Get Real! What If I Never Want or Feel Ready for Sex?

Heather Corinna

You should never feel afraid you have to do anything you do not want to just because someone else wants it from you for themselves, very much including having sex.

Anonymous asks:

Okay, well here is the thing: I’m a girl and I’m so afraid to be in a relationship for too long, because I think that I’m going to have to have sex. I know that my boyfriend right now wants it, but I really don’t. He says he’ll wait for me, but I’m still scared. I don’t think that I will ever be ready to do it, and so I’m worried. What if I am NEVER ready?!

Heather Corinna replies:

Because you don’t want to have any kind of sex or a given kind of sex now, in a given relationship, or don’t feel ready now or in this relationship does not mean you won’t ever. There are many, many kinds of sex — not just intercourse, and sex also includes masturbation, having sex by ourselves without a partner, and many different kinds of interpersonal contexts and dynamics we can potentially have sex within. I’m not sure if you’re talking about all kinds of sex or just one, but most people, in a lifetime, will want to engage in at least some of them and will feel ready for at least some of them at some point.

Appreciate our work?

Vote now! And help Rewire earn a bigger grant from CREDO:

VOTE NOW

But while that’s true for most people, it’s not true for all people. Some folks really don’t ever want to have some kinds of sex or even all kinds, because they just don’t feel those desires or don’t feel the desire to enact them. Some people feel the desire to engage in sex, but don’t feel ready, or know that the things they need to be and feel ready aren’t something they have yet, at a given time, or in a given situation. Some people feel the desire for sex and feel ready, but make a choice not to be sexual with other people, like because of ethical or spiritual beliefs or practices or intentions or other scenarios where they want whatever those goals or values are more than they want sex.

You’re not the first young woman (or person) who has expressed exactly what you’re expressing here. I find that sometimes when I’m mentally taking myself to a possible future that feels very scary or awful, that even if my hypothetical scenario is unlikely, it can help to go ahead and try and just go there intellectually and see what it might be like. When I do that, more times than not, what seems like a worst-case scenario often isn’t so awful or unmanageable when I think it all the way through, which I’d certainly say is the case with the scenario you’re envisioning.

So, let’s go ahead and say that you do find you never really feel ready, or that you never want to have one kind of sex or any kind of sex with a partner at all. Let’s just say that is what winds up being the case for your whole life, and envision what that could mean or be like and see if it helps you any.

If it was your lifelong reality, you’d probably find other ways to get in touch with, feel connected to and enjoy your body and self. Sex is not the only physical, emotional, sensory and creative thing we can do to explore and express who we are and to connect our minds, hearts and bodies. There are about a gazillion ways we can do that, like various kinds of exercise, dance, other movement or bodywork, like meditation practices, like cooking or creating all kinds of art, like singing along with the radio loudly and passionately, like gardening, painting our bedroom or other practical, but sensory, parts of living we can choose to really, fully engage in. Even for people who do choose to have sex, having sex be the only way to connect and express all the pieces of who we are doesn’t tend to be a satisfying way of living or a very rich way of experiencing life.

In terms of interpersonal relationships, you’d want to only choose to have the kinds of relationships with other people that were not sexual, and where it was understood and accepted that’s not something you wanted with people and not something they should expect from you. That would not mean you’d have no relationships. There are many relationships in life we do, may or can have that are not sexual by default, assumed understanding or choice, like relationships with our family members, with platonic friends, with children (those other people parent or who you do: you don’t have to have sex to become a parent, after all). We can have intimate relationships — relationships where we’re emotionally close, but not sexual — with friends or family, with teachers, students, mentors or teachers or people we mentor or teach, with people we engage in creative projects or work with, with neighbors or fellow community members. Not only are most of those relationships we already have and/or want in our lives anyway — this is another area where putting everything in one place isn’t sound: only having one relationship that’s a sexual or romantic one isn’t healthy — if and when someone does not want to have sex or doesn’t feel ready, all of those kinds of relationships and more are ways they can connect with other people.

Opting out of sex with people and not having that choice become or feel like a nightmare also would require that you be honest about not wanting sex. It would mean that when someone clearly or covertly says what they want from you is a sexual relationship, that you make clear you’re not the person to seek that out with; that if and when someone said, “But I’ll wait for you,” you’d say, “You really shouldn’t, because you’re going to be waiting forever. That’s just not something I want.” Not being clear about that, or going along with what someone else is assuming you’ll want that you know you don’t would at some point create huge problems since what each of you wanted and who each of you were would be at odds, so neither would be likely to wind up happy. At least one of you might wind up very seriously unhappy, angry or hurting.

It’s probably going to happen far more than once in your life that you want something someone else doesn’t, or they want something you don’t. It happens, and fairly often. When it happens around sex, no one usually needs to do anything they don’t want, and things usually don’t go well at all if someone does go ahead and do or agree to what they do not want to or know they can’t handle. What works a lot better is to accept and honor our differences and to seek out areas or different kinds of relationships where we do want the same things, where what works for us both is in alignment.

While it can be a bummer to opt out of something with someone that we want in some ways, and would be right for us in some ways, but not in others, once we get over that and they do, sometimes we can not only avert disaster, but wind up discovering ways and avenues to get the good stuff and the stuff we want without having to compromise ourselves or others. What seemed like it might be a worst-case scenario or a real drag can become a gift. Sometimes what happens in situations like that around sex or romance is that we wind up discovering that someone who wasn’t the right boyfriend for us makes a fantastic best friend, or a perfect partners for someone else we really care about. Sometimes moving away from something that isn’t right for us and isn’t a good fit paves the way for us to find what is.

Stating and holding a strong sexual limit, like any other big limit, would involve you being very honest and real with people, as well as very accepting of yourself, at a level that can sometimes be challenging. It’s hard sometimes to tell people we like and want to like us that we can’t or don’t want to give them what they want. It’s also not always easy to be different. At the same time, it’s only when we’re very honest and real about who we are, and very accepting of ourselves and what we want, uniquely, that we tend to have really deep, enduring and meaningful relationships and lives we love in the first place.

People do not have to have sex or sexual relationships or partnerships to be happy, especially if they don’t want those things. If sex is something you never want, or where you solidly know will only feel good for you under certain conditions that don’t ever manifest, then you won’t likely badly feel you’re missing out on something, since either you just won’t want that thing, or will feel strongly that without what you need feel ready, it’s going to be a negative, not a positive. For example, for a whole heaping mess of reasons, I don’t want to ever get married. I’m not bumming I’m not married, because I don’t want that. What I want is to not get married, and because I know it’d feel and be way wrong for me, and honor who I am, other folks can talk about how much they think everyone wants that or voice being as happy as they may be if they are married. I don’t feel bad when I hear that because while I get that it’s what they want, and support them in having their own wants and needs, I know it’s so not what I want. I feel good about my choices, not bad, even though people different than me feel differently, because I’m making choices in alignment with what I know I want and need for myself, in alignment with what makes me happy and with what I feel best about.

If sex turns out to be something you don’t want and do not feel good about doing, not having it isn’t any kind of worst case scenario. Not having to do or have something we do not want is pretty much always a best-case scenario, and you could make choices that let you (not) have exactly that.

I want to be clear about something you said you were worried about: no one ever has to have sex. If anyone is ever in the position where they do not want to have sex and someone forces or pushes them to, that person is being sexually assaulted, which is a serious crime, even in places in the world where social inequities keep it from being unlawful (yet) or where it’s socially accepted or supported in any way. If and when anyone feels that in order to get or have something else they want or need, they need to choose to have sex they’d ideally not want to choose, that’s often not a crime, but it’s certainly a terrible situation.

What’s emotionally and physically healthiest for everyone, and most supportive of our basic human rights, is for sex to always be an option and a choice made freely, not anything we do out of duty, obligation, because we feel we have no choice or feel we must do in order to survive, to get our most basic needs met, like having a warm place to sleep and food to eat.

I know it can seem like in order to have certain kinds of elective relationships that you have to have sex, but I disagree. I know there are a lot of messages out and about in the world that say or suggest that’s so — that say things like that, for instance, you MUST have sex if you’re married or MUST have sex to “keep a man” — but those are messages that don’t tend to be truthful about real diversity, and which are usually at least somewhat based in discrimination or inequality of some kind; in presenting all people as being only like folks either with the most power and privilege or which intend to influence other people’s choices in order to assure those folks with all the power and privilege keep it all.

Messages like that stink, and not just because of what they’re often motivated by. They can make or keep many people invisible, can make people feel they only have some degree of choice when they have far more, and because, as I think you’re experiencing right now, they can make people feel scared and backed into a corner, instead of empowered and confident in making their own best choices. Unfortunately, even when those messages aren’t as true as suggested or aren’t true for everyone, it’s not like any of us can singlehandedly undo them: to some degree, we just have to put up with them. At the same time, some messages like that have changed through history, and the way they change is when one person at a time just sticks to what they know they really want and what they really feel right about, and makes their own message that while a given thing may be right for someone, even a lot of someone’s, it’s not right for them, and that’s just that. When that happens and keeps happening, eventually we do tend to see changes because it gets harder and harder for people to claim something is unilaterally true, since more and more people it isn’t true for become more and more visible and vocal. And the more people make choices that may be different, but are best for them, the more other people start to feel empowered to do the same for themselves.

For sure, realistically, most people do want relationships or interactions which are sexual — though how they’re sexual is diverse — or relationships which include sex of some kind as part of that relationship. But not everyone. Just because a lot of people want something doesn’t mean everyone does and that anyone who doesn’t should just fall in line. Again, I’d disagree with anyone who says or thinks something like that: I think the right answer is to always be ourselves, including in the ways we’re different, even when that means being different from most people.

If what we find out we want are intimate relationships or partnerships without sex, either for a little while or for a lifetime, that is 100% okay. Some people who have the idea that sex will be part of their most important or closest relationships can even wind up finding out that’s not what actually winds up happening in their lives, and that instead, their big life partnership turns out to be with a platonic best friend, with a child they parent, or with some kind of collective of people, like a community. Sex being part of a relationship doesn’t mean a relationship will be our most important or deepest. Even though many of us grow up with or surrounded by a lot of the same ideals when it comes to what our deepest, closest or most enduring relationships will look like or are supposed to be like, that doesn’t mean that those ideals will match our realities, nor that they’re right for who we and the people in our lives are as individuals.

You — like everyone — should never feel afraid you have to do anything you do not want to just because someone else wants it from you for themselves, very much including having sex. If ever you feel like that, chances are you’re in a situation or relationship that either isn’t safe, or just isn’t right for you, so the best answer would be to get away from that person or relationship or just opt out. In healthy relationships, and relationships that are right for us and happening at the right time and pace, we don’t feel scared we’ll have to do things we deeply don’t want to, can’t handle, or which are wrong for us.

While it is possible you will never want sex or feel ready, the people in that group are a small fraction of the population. It’s totally okay if you do wind up being a member of that group, but it’s more likely that someday you will want to and will feel ready to. That someday, though, is not as important as right now. You don’t have to know or decide about sex for the rest of your life today. All you can do now, and all you need to do now, is to make choices about your present and the near, somewhat-more forseeable future.

You’re saying clearly that you don’t want to have sex (whatever you mean by that) right now. You’re saying clearly that you don’t feel ready right now. You get to — and should — honor those feelings and stick with what you want, and steer clear of what you don’t.

Your boyfriend is saying he’s comfortable waiting until you do want to have sex and do feel ready: that’s good news, and I think you should take him at his word. Of course, he can also only make that choice for right now and not for way down the road, so he might not always feel that way. If he ever changes his mind, and feels he really does not want to wait for sex anymore, and you still feel the way you do, you two can part ways so that he can seek out what he wants and you can seek out what you do. People don’t always want the same things, and that doesn’t mean one person is right in their wants and the other is wrong. Often it just means you’re different people at different phases of your life who have different wants and needs. People in your life or who want to be part of it who care about you and who have the kind of maturity we need to be sexual with others in a healthy way will understand and accept when you don’t want sex, even if they’re disappointed. This is another one of those things in life you’re not going to be able to avoid unless you’re signing up to be the world’s biggest doormat: we are going to disappoint other people sometimes, or not want what they want. It’s a bummer, but we all get over it, whether we’re the ones doing the disappointing or the ones who are disappointed.

So, do try and relax about this, okay? Your oh-my-gawd-what-if-I-never freakout scenario, even if it came to be, really isn’t that scary. It’d just be different from what some other folks want or think, that’s all. Lots of us are a little (or a lot!) different, and we do just fine. And right now, you feeling the way you are as a young person is actually not that different at all: it’s incredibly common.

If you need to talk to your boyfriend about this some more to feel better, do that. If being in a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship at this time in your life, no matter how awesome the person is you’re in it with is, feels like too much pressure, do yourself a solid and step back from that kind of relationship for now, only pursuing or agreeing to those kinds of relationships when you feel more comfortable with them. Nobody has to have a boyfriend or a girlfriend, and even if people around you or you yourself think that that’s something more valuable than not having one. If it makes you feel terrified and worried all the time, it’s obviously not valuable for you at all.

I’m going to leave you with some links I think might help you out some, now and later. But I also want to leave you with this clear message: whatever you want is okay to want, and whatever you don’t want is okay to not want. The “right” answer to any of this is what you most strongly know and feel is right for you: not a boyfriend, not a best friend, not what someone says on television — only you. If you make your choices from that place, no matter what they are, it’s more than all good, it’s the very best thing you can do for yourself and others.

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.

Appreciate our work?

Vote now! And help Rewire earn a bigger grant from CREDO:

VOTE NOW

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.

Appreciate our work?

Vote now! And help Rewire earn a bigger grant from CREDO:

VOTE NOW

“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.

credo_rewire_vote_3

Vote for Rewire and Help Us Earn Money

Rewire is in the running for a CREDO Mobile grant. More votes for Rewire means more CREDO grant money to support our work. Please take a few seconds to help us out!

VOTE!

Thank you for supporting our work!