Commentary Sexual Health

A Collision of Culture and Nature: How Our Fear of Teen Sexuality Leaves Teens More Vulnerable

M. Joycelyn Elders

Efforts in the United States to address adolescent sex have been directed toward preventing teenage sex as opposed to preventing its adverse consequences.  These efforts probably have been unsuccessful in stemming sexual activity because teenagers have a hormonal imperative to explore their sexuality. 

Dr. Elders is well-known for and has been widely honored for her work. Just last week, however, she received another honor: The Program in Human Sexuality, Department of Family Medicine and Community Health, University of Minnesota Medical School, established the Joycelyn Elders Chair in Sexual Health Education. The Chair is the first of its kind in the nation to focus on sexuality education. We congratulate Dr. Elders and the University of Minnesota.

Efforts in the United States (unlike those in other developed countries) to address adolescent sex have been directed toward preventing teenage sex as opposed to understanding helping teens prevent adverse consequences of sexual activity.  These efforts have been largely unsuccessful in stemming sexual activity because teenagers have a hormonal imperative to explore their sexuality. They do not “catch” sexuality from their friends, music, dance, or health education; rather, teens have a perfectly natural biological drive that says, WOW! to them soon after the advent of puberty.  Always has been and always will be this way. It cannot be avoided or evaded, because it is basic human biology.  

When children experience puberty, natural intensification of sexual feelings soon follows. While many adults cringe at simply seeing the words “adolescent” and “sexuality” paired together, the adolescent hormonal imperative proceeds with its relentless takeover of youthful thinking—and, often, action.

We need to make sure that when that moment comes, they know how to be safe.

Appreciate our work?

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


Head-On Collision of Culture and Nature

Our children too often become casualties of the head-on collision of culture and nature because we are afraid to give them information about their bodies and sex.  Meanwhile, they are learning inappropriate behavior from other adolescents and the media.  In 1994, for World AIDS Day, I spoke at the United Nations and suggested the ABCD of AIDs prevention should include Abstinence, Be faithful, latex Condoms, and Do other things such as masturbation. Masturbation is natural, does not cause hair to grow on your hands, cause you to go blind, or to go crazy, and you know that you are having sex with someone that you love.  Yet we refuse to teach teens about masturbation, confusing innocence and ignorance, and putting our children’s health at risk.

Nearly half of all 15- to 18-year-olds have engaged in sexual activity before finishing high school, and more than 70 percent are sexually active by the age of 20.  The consequences of adolescents having unprotected sex are devastating.

In the United States, we have difficulty accepting the fact that adolescents and young adults engage in sex before marriage, despite our high rates of adolescent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection (STI).1 The median age of onset of puberty is 11.6 years, the mean age of initiation of sexual intercourse is 17 years, and the mean age of first marriage is 26 years. 2, 3

A major nationally representative survey found that 95 percent of adult respondents, aged 18–44 years, reported that they had had sex before marriage.  Eighty-one percent of those who abstained from sex until age 20 or older also had premarital sex.4  Abstinence-until-marriage is neither the cultural norm nor a functioning value.  Yet, we seem to expect today’s adolescents to resist their natural sexuality by abstaining from sex until marriage—something that the vast majority of Americans have not done since at least the 1940s and perhaps have never done.4

If more Americans understood the developmental process that occurs during puberty, then adolescent behavior would not be such an anathema.  As a country, we need to recognize fully the costly consequences of unprotected adolescent sex that occur because of limited access to contraceptive services, supplies, and sex education. 

Adolescents are at risk for unintended pregnancies and sexually-transmitted infections (STIs).  Consider the US statistics:

  • Nationwide, 46.8 percent of high school students have had sexual intercourse; this figure has remained relatively constant for at least a decade.1
  • Each year in the United States, almost 850,000 teens become pregnant,
  • About 9.1 million STIs (5,000 of which are HIV) are experienced by young people under age 25, and
  • More than 1 billion acts of unprotected sex among single adults take place.
  • All this devastation occurs while Americans aged 15–34 use condoms in only about 25 percent of sexual encounters. 5–8

On an individual level, preventable health-risk behaviors among sexually-active adolescents can expose them to lifelong consequences about which they are ill-informed. On a national level, the result of withheld information and distribution of misinformation is America’s sexual dysfunction (which, again, can be measured by rates of unintended pregnancy and STIs that are higher than those of virtually every other Western country). This dysfunction threatens public health, disrupts family life, and generally imposes a high societal cost through poverty—and the misery that poverty invariably brings.

We can do better.  We have the most advanced health care in the world, low-cost ways to prevent unintended pregnancy and STIs, and a wealth of information based on sound public health science that can help young people make responsible life decisions regarding their sexual health.  What is missing?  Two things:  universal access to health care and the presence and nature of sexuality education in schools.  If we are serious about protecting the health and well being of adolescents, we must decide whether we want to continue to fight natural human biology by attempting to eliminate sex before marriage or to encourage safe sex.

A Different Approach

The best contraceptive in the world is a good education.  It is important to have a population that is well-educated and informed about sex, sexuality, and sexual health concerns, through age-appropriate, scientifically based universal sexual education across the lifespan.

Comprehensive sexuality education for adolescents does not increase promiscuity, hasten sexual initiation, or increase rates of sexual activity.  It does reduce the number of partners and increases the likelihood of contraceptive use at initiation of sex. 5,13

These facts are borne out by the experience of European countries that send the message of “safe sex or no sex” (instead of just “no sex”). Countries like Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden do not experience the same devastation of their adolescent populations as does the United States.  Teen pregnancy rates are much higher in the United States than in many other developed countries—twice as high as in England and Wales or Canada and eight times as high as in the Netherlands or Japan. 9

In 1999, the Guttmacher Institute published the first international comparison of adolescent sexuality documenting major differences between the United States and Western Europe. The study showed that, although American and European teenagers initiated sex at about the same age, European teens had longer relationships and fewer sexual partners, were much more likely to use contraceptives, and had startlingly lower rates of pregnancy, births, abortions, and STIs.  Societal responses to the reality of adolescent sexuality differed as well.  In Europe, teenagers received comprehensive sex education and had ready access to confidential contraceptive services, even as they were given the clear message that they should not get pregnant before they were ready to become parents.10

This study helped to refocus the debate in the United States, spurred the development of teen pregnancy-prevention programs across the country, and prompted the enactment of new laws in 21 states ensuring access for minors to confidential contraceptive services and the growth of comprehensive school-based sex-education programs.11

An overwhelming majority of U.S. parents, teachers, and adults agree that children should be given comprehensive, age-appropriate health-care information–including information on sexuality and contraceptives–to protect their health and well-being.  It appears that the most widely-held American value and moral imperative is that our valued and vulnerable children should be healthy and grow up sexually healthy.

What Young People Should Learn and Know

Sex education should be taught in our schools from kindergarten through high school, because that is where most children are educated in the United States. School-based sex-education course material should be age appropriate.

In kindergarten, children could learn that their private parts are private with few exceptions (the doctor or nurse while a parent is present).  No one has the right to touch them even if they are children.  A child needs to know that it is all right to touch himself or herself in private, because private parts are not dirty or forbidden to oneself. 

Beginning in the first grade, children can be taught the parts of their bodies and their functions.  Children could be taught about what they can expect as they grow and develop.  Perhaps most of all, children need to know that it is normal for their bodies to change and what to expect next.

Before children enter puberty, (usually between eight and 12 years of age) they need to know:

  • that they are normal
  • what menses is and what to expect
  • the nature of feelings their hormones will cause
  • the difference between sexual feelings and love
  • that they will require self-esteem and information to make good choices
  • that it is normal to masturbate or touch oneself in private

Just teaching them to say no is not enough information to give to our children to keep them safe.  Teens need to realize the plethora of sexual choices they will be making as they progress through the teen years.  They need to recognize that having sex is a big choice to be considered seriously and slowly rather than quickly in the backseat of a car under the influence of raging hormones.  Sometimes teens may not recognize their actions as choices unless these are pointed out and enumerated. 

If a teen decides to engage in sex with a loving partner, s/he will want to make a visit to the doctor or nurse to secure information about contraceptives suitable for his/her situation and perhaps a prescription.  If the prospective partner has had sex previously, s/he will want to be tested for possible sexually transmitted infections so as not to infect the new partner.  Teens need to know that they can get contraceptives if they think they might need them.  They need to know all of the contraceptive options, how to use them, their effectiveness, and what can happen when having unprotected sex even one time. So, as children, adolescents, and teens mature, the education changes and becomes more detailed to include all aspects of sexual contact, anal, oral, vaginal, homosexual encounters, and always self-esteem evaluations.

Teens need to know the consequences of unprotected sex in terms of disease, unintended pregnancy, and exploitation.  At the same time, they need to know how to go about having a healthy sexual relationship with mutual respect and love.  All teens need to know that healthy sexual activity is mutually respectful activity.  Sex is for more than procreation once or twice in life; sex is also for a lifetime of pleasure.  They need to know the specifics of how to derive pleasure from sexual relationships while maintaining self-esteem for both persons involved and always respect for oneself and one’s partner. Teens need to know how to achieve an orgasm.

Strategies to Create Sexually Healthier Communities
Our valued adolescents are dependent on adults to help them across the often-challenging developmental bridge to adulthood.  We want them to be healthy and happy persons who will develop into well-educated adults, able to define and direct their futures, be motivated, and have hope.14

To attain this goal, we must have strategies to create sexually healthier communities through effective public policy.  We must have age-appropriate, science-based comprehensive health education in schools from kindergarten to twelfth grades and parent-education programs to teach partner-shared sexual responsibility.

Before patients reach puberty, health-care providers should give counseling concerning the changes the youth can anticipate.  They should encourage abstinence while providing age-appropriate counseling to reduce risky sexual behaviors.  Moreover, health care providers must develop policies for all office procedures to ensure privacy and confidentiality of adolescents.

Adolescents must have access to health care to keep themselves healthy.  They must have access to contraceptives, be knowledgeable about their availability and use, and understand their mechanism of action as well as their side effects.  We have both a moral and ethical responsibility to protect all adolescents in our community.

Just recently, the Supreme Court made a ruling that children 18 years of age and younger had a right to purchase or rent violent video games.  I wonder if the same court would rule that children under 18 also have the right to view, rent or purchase sexually explicit videos.  Does our U.S. culture view violence as more acceptable than even respectful sexual activity?

A sexually healthy society must be our new goal for the twenty-first century.  To get there, we must have sex education for our valued and vulnerable children, beginning in kindergarten and continuing through high school.


1.  Eaton, D.K. et al. Youth risk behavior surveillance—United States, 2005 MMWR Surveill Summ 55, 1–108 (2006).

2.  Irwin, H.E. Jr., Shafer, M.A. & Moscichi, A.B. (assoc. eds.). The adolescent patient. In Rudolph’s Pediatrics 21st edn. (eds. Rudolph, C.D., Rudolph, A.M., Lister, G. & Siegel, N.J.) 223–275 (McGraw-Hill, New York, 2003).

3.  Alan Guttmacher Institute. In Their Own Right: Addressing the Sexual and Reproductive Health Needs of American Men (AGI, New York, 2002).

4. Finer, L. Trends in premarital sex in the United States, 1954–2003. Public Health Rep. 122, 73–78 (2007).

5.  American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Adolescence; Blythe, M.J. & Diaz, A. Contraception and adolescents. Pediatrics 120, 1135–1148 (2007).

6. Weinstock, H., Berman, S. & Cates, W. Jr. Sexually transmitted diseases among American youth: incidence and prevalence estimates, 2000. Perspect. Sex. Reprod. Health 36, 6–10 (2004).

7. CDC. HIV/AIDS surveillance report, 2006. 18 (US Department of Health and Human Services, Atlanta, 2008).

8. Holmes, K.K. & Levine, W.M. Effectiveness of condoms in preventing sexually transmitted infections. Bull. World Health Organ. 82, 454–426 (2004).

9. Darroch, J.E. et al. Teenage sexual and reproductive behavior in developed countries: can more progress be made? Occasional Report, No. 3 (Alan Guttmacher Institute, New York, 2001).

10. Berne, L. & Huberman, B. European approaches to adolescent sexual behavior & responsibility: Executive Summary and Call to Action (Advocates for Youth, Washington, DC, 1999).

11. Santelli, J., Sandfort, T. & Orr, M. Transnational comparisons of adolescent contraceptive use: what can we learn from these comparisons? Arch. Pediatr. Adolesc. Med. 162, 92–94 (2008).

12. Haffner, D.W. & Wagoner, J. Vast majority of Americans support sexuality education, SIECUS Report 27, 22–23 (August/September 1999).

13. Santelli, J., Ott, M.A., Lyon, M., Rogers, J., Summers, D. & Schleifer, R. Abstinence and abstinence-only education: a review of U.S. policies and programs. J. Adolesc. Health 38, 72–81 (2006).

14. Elders, M.J. Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics (2008); 84, 6, 741–745 doi:10.1038/clpt.2008.178

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:


“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.

Appreciate our work?

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


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.


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!


Thank you for supporting our work!