Commentary Violence

Get Real: I’m Trapped In an Unhealthy Relationship and Don’t Know What to Do

Heather Corinna

How do you get out of an abusive situation and get yourself safe? By doing all you can to get sound help as soon as you can and to leave as safely as possible. It's so easy to feel stuck in abuse or other unsafe situations, but we can get unstuck.

Anonymous asks:

I am 17 now, live in Northern Ireland, and started dating this one fellow when I was fifteen. At the time he was 44. Of course, now he’s 46, but that’s not really the point. He’s divorced and has two kids, one son 2 years younger than me, and a daughter the age of my own younger sister (12). I look after them for him sometimes. I feel like I really love him, but I don’t really feel the same way about him. I think he’s been seeing his ex-wife behind my back, as she is now pregnant and she’s not in any other relationships, and Steve (my boyfriend) doesn’t really want to talk about it, meaning he acts guilty. Our relationship has pretty much been sex, sex, sex, and me doing stuff for him from day one. I want to get out of this relationship, but I have never been able to stand up to him. I live with him, and I don’t have anywhere else to go, as my parents kicked me out some time ago. I’ve kind of been seeing another guy, who is 19, but nothing really serious. This new guy is American, and he’s making a life for himself (in a good university, etc.), so the choice is kind of obvious. But if I try to break things off with Steve, either he gets angry and hurts me (nothing too serious, just bruises) or he swears he’ll spend more time with me. Which he doesn’t.

Basically, I’m stuck with a man who has been my only sexual partner for two entire years, he’s not the nicest bloke around, and he’s nearly three times my age (older than both of my parents, too). I don’t know what to do, and honestly, I’m a little scared.

Heather Corinna replies:

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There are a few things you mentioned here that I suspect you wanted to have addressed in depth, but I think it’s really important that for right now, I do what I can to help you with what seems the most critical. I think it’s crucial you get some help as quickly as you can, and I don’t want my words to hold those steps up.

Ultimately, I could answer your post with just two words: get out.

There isn’t any “just” in bruises. I also don’t think anything you’re saying here is anything less than very, very serious. Abuse is always serious, and always needs to be taken very seriously, even when someone’s abuse doesn’t leave any obvious marks at all.

You express feeling very trapped in this relationship, and I can see why. You are reporting at least one kind of abuse by this current partner, and I suspect there’s been more than one, and that some of it may have even started before you realize it did. Given the chasm of an age difference and how young you were when you met, his behaviour, and the very vulnerable position it seems this person likely met you in, it seems very likely you got roped into this by someone who knew they could exploit you and intended to do that. You make clear you have been mistreated in several ways. You make clear this has not been a healthy relationship of equals, nor something you feel good being in. We don’t feel afraid of our partners in healthy relationships. You make clear you have wanted to leave, but don’t feel unable to, including because this person has done you harm when you have tried to leave in the past.

I understand that you’re scared and why you feel scared. The fact that you recognize you feel afraid is a very good thing, because there is good reason to feel afraid. This is scary. And abuse almost always escalates, so, however bad it is now, the longer you stay, the more likely it becomes that it’s only going to get worse. So, it’s incredibly important that you pay attention to those feelings or fear and give them real weight, doing all you can to use them as motivation to get out of this, far, far away from this and to get yourself somewhere safe as soon and as safely as you can.

I understand why you feel stuck, and know that getting unstuck can seem impossible.

But it isn’t impossible. I absolutely promise. You can get out of this.

You’re not stuck with or in this, it just feels like you are. I know how strong that feeling can be, and how debilitating it can feel, but while those feelings are real, the reality of you having no way to get out of this is not real.

You can get out of this and away from this, even if it isn’t easy. The fact of the matter is, that while getting out of relationships and situations like this can be challenging and tricky, it’s a far more temporary kind of hard than living a life in them is and will turn out to be. I’m so glad that you reached out for help.

I’m tremendously sorry to hear that your parents kicked you out, and tremendously sorry if they will not help you now. You don’t need me to tell you that has been a serious injustice done to you. But even if they won’t help, there is help for you in this, all the more so since you are still a legal minor.

In your area, you have the following resources you can seek out and get help from:
Women’s Aid: Their 24-hour hotline is at: 0800 917 1414

National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (England, Wales and Northern Ireland): 0800 800 500

Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children: 00 353 742 9744

Council for the Homeless, Northern Ireland: The current contact listed for people under 25 to contact regarding youth homelesness there is Kathy Maguire, Youth Homelessness Officer, at: 02890 246 440 or you can email her at:

Network Of Rape Crisis Centres Ireland: Their hotline number is 1800 77 88 88. I understand this resource may not seem relevant to you, however a) given some of what you’ve said, it may be (even if he became sexual with you at 15, he committed a crime based on age of consent laws alone) and b) if it is not at all, a resource like this could most likely still direct you to the services you need to get the help you need.

Samaritans: 08457 90 90 90 in the UK and Northern Ireland

You could start by making a call or contact to ANY of those resources, whichever you feel most comfortable calling. Or, if you try one and get a busy line, you can move on down the list and just keep calling until you can get through to one of them. Any of them will help you. You can also always just go to your local police or a hospital and tell them everything, too, making clear you do NOT want to go back there.

I can’t encourage you enough to make a call to one of those resources the very second you finish reading my reply to you.

In the case that your phone or internet use is monitored by Steve, write down these numbers and go find a pay phone or ask a neighbor to use their phone to make these calls. Do NOT tell this person you are seeking out this help and looking to get out. It’s really important you keep yourself safe and sound while getting help, and that includes making sure you’re not doing anything that could trigger more abuse.

When you call any of them, it’s very important you’re honest about your situation. Don’t make excuses for this person, or downplay the spot you’re in and have been in. Make clear when the relationship started and how, if they ask, including sexually. Let them know you were kicked out of your home, when, and under what circumstances and that part of the reason you are staying in this is because you do not have anywhere else to go. Whatever kinds of abuse this person has engaged in, when they ask about abuse and your safety, be honest and forthright. What kind of help you need and can get is going to be determined by all your situation involves. Agencies like those above are often limited in how well they can help if you’re not honest. If feelings of embarrassment or shame creep in, please know you will not be the first person they have heard from in the kind of circumstances you’re in, and help agencies don’t judge. Their job is to help, and people working for them take that job very seriously. And you’ve got nothing to feel ashamed of here: you wound up stuck with what sounds like a creep, and in very precarious circumstances of your own, and this is not your fault.

Any resource like these helping you to get out will usually talk you through how to get out safely, or even, in helping you to do that, send over an officer or other person to assure your safety.

In the case that you are not certain if your parents or anyone in your family will help you or not, and you know them to be safe for you, you might also try being very honest with them about the whole of this situation — that means no downplaying it, even though I know it can feel humiliating — just to make sure. When it comes to leaving someone exploitive or abusive, people really need all the help and support they can get, so more help is always, always a good thing.

It sounds like you’ve already managed to survive some pretty rough things already, so I feel confident that you can stand up for yourself in this with some help, get through this and come out on the other side.

One last thing? You didn’t ask for my advice on this, and I try not to give advice unsolicited, but I do want to offer some up. Right now is not likely to be a sound time for any new or additional romantic relationships. Right now strikes me as a time that you really, truly need to spend only taking care of yourself, getting yourself out of this situation, landing on your own two feet, and getting help learning how to step forward from there, including learning how to only step into healthy relationships when you’re in a position to be able to have them. For instance, when we are in survival mode where we have nowhere to live, it can be all too easy to wind up with people who aren’t good people because we just can’t think past getting some food in our bellies or a roof over our heads.

When we’ve been in abuse, especially when it’s happened in times of our lives or personal development that are formative, like our very first dating relationship, it is terribly hard to be able to know how to identify and have healthy relationships. In a word, you’re going to have some healing to do and some learning to do about what is and isn’t healthy, and that’s all going to take some time. I’m certain you don’t want to have to struggle to get out of this only to land in something just as bad or worse.

Even just hearing that you’re concerned with the man you’re with possibly being sexual with someone else, or not spending extra time with you, at what sounds like the same level of his being abusive to you suggests to me that you’re going to need some time to do some real work sorting out what is and isn’t healthy in relationships. It sounds to me like you just may not know that yet, or be able to see that yet, which isn’t surprising. It’s pretty tough to be able to know anything we haven’t learned, after all, or which hasn’t been real to us.

None of that is anything to feel ashamed about. I know it can feel really cruddy to be in this kind of a spot, and I also know how appealing what looks like a “normal” relationship can be when you’re in the kind of spot you’re in now. At the same time, there aren’t white knights in the world — save the white knights we can be for ourselves — and people who are healthy folks with their own you-know-what together generally are not going to race into a situation like this romantically or sexually. If anything, folks with their heads on straight might offer to be supportive friends while you take care of yourself, or to get you to the help you need, and maybe, when all the dust has settled, revisit the idea of dating then. But not in the thick of something like this (assuming you’ve been honest with him, mind: obviously, if he has no idea what your situation is, no one can expect him to respond to it).

If this new guy knows what you’re living in and doesn’t even recognize that what’s critical right now is getting you to a safe place, not going out on dates, I think you need to know this person probably isn’t any kind of gem, either.

So, unsolicited from me to you? You really need to take care of you, right now, and your most basic needs: safety and shelter. Those are serious life basics, and when you don’t even have those going, there is no room at all for dating anybody. I don’t think you can afford any distractions at this point. You need your bare basics first, okay? The person to choose right now is yourself. Choose you, Mary.

Please know that if you need additional help in this, on top of the help any of those resources provide you, I’d be happy to offer you that. If what I gave you here turns out not to be fruitful, feel free to drop me a line and I will make some calls to help you find a service which can help. In the case you feel too scared or nervous to even make those phone calls, we are absolutely willing to help by making initial calls for you to help you get the ball rolling with this so you can get somewhere safe and get started in having a life where you stay safe and have the opportunity to have a much better life than you’ve been living.

You can come talk to myself or any of the Scarleteen volunteers over at our message board here, anytime, too.

Like I said, I didn’t mean to shortcut you here, as there is a lot to talk about, and probably a lot you’d like to have addressed. I didn’t talk about the possible dynamics around how this relationship even started, or how it’s gone on, which you might have wanted me to talk about, or about this issue of Steve potentially having sex outside the relationship with his ex and what that might mean for you and how you feel about it. The reason I’m not going there now is only because I just don’t think now is the right time for that.

When you can get yourself to a safe place, and sitting around and reading and chatting doesn’t potentially contribute to you staying unsafe, I’d be happy to talk with you more if you like. We have one volunteer in Northern Ireland right now, too, so you could even talk with someone local if you preferred. In the meantime, I hope that you can pick up the phone and take a step to get yourself safe and to move away from this life and towards the kind of life that’s full of the kind of safety and happiness everyone should be entitled to.

I know how scary that step can feel, and I understand that, but I think the alternative is a whole lot scarier. Please take that step to care for yourself, and know that if you need more help with that, all you have to do is ask for it.

Addendum: Since I know many readers remain concerned for advice-seekers like this, know that she was able to get out of her abusive situation and into a safe place with a supportive extended family member.  She’s doing very well right now, and utilized excellent help from Samaritans to find her solution and create a sound exit plan.

Commentary Contraception

Hillary Clinton Played a Critical Role in Making Emergency Contraception More Accessible

Susan Wood

Today, women are able to access emergency contraception, a safe, second-chance option for preventing unintended pregnancy in a timely manner without a prescription. Clinton helped make this happen, and I can tell the story from having watched it unfold.

In the midst of election-year talk and debates about political controversies, we often forget examples of candidates’ past leadership. But we must not overlook the ways in which Hillary Clinton demonstrated her commitment to women’s health before she became the Democratic presidential nominee. In early 2008, I wrote the following article for Rewirewhich has been lightly edited—from my perspective as a former official at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about the critical role that Clinton, then a senator, had played in making the emergency contraception method Plan B available over the counter. She demanded that reproductive health benefits and the best available science drive decisions at the FDA, not politics. She challenged the Bush administration and pushed the Democratic-controlled Senate to protect the FDA’s decision making from political interference in order to help women get access to EC.

Since that time, Plan B and other emergency contraception pills have become fully over the counter with no age or ID requirements. Despite all the controversy, women at risk of unintended pregnancy finally can get timely access to another method of contraception if they need it—such as in cases of condom failure or sexual assault. By 2010, according to National Center for Health Statistics data, 11 percent of all sexually experienced women ages 15 to 44 had ever used EC, compared with only 4 percent in 2002. Indeed, nearly one-quarter of all women ages 20 to 24 had used emergency contraception by 2010.

As I stated in 2008, “All those who benefited from this decision should know it may not have happened were it not for Hillary Clinton.”

Now, there are new emergency contraceptive pills (Ella) available by prescription, women have access to insurance coverage of contraception without cost-sharing, and there is progress in making some regular contraceptive pills available over the counter, without prescription. Yet extreme calls for defunding Planned Parenthood, the costs and lack of coverage of over-the-counter EC, and refusals by some pharmacies to stock emergency contraception clearly demonstrate that politicization of science and limits to our access to contraception remain a serious problem.

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Today, women are able to access emergency contraception, a safe, second chance option for preventing unintended pregnancy in a timely manner without a prescription. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) helped make this happen, and I can tell the story from having watched it unfold.

Although stories about reproductive health and politicization of science have made headlines recently, stories of how these problems are solved are less often told. On August 31, 2005 I resigned my position as assistant commissioner for women’s health at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because the agency was not allowed to make its decisions based on the science or in the best interests of the public’s health. While my resignation was widely covered by the media, it would have been a hollow gesture were there not leaders in Congress who stepped in and demanded more accountability from the FDA.

I have been working to improve health care for women and families in the United States for nearly 20 years. In 2000, I became the director of women’s health for the FDA. I was rather quietly doing my job when the debate began in 2003 over whether or not emergency contraception should be provided over the counter (OTC). As a scientist, I knew the facts showed that this medication, which can be used after a rape or other emergency situations, prevents an unwanted pregnancy. It does not cause an abortion, but can help prevent the need for one. But it only works if used within 72 hours, and sooner is even better. Since it is completely safe, and many women find it impossible to get a doctor’s appointment within two to three days, making emergency contraception available to women without a prescription was simply the right thing to do. As an FDA employee, I knew it should have been a routine approval within the agency.

Plan B emergency contraception is just like birth control pills—it is not the “abortion pill,” RU-486, and most people in the United States don’t think access to safe and effective contraception is controversial. Sadly, in Congress and in the White House, there are many people who do oppose birth control. And although this may surprise you, this false “controversy” not only has affected emergency contraception, but also caused the recent dramatic increase in the cost of birth control pills on college campuses, and limited family planning services across the country.  The reality is that having more options for contraception helps each of us make our own decisions in planning our families and preventing unwanted pregnancies. This is something we can all agree on.

Meanwhile, inside the walls of the FDA in 2003 and 2004, the Bush administration continued to throw roadblocks at efforts to approve emergency contraception over the counter. When this struggle became public, I was struck by the leadership that Hillary Clinton displayed. She used the tools of a U.S. senator and fought ardently to preserve the FDA’s independent scientific decision-making authority. Many other senators and congressmen agreed, but she was the one who took the lead, saying she simply wanted the FDA to be able to make decisions based on its public health mission and on the medical evidence.

When it became clear that FDA scientists would continue to be overruled for non-scientific reasons, I resigned in protest in late 2005. I was interviewed by news media for months and traveled around the country hoping that many would stand up and demand that FDA do its job properly. But, although it can help, all the media in the world can’t make Congress or a president do the right thing.

Sen. Clinton made the difference. The FDA suddenly announced it would approve emergency contraception for use without a prescription for women ages 18 and older—one day before FDA officials were to face a determined Sen. Clinton and her colleague Sen. Murray (D-WA) at a Senate hearing in 2006. No one was more surprised than I was. All those who benefited from this decision should know it may not have happened were it not for Hillary Clinton.

Sometimes these success stories get lost in the “horse-race stories” about political campaigns and the exposes of taxpayer-funded bridges to nowhere, and who said what to whom. This story of emergency contraception at the FDA is just one story of many. Sen. Clinton saw a problem that affected people’s lives. She then stood up to the challenge and worked to solve it.

The challenges we face in health care, our economy, global climate change, and issues of war and peace, need to be tackled with experience, skills and the commitment to using the best available science and evidence to make the best possible policy.  This will benefit us all.

Analysis Human Rights

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

Tina Vasquez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“A Grossly Misnamed” Operation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asylum Seekers Become “High-Priority Cases”

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is something Mao takes great issue with.

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

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

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

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

The Plight of Unaccompanied Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fighting for Asylum From Detention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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