found in the 2002–04 survey. Like the YRBS, the NSFG noted long-term decreases (in 1988 for example, 51 percent of 15 to 19 year olds had had sex), but the numbers have been holding steady for awhile. 

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Interestingly, few organizations on either side of the sex education debate commented on the results of these studies. Those that did, tended to lump teen sex in with other numbers (such as teen pregnancy and contraceptive use) and suggest that the stagnation we are seeing represents a failure to properly address the issues.  While I am in complete agreement that we are failing to properly address the issues, I wonder if one of the reasons is that we are asking the wrong questions and looking for the wrong results.  

Trends over time are interesting but when it comes to educating today’s teens they aren’t all that enlightening. For one thing teens change over time.  In 1988, the year the NSFG notes as having the highest teen sex rate, I was in high school.  I’m not quite ready to collect social security, but let’s face it, there is no definition on this planet that includes me, at 37, as a young person. 

Maybe it’s time we stop looking at the percentage of teens who had sex as a number that needs to go down every year and start accepting that about half of all teens aren’t going to have sex and half are.  If we start there, we can use our time and resources to make sure that those who do become sexually active as teens do so safely, without consequences (such as unintended pregnancy and STDs) or regrets.  To do this successfully, however, we have to change our most basic attitudes toward teen sex,  overcome some misperceptions about what teens are doing, and start asking better questions.

We Changed our Message and Tone (and Not for the Better)

I came into the field of sexuality education at what I now see was an interesting time, a crossroads of sorts.  It was 1998 and the initial panic over the HIV/AIDS epidemic that had brought sex education into many classrooms (including my own) was dying down.  The public health messages that told young people and adults alike how important it was to use condoms were under attack.  And, the abstinence-only-until-marriage movement was gaining momentum both financially and politically.

Still, when I first began I don’t remember a consensus in belief or message that teen sex in-and-of-itself was bad.  In fact, one of the first workshops I presented (at a CDC–DASH conference nonetheless) examined the concept of adolescent sexual health and suggested that “responsible adolescent intimate relationships, like those of adults, should be based on shared personal values and should be: consensual; non-exploitative; honest; pleasurable; and protected against unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases; if any type of intercourse occurs.”[iii]

As the years went by, however, even those of us who strongly supported comprehensive sexuality education began to approach this topic in a different way and shied away from using phrases like “responsible adolescent intimate relationships.” The shift was certainly understandable given the political realities of the last decade.  The end result, however, seemed to be that both sides of the sex education debate began to start with the premise that “teens shouldn’t be having sex” or at least “we wish teens weren’t having sex.”  The abstinence-only-until-marriage side would go on to say “and that’s why we have to give them a strict message about abstaining,” whereas advocates and educators who believed in a comprehensive approach would finish that sentence by saying something like “…but many teens are or will so we have to provide them with good education to help protect them against pregnancy and disease.” 

While this approach was, as I said, politically necessary, it limited the conversation to at best one about risk avoidance and disaster prevention.  Instead of fostering a comprehensive view of teen sex, it suggested that our goal was simply to ensure that all young people made it to their 20th birthday without getting pregnant, getting someone pregnant, or contracting an STD.

Such an approach to teen sex is very evident in how we ask teens about their sexual behavior.  The CDC describes the YRBS as “monitoring priority risk behaviors that contribute to the leading causes of death, disability and social problems among young adults in the United States.”   The handful of questions about sex are flanked on either side by questions about whether teens wore a helmet while bike riding, always used their seatbelt, got in a car with a drunk driver, or ever carried a gun. 

We can’t get past this disaster-prevention approach until we stop treating all teen sex as a disaster.  Instead of just focusing on, as a colleague of mine used to say, “who put what where, when, and how often,” we could really help young people navigate the world of sexuality if we were to look at their motivations, thoughts, and feelings. 

Misperceptions About Teen Sex

The root of our society’s negative attitudes about sex is something that sexuality educators, psychologists, and historians have and will continue to debate for many moons.  My husband once glibly explained it by saying, “What do you expect from a nation founded by people so uptight they were kicked out of England?” 

Whatever the global source, I think some of the fear and judgment surrounding teen sex stems from simple misperception of what teens are doing. Here, the surveys that came out this week can help set the record straight. 

It’s Not the Youngest Ones

One of the problems when we talk about teen sex is that our minds automatically turn to the youngest of teenagers; those 13 and 14 year olds whose playground days are not far behind.  I would venture to guess that most, if not all, adults agree that these teens are too young to be having sex.  Moreover, research shows us that earlier initiation of sexual activity increases one’s risk, in particular one’s risk for STDs.  Some of this is just logical; the earlier someone has sex, the more time they have to accumulate partners, and multiple partners can certainly lead to more exposure to STDs. Some of it may have more to do with the characteristics and circumstances of those teens who do have sex early. 

The good news is that, for the most part, 13 and 14 year olds are not having sex; according to the YRBS, 6 percent of high school students report having had sex before age 13.  Not surprisingly, the percentage of teens who have had sex goes up steadily with age.  If you look at the YRBS, this number jumps from 32 percent of ninth graders to 62 percent of high school seniors.  Similarly, the NSFG found that among never-married males only 29 percent of those ages 15 to 17 had had sex compared to 65 percent of those ages 18 and 19.  Among never-married females, 28 percent of those ages 15 to 17 had ever had sex compared to 60 percent of those 18 and 19. 

Not everyone agrees that pre-marital sex is okay at any age, but I think few people find it alarming when 19-year-olds, many of whom are in college or living on their own under other circumstances, are having sex.  So, perhaps instead of focusing on the total numbers of teens having sex and declaring all teen sex to be bad, morally wrong, or something to be eliminated, we can look at it as a fact of life that as teens age toward 20, the majority of them will have sex.  Then, we can focus our efforts of reduction on those younger teens who have plenty of time to grow up.

Virgin/Slut Myth

Our society likes to categorize people, women in particular, as either pure and saintly or slutty and promiscuous.  While used on adults as well, this image is even stronger when it comes to young people.  In our minds and our media, there seem to be either responsible, studious young people with hopeful futures who remain abstinent or their less virtuous peers who lose their virginity in high school and proceed to hop into bed with any and everyone they meet.

Well, it turns out that sexually active teens really aren’t boffing like irresponsible bunnies.  They are doing what many single adults do; entering into a small number of selective sexual relationships.  Both the YRBS and the NSFG found that only about 14 percent of young people had had more than 4 partners in their lifetime.  Among never-married, teen males and females, 2 partners was most likely according to the NSFG. And, as much as we hear about hook up culture, it is not true that teen sex is all about friends with benefits and one night stands.  In fact, according to the NSFG the most common first sexual partner (for 72 percent of females and 56 percent of males) is someone with whom they were “going steady.”

We should also note that while many teens are sexually experienced far fewer remain continuously sexually active.  The YRBS found that only 34 percent of high school students had had sex in the three months prior to the survey.  And, the NSFG found that of those never-married teens who had ever had sex only 38 percent (of males and females) had done so in the last year and only 28 percent of males and 30 percent of females had done so in the last three months.  This suggests that sexually active teens, like adults, are being selective about when and with whom they choose to have sex.

Contraceptive Use

When it comes to responsible sexual behavior, one of the most telling signs is contraceptive use, and though there is certainly room for improvement, the statistics show us that sexually experienced teens are capable of protecting themselves against pregnancy and STDs. 

The NSFG found that 95 percent of sexually experienced, never-married teens had used a condom at least once and that the majority of them (79 percent) used a contraceptive method the first time they had sex.  This is even more important than you might think because research has shown that using a contraceptive method at first sex is a good indicator of future use.  In fact, the NSFG found that teen females are almost twice as likely to have a birth before reaching age 20 if they did not use a contraceptive method at their first sex. 

The YRBS asked sexually active teens (which it defines as those who had sex in the 3 months prior to the survey) if they used condoms the last time they had sex and 61% of them said they had.  This is somewhat disappointing because the numbers had steadily gone up between 1991 and 2003 and have not changed since,  but it does suggest that with a little prompting and education, teens will protect themselves.  Similarly, the NSFG found that among those never-married teens who had had sex within the month prior to the survey only 51 percent of females and 71 percent of males used condoms 100 percent of the time.  (I say only because we’d want that number to 100 percent, but 71 percent of teen males using condoms every time they had sex is pretty impressive and definitely flies in the face of the irresponsible “boys will be boys” image that comes to mind when we think of teen guys and sex.)  

In fact, when it comes to contraception, teens behave roughly the same way as adults (and sometimes better).  According to the NSFG, 89 percent of all women at risk of an unintended pregnancy were using contraception in the month of the interview.  (The NSFG includes most women who had had intercourse in the past 3 months as “at risk” whether or not they were using contraception. The only women who are considered “not at risk” are those who were currently pregnant, trying to get pregnant, sterile for health reasons, had never had intercourse, or had not had intercourse in the last 3 months.) When looking just at teen women, this went down slightly to 81 percent of teens at risk of an unintended pregnancy.[iv]  Again, not the 100 percent number we would want, but clearly not a generation of young women who are unwilling or unable to take the necessary precautions.

Looking at the facts from these surveys (rather than inaccurate perceptions of what teens are doing) suggests that it’s time to stop telling our young people that they are too immature and irresponsible to understand or engage in sexual activity, give them some credit for what they are doing right, and help them improve those behaviors that still place them at risk. 

Getting to the Heart of the Matter

The NSFG does ask some questions that take us out of the pure public health and risk assessment range, and give us a brief glimpse of what we can and should be asking young people and how we can help them think critically about sexual behavior. 

For example, the NSFG asks sexually experienced teens how they felt about the first time they had sex.  Most never-married, females (47 percent) said they had mixed feelings about the first time they had sex “part of me wanted it to happen at the time and part of me didn’t” though a similar number (43 percent) said they “really wanted it to happen at the time.”  Not surprisingly, the older a teen was when she first had sex, the more likely she was to say she really wanted it to happen.  And, though, never-married, teen males  were more likely to report they “really wanted it to happen” (62 percent), the same trend holds true for guys; those who waited until they were at least ages 15 to 17 were more likely to say this. 

As a sexuality educator, I think this information is incredibly valuable.  If we change our goal from preventing teen sex to preventing sex that teens will regret later, we can work to make sure that all teens wait until the right experience (the one that they “really wanted to happen at the time”) comes along.  We can do this by engaging teens in conversations and skills-building exercises that help them understand their own beliefs and feelings, negotiate sexual situations, and communicate with partners. 

Such critical thinking exercises will likely also improve condom and contraceptive use. While the good news is that among those never-married teens who had had sex in the 3 months prior to the survey, 96 percent of females and 86 percent of males felt there was a “pretty good or almost certain chance” that they or their new partner would appreciate it if they used a condom, some teens (10 percent of females and 8 percent of males) still found the subject of condoms embarrassing to discuss with a new partner.   Moreover, many teens (14 percent of females and 36 percent of males) felt there was a “pretty good or almost certain chance” that they would feel less physical pleasure if they used condoms. Interestingly, teens who had used a condom at last sex were less likely to say this.  This suggests that education about condoms designed to overcome both embarrassment and misperceptions about pleasure could go a long way in increasing the number of teens who use condoms regularly. 

Unfortunately, one of the most telling and alarming statistics to come out of this most recent NSFG has to do with young people’s attitudes toward teen pregnancy.  The survey found that 14 percent of females and 18 percent of males ages 15 to 19  would be “a little pleased” or “very pleased” if they got (a partner) pregnant. This implies that avoiding pregnancy is not the motivator many of us had hoped it would be when it comes to helping teens either delay sexual activity or use contraception.  In fact,  among those never–married teens who had never had sexual intercourse, only 18 percent of females and 12 percent of males cited avoiding pregnancy as their main motivator. 

Still we don’t ask enough of these questions, at least in part because there is a fear that doing so will send an unwitting message of acceptance or put ideas in young people’s heads. I don’t understand either of these fears; when the YRBS asks about drunk driving we don’t fear that teens will think we’re in favor of it and I can’t imagine an idea about sex that would come from a survey before it would come from say, Gossip Girl or Maxim magazine.

Let’s Change Again

I remember having lunch a number of years ago with a Dutch graduate student who shared some of his research with me and a few colleagues.  He had at his fingertips the average age that young people in his country had their first open-mouth kiss, how long it took them to go from that to other sexual behaviors like petting and oral sex, and from there to sexual intercourse.  He also knew whether these behaviors took place with the same partners or different partners.

My colleagues and I already knew that European attitudes were more understanding of teen sex than we are in the United States and we had long been jealous of their model of sexuality education (not to mention their statistics on teen pregnancy and STDs which have always been much lower than ours).  Still, faced with this wealth of information, we were envious.  Not only do we in the United States limit our conversations and data collection to risk behaviors, we almost exclusively collect data on penile-vaginal intercourse.  While some researchers and pollsters have looked at other sexual behaviors like oral sex as well as relationships other than those between heterosexual youth, such data are sparse at best. 

We dreamed of having this kind of information and talked about all of the ways we could use it to help teens. We could remind them there are pleasurable experiences other than intercourse, such as kissing and petting,  that pose no risk for pregnancy and minimal risk of STDs.   We could help them understand that sexual behavior is not necessarily linear and scripted; you don’t have to have intercourse with someone this week just because you had oral sex with them in the last month.  We could use it simply to understand the realities of sex for today’s teens.

Well folks, we are at another crossroads.  The abstinence-only-until-marriage movement is waning having lost much of its financial, political, and public support.  While it has not been completely defunded, as many of us had hoped, far less money is going to these programs.  Moreover, the federal government has put aside some money to fund more comprehensive approaches to sexuality education. Though this funding does primarily take a disaster-prevention approach, it is an important start.

I’m hopeful, though, that we can use this moment to make an even more significant change in how we think about, talk about, and teach about teen sex.  We have to start by changing our attitude and approach to teen sex from one of disapproval and risk to one of understanding and critical thinking, and by collecting more and better information from teens.  

Sure some things about sex, love, and relationships never change, but others do.  None of us know, for example, what it’s like to have deal with sex as a teen in the age of the internet, bullies with blogs, facebook, or cell phones with cameras. So, let’s use these surveys to find out what the teens of this moment are thinking, feeling, and doing. Because when it comes to teen sex I don’t believe there is ever no news.


[i] All statistics from the YRBS come from: Danice K. Easton, et al, “Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance –2009,”

Surveillance Summaries, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, vol. 59, no. SS-5 (4 June 2010), accessed 4 June 2010,

[ii] Unless otherwise cited, all statistics from NSFG from: JC Abma, et al, “Teenagers in the United States: Sexual Contraceptive Use, and Childbearing, National Survey of Family Growth,” National Center for Health Statistics, Vital Health Stat 23 (30). 2010.

[iii] This presentation was based on Facing Facts; Sexual Health for America’s Adolescents, a report written by the National Commission on Adolescents, edited by Debra W. Haffner, and published by SIECUS, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States in 1995. 

[iv] W.D. Mosher & J. Jones, “Use of Contraception in the United States: 1982-2008,” National Center for Health Statistics, Vital Health Stat 23 (29), 2010.


Analysis Human Rights

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

Tina Vasquez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“A Grossly Misnamed” Operation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asylum Seekers Become “High-Priority Cases”

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is something Mao takes great issue with.

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

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

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

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

The Plight of Unaccompanied Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fighting for Asylum From Detention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Culture & Conversation Media

Filmmaker Tracy Droz Tragos Centers Abortion Stories in New Documentary

Renee Bracey Sherman

The film arrives at a time when personal stories are center stage in the national conversation about abortion, including in the most recent Supreme Court decision, and rightly so. The people who actually have and provide abortions should be driving the narrative, not misinformation and political rhetoric.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

A new film by producer and director Tracy Droz Tragos, Abortion: Stories Women Tell, profiles several Missouri residents who are forced to drive across the Mississippi River into Illinois for abortion care.

The 93-minute film features interviews with over 20 women who have had or are having abortions, most of whom are Missouri residents traveling to the Hope Clinic in Granite City, Illinois, which is located about 15 minutes from downtown St. Louis.

Like Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming, Missouri has only one abortion clinic in the entire state.

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The women share their experiences, painting a more nuanced picture that shows why one in three women of reproductive age often seek abortion care in the United States.

The film arrives at a time when personal stories are center stage in the national conversation about abortion, including in the most recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, and rightly so. The people who actually have and provide abortions should be driving the narrative, not misinformation and political rhetoric. But while I commend recent efforts by filmmakers like Droz Tragos and others to center abortion stories in their projects, these creators still have far to go when it comes to presenting a truly diverse cadre of storytellers if they really want to shift the conversation around abortion and break down reproductive stigma.

In the wake of Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion law, which was at the heart of the Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt Supreme Court case, Droz Tragos, a Missouri native, said in a press statement she felt compelled to document how her home state has been eroding access to reproductive health care. In total, Droz Tragos interviewed 81 people with a spectrum of experiences to show viewers a fuller picture of the barriersincluding legislation and stigmathat affect people seeking abortion care.

Similar to HBO documentaries about abortion that have come before it—including 12th & Delaware and Abortion: Desperate ChoicesAbortion: Stories Women Tell involves short interviews with women who are having and have had abortions, conversations with the staff of the Hope Clinic about why they do the work they do, interviews with local anti-choice organizers, and footage of anti-choice protesters shouting at patients, along with beautiful shots of the Midwest landscape and the Mississippi River as patients make road trips to appointments. There are scenes of clinic escorts holding their ground as anti-choice protesters yell Bible passages and obscenities at them. One older clinic escort carries a copy of Living in the Crosshairs as a protester follows her to her car, shouting. The escort later shares her abortion story.

One of the main storytellers, Amie, is a white 30-year-old divorced mother of two living in Boonville, Missouri. She travels over 100 miles each way to the Hope Clinic, and the film chronicles her experience in getting an abortion and follow-up care. Almost two-thirds of people seeking abortions, like Amie, are already a parent. Amie says that the economic challenges of raising her other children make continuing the pregnancy nearly impossible. She describes being physically unable to carry a baby and work her 70 to 90 hours a week. Like many of the storytellers in the film, Amie talks about the internalized stigma she’s feeling, the lack of support she has from loved ones, and the fear of family members finding out. She’s resilient and determined; a powerful voice.

The film also follows Kathy, an anti-choice activist from Bloomfield, Missouri, who says she was “almost aborted,” and that she found her calling in the anti-choice movement when she noticed “Anne” in the middle of the name “Planned Parenthood.” Anne is Kathy’s middle name.

“OK Lord, are you telling me that I need to get in the middle of this?” she recalls thinking.

The filmmakers interview the staff of the Hope Clinic, including Dr. Erin King, a pregnant abortion provider who moved from Chicago to Granite City to provide care and who deals with the all-too-common protesting of her home and workplace. They speak to Barb, a talkative nurse who had an abortion 40 years earlier because her nursing school wouldn’t have let her finish her degree while she was pregnant. And Chi Chi, a security guard at the Hope Clinic who is shown talking back to the protesters judging patients as they walk into the clinic, also shares her abortion story later in the film. These stories remind us that people who have abortions are on the frontlines of this work, fighting to defend access to care.

To address the full spectrum of pregnancy experiences, the film also features the stories of a few who, for various reasons, placed their children for adoption or continued to parent. While the filmmakers interview Alexis, a pregnant Black high school student whose mother died when she was 8 years old, classmates can be heard in the distance tormenting her, asking if she’s on the MTV reality show 16 and Pregnant. She’s visibly distraught and crying, illustrating the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” conundrum women of color experiencing unintended pregnancy often face.

Te’Aundra, another young Black woman, shares her story of becoming pregnant just as she received a college basketball scholarship. She was forced to turn down the scholarship and sought an adoption, but the adoption agency refused to help her since the child’s father wouldn’t agree to it. She says she would have had an abortion if she could start over again.

While anti-choice rhetoric has conflated adoption as the automatic abortion alternative, research has shown that most seeking adoption are personally debating between adoption and parenting. This is illustrated in Janet’s story, a woman with a drug addiction who was raising one child with her partner, but wasn’t able to raise a second, so she sought an adoption. These stories are examples of the many societal systems failing those who choose adoption or students raising families, in addition to those fighting barriers to abortion access.

At times, the film feels repetitive and disjointed, but the stories are powerful. The range of experiences and reasons for having an abortion (or seeking adoption) bring to life the data points too often ignored by politicians and the media: everything from economic instability and fetal health, to domestic violence and desire to finish an education. The majority of abortion stories featured were shared by those who already had children. Their stories had a recurring theme of loneliness and lack of support from their loved ones and friends at a time when they needed it. Research has shown that 66 percent of people who have abortions tend to only tell 1.24 people about their experience, leaving them keeping a secret for fear of judgment and shame.

While many cite financial issues when paying for abortions or as the reason for not continuing the pregnancy, the film doesn’t go in depth about how the patients come to pay for their abortions—which is something my employer, the National Network for Abortion Funds (NNAF), directly addresses—or the systemic issues that created their financial situations.

However, it brings to light the hypocrisy of our nation, where the invisible hand of our society’s lack of respect for pregnant people and working parents can force people to make pregnancy decisions based on economic situations rather than a desire to be pregnant or parent.

“I’m not just doing this for me” is a common phrase when citing having an abortion for existing or future children.

Overall, the film is moving simply because abortion stories are moving, especially for audiences who don’t have the opportunity to have someone share their abortion story with them personally. I have been sharing my abortion story for five years and hearing someone share their story with me always feels like a gift. I heard parts of my own story in those shared; however, I felt underrepresented in this film that took place partly in my home state of Illinois. While people of color are present in the film in different capacities, a racial analysis around the issues covered in the film is non-existent.

Race is a huge factor when it comes to access to contraception and reproductive health care; over 60 percent of people who have abortions are people of color. Yet, it took 40 minutes for a person of color to share an abortion story. It seemed that five people of color’s abortion stories were shown out of the over 20 stories, but without actual demographic data, I cannot confirm how all the film’s storytellers identify racially. (HBO was not able to provide the demographic data of the storytellers featured in the film by press time.)

It’s true that racism mixed with sexism and abortion stigma make it more difficult for people of color to speak openly about their abortion stories, but continued lack of visual representation perpetuates that cycle. At a time when abortion storytellers themselves, like those of NNAF’s We Testify program, are trying to make more visible a multitude of identities based on race, sexuality, immigration status, ability, and economic status, it’s difficult to give a ringing endorsement of a film that minimizes our stories and relegates us to the second half of a film, or in the cases of some of these identities, nowhere at all. When will we become the central characters that reality and data show that we are?

In July, at the progressive conference Netroots Nation, the film was screened followed by an all-white panel discussion. I remember feeling frustrated at the time, both because of the lack of people of color on the panel and because I had planned on seeing the film before learning about a march led by activists from Hands Up United and the Organization for Black Struggle. There was a moment in which I felt like I had to choose between my Blackness and my abortion experience. I chose my Black womanhood and marched with local activists, who under the Black Lives Matter banner have centered intersectionality. My hope is that soon I won’t have to make these decisions in the fight for abortion rights; a fight where people of color are the backbone whether we’re featured prominently in films or not.

The film highlights the violent rhetoric anti-choice protesters use to demean those seeking abortions, but doesn’t dissect the deeply racist and abhorrent comments, often hurled at patients of color by older white protesters. These racist and sexist comments are what fuel much of the stigma that allows discriminatory laws, such as those banning so-called race- and sex-selective abortions, to flourish.

As I finished the documentary, I remembered a quote Chelsea, a white Christian woman who chose an abortion when her baby’s skull stopped developing above the eyes, said: “Knowing you’re not alone is the most important thing.”

In her case, her pastor supported her and her husband’s decision and prayed over them at the church. She seemed at peace with her decision to seek abortion because she had the support system she desired. Perhaps upon seeing the film, some will realize that all pregnancy decisions can be quite isolating and lonely, and we should show each other a bit more compassion when making them.

My hope is that the film reaches others who’ve had abortions and reminds them that they aren’t alone, whether they see themselves truly represented or not. That we who choose abortion are normal, loved, and supported. And that’s the main point of the film, isn’t it?

Abortion: Stories Women Tell is available in theaters in select cities and will be available on HBO in 2017.


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