Commentary Health Systems

Do New Health Law Mandates Threaten Conscience Rights and Access to Care?

I firmly believe the requirements under the Affordable Care Act, and the slate of regulations being created to implement it, infringe on no one’s conscience, demand no one change her or his religious beliefs, discriminate against no man or woman, put no additional economic burden on the poor, interfere with no one’s medical decisions, compromise no one’s health -- that is, if you consider the law without refusal clauses.

See all our coverage of the November 2011 Mandate Hearing here.

This testimony was submitted to the US House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Health on November 2, 2011. It is written testimony for the hearing record on “Do New Health Law Mandates Threaten Conscience Rights and Access to Care?”

The article was amended at 12:38 p.m., Thursday, November 3rd to correct links in one paragraph.

Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Pallone and Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for this opportunity to present testimony on behalf of Catholics for Choice on this important question of conscience rights and access to comprehensive healthcare.

Appreciate our work?

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

VOTE NOW

For nearly 40 years, Catholics for Choice has served as a voice for Catholics who believe that the Catholic tradition supports a woman’s moral and legal right to follow her conscience on matters of sexuality and reproductive health. Throughout the world, we strive to be an expression of Catholicism as it is lived by ordinary people. We are part of the great majority of the faithful in the Catholic church who disagrees with the dictates of the Vatican on matters related to sex, marriage, family life and motherhood. We represent those who believe that Catholic teachings on conscience mean that every individual must follow his or her own conscience — and respect others’ right to do the same.

Certainly, at Catholics for Choice, we are no strangers to the intersection of religion, sex and politics. While religious voices and traditions are a vital part of public discourse, religious views should not be given disproportionate weight in public policy discussions. When this happens the lives of men and women can suffer greatly. We believe in a world where all voices, the voices of the religious and of the secular, of Catholics and non-Catholics alike, are heard in public policy discussions.

This hearing seeks to answer the question: Do new health law mandates threaten conscience rights and access to care? I firmly believe the requirements under the Affordable Care Act, and the slate of regulations being created to implement it, infringe on no one’s conscience, demand no one change her or his religious beliefs, discriminate against no man or woman, put no additional economic burden on the poor, interfere with no one’s medical decisions, compromise no one’s health — that is, if you consider the law without refusal clauses. When the question is asked in light of these unbalanced and ever-expanding clauses, the answer becomes yes, it would do all these things. When burdened by such refusal clauses, the new health law absolutely threatens the conscience rights of every patient seeking care for these restricted services and of every provider who wishes to provide comprehensive care to their patients. These restrictions go far beyond their intent of protecting conscience rights for all by eliminating access to essential healthcare for many, if not most patients, especially in the area of reproductive healthcare services. This will make it harder for many working Americans to get the healthcare they need at a cost they can afford.

The Affordable Care Act has many positive elements to it. Millions will now be able to access insurance coverage for their health needs and, with the basic level of coverage required under the new law, these newly insured and the millions of those better insured will now have greater access to a wider range of services than ever before. However, the law includes a refusal clause which has been expanded in the past decades to threaten the consciences of both those who seek to receive and those who want to provide services. Advocates of these expansive refusal clauses claim these are necessary to protect conscience rights. Others believe that refusal clauses such as these are simply part of attempts to derail the Affordable Care Act and to curb access to reproductive healthcare services entirely. Moreover, proposals to expand existing refusal clauses increase threats to the conscience rights of patients and providers by including not just abortion but also family planning services and, should some get their way, any other service deemed “unacceptable” by a tiny minority.

In recent years, under the guise of protecting religious freedom and “conscience rights” we have seen a dramatic upswing in attempts to expand the scope of refusal clauses, their application, and the entities able to utilize them. These new, ever-broader refusal clauses do far more than allow those healthcare professionals or social service providers with conscience objections to opt out. Instead, they are effectively being used as a means to refuse some treatments, medications, benefits and services to all comers.

These expansions have increased not only the services that may be refused—including reproductive health services as well as insurance coverage for those services and even training for medical professionals—but they have also the number of those who may claim these protections. Almost everyone, including most Catholics, agrees that it is reasonable to allow healthcare professionals, including doctors, nurses and pharmacists, to opt out of providing essential reproductive healthcare services and medications to which they conscientiously object. There is no doubt that there are times when the conscience of an individual doctor, nurse or pharmacist may conflict with the wishes orneeds of a patient. This often happens in cases related to abortion. Except in emergency situations, it is reasonable and indeed prudent to allow those who are opposed to abortion to opt out of providing the service. In these situations, women seeking these services should not have to worry about the religious and moral beliefs of their healthcare providers interfering with the provision of the best possible care. Therefore, it is in the best interests of all that only medical professionals committed to providing such services do so. Women need support and compassionate care when they access reproductive healthcare services, not judgment and disdain.

When this is not possible, a reasonable ethical fallback is for the institution to guarantee timely referrals to ensure that patients receive continuity of care without facing an undue burden, such as traveling long distances or encountering additional barriers to obtaining the desired services. Moreover, good practice should also compel a religious institution to make sure that the consciences of both the healthcare (or social services) provider and the patient (or client) are accommodated by having policies in place that enable individuals to receive whatever medications they are prescribed, procedures they require or services they seek.

Like many Catholics, I accept that conscience has a role to play in providing healthcare services, but recent moves to expand conscience protections beyond the simple right for individual healthcare providers to refuse to provide services to which they personally object go too far. Increasingly, demands and regulatory proposals attempt to grant that option to an institution or any individual along the spectrum of care, funding and coverage. It is incredible to suggest that a hospital or an insurance plan has a conscience. Granting institutions, or entities like these, legal protection for the rights of conscience that properly belongs to individuals is an affront to our ideals of conscience and religious freedom.

Allowing religious institutions to dictate the medical care available to their employees or religiouslyaffiliated organizations to dictate what services their beneficiaries are allowed to access would encroach on the individual consciences of those seeking care and assistance. Refusal clauses such as these fly in the face of true religious freedom by promoting the interests of certain elements of particular religions over the consciences and beliefs of individuals. They ignore the moral agency of the many who do not share the beliefs of a particular religious ideology. If allowed to stand, these refusal clauses do nothing but endanger many women’s access to the healthcare they need. When codified into law at the federal or state level, these “protections” actually constitute state-sponsored discrimination against women based on where they are employed, where and how they buy health insurance and where they seek to receive care.

Today, the 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women in the US who have used a form of contraception banned by the Vatican have exercised their religious freedom and followed their consciences in making the decision to use contraception. Thus, they are in line with the totality of Catholic teachings, if not with the views of the hierarchy. The problem is very clearly with the Catholic hierarchy and not the Catholic church, which includes the vast majority of the 68 million Catholics in the United States who use and support the availability of comprehensive reproductive healthcare services for all those who choose to utilize them.

Having failed to convince Catholics in the pews, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and other conservative Catholic organizations are now attempting to impose their personal beliefs on all people by seeking special protection for their “conscience rights.“ They claim to represent all Catholics when, in truth, theirs is the minority view. The bishops have identified several sympathetic high-profile allies in healthcare, education and social service provision to assist them in promoting their demands, but these allies are heavily reliant on the bishops for funding and prestige. Hospitals and colleges can lose their Catholic designation at the bishop’s whim, as happened recently in Phoenix, Arizona.

At a Catholic hospital in Phoenix, medical professionals acted to save the life of a pregnant woman by performing a life-saving abortion on a mother of four. The local bishop decided that his authority over the hospital allowed him to second-guess the medical decisions they made and he stripped the hospital of its Catholic designation. This is antithetical to the Catholic social justice tradition, which would not leave a woman’s life out of any healthcare equation.

What occurred in Phoenix helps to illustrate the problem with the bishops’ intrusion into medical decisions. The personal and professional freedom to make healthcare decisions is being threatened by expansive refusal clauses. The exemptions that the USCCB and other conservative Catholic organizations are demanding do not offer any more protection for religious freedom, but rather impede the religious freedom of millions of Americans, taking reproductive healthcare options away from everybody.

The USCCB and some Catholic organizations, many that receive taxpayer money, are asking to be allowed to:

  • deny condoms as part of HIV outreach;
  • ban employees and their dependents from getting the benefit of no-cost contraceptive coverage that other insured Americans enjoy;
  • opt out of providing emergency contraception to victims of sexual violence who come to Catholic hospitals for help; and
  • deny abortion care to everybody — even those women whose lives are threatened by their pregnancy.

They claim that they are representing all Catholics, but this is not true. The majority of Catholics support equal access to contraceptive services and oppose policies that impede upon that access. 

Two-thirds of Catholics (65 percent) believe that clinics and hospitals that take taxpayer money should not be allowed to refuse to provide procedures or medications based on religious beliefs. A similar number, 63 percent, also believes that health insurance, whether private or government-run, should cover contraception. A strong majority (78 percent) of Catholic women prefer that their hospital offer emergency contraception for rape victims, while more than half (55 percent) want their hospital to provide it in broader circumstances. This support for the full range of contraceptive services is unsurprising, as restrictions such as refusal clauses or prohibitive costs affect Catholics just as often as non-Catholics — 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women have used a modern method of birth control,mirroring the rate of the population at large (99 percent).

Advocating for expansive refusal clauses in healthcare delivery regulations would affect all patients — whether those patients are Catholic or not. Seeking exemptions for religious organizations to cover essential health benefits, such as full coverage of recommended preventive services including contraception, under the Affordable Care Act will only serve to endanger many women’s access to the healthcare they need — whether those employees share those religious beliefs or not. In reality, these exemptions would deny the right of everyone seeking comprehensive healthcare.

When religious voices are allowed to direct policymaking, the best interests of those seeking healthcare services can be ignored. This is clear in the case of the Catholic healthcare industry which, despite providing much valuable service, persists in refusing to provide a full range of reproductive healthcare services, even to those who are in desperate need of them.

Respect for individual conscience is at the core of Catholic teaching. Catholicism also requires deference to the conscience of others in making one’s own decisions. Our faith compels us to listen to our own consciences in matters of moral decision-making and to respect the rights of others to do the same. Our intellectual tradition emphasizes that conscience can be guided, but not forced, in any direction. This deference for the primacy of conscience extends to all men and women and to their personal decisions about moral issues.

Our faith also compels us to respect religious pluralism and religious freedom. Religious freedom is an expansive rather than restrictive idea. It has two sides: freedom of religion and freedom from religion. It is not about telling people what they can and cannot believe or practice, but rather about respecting an individual’s right to follow his or her own conscience in religious beliefs and practices, as well as in moral decision making. The protections we put in place to preserve religious freedom do not permit religious institutions or individuals to obstruct or coerce the exercise of another’s conscience.

Sweeping refusal clauses and exemptions allow a few to dictate what services many others may access. They disrespect the individual capacities of women to act upon their individual conscience-based decision. They impede the rights of women and men to make their own decisions about what is best for their own health, and that of their families, as well as restricting their right to act upon those decisions without undue and unjust burdens.

One woman who saw these burdens placed on her conscience rights is “Sandra,” a science teacher at a Catholic school in the Midwest. Her story is an example of the many Americans who fall under these types of expansive refusal clauses being pushed by the bishops and their allied organizations. What is a reality for Sandra today is what many women can look forward to in their future.

As with almost all Catholic schools, Sandra’s employers follow diocesan rules regarding employees’ insurance — meaning no contraceptive coverage, regardless of medical necessity. When she first learned of the refusal clause proposed in the recent regulation to implement the preventive health services under the Affordable Care Act, she was outraged. As she explained to us, they added “insult to injury” by ignoring the healthcare needs of women like her and allowing her employers to continue to deny her coverage.

“I just never assumed that in 2011 I would be denied birth control,” she said. “I’m in my mid-twenties. I have no intention of having kids at the moment. I like teaching kids, but it’s a whole other thing having them.”

Sandra lost coverage when she began working under the jurisdiction of her local diocese. “I went to fill my birth control prescription like I always do. I say ‘Here’s my new insurance card,’ and they say I’m not covered,” she related. “They thought that it was weird and asked where I worked. As soon as I said I worked in a Catholic school, they said, ‘Oh, 99 percent of Catholic schools will not cover it. We’ve never had it covered before.’ I had no clue.”

For Sandra, this posed a significant hardship. She had taken a salary reduction in order “to go to work every day saying that it’s what I love.” She and her husband had carefully considered their insurance plans and determined that it was more economical for them to remain on separate policies, but once she had to pay out of pocket for the birth control that was best for her, a non-generic prescription, their careful financial planning was all for naught.

“Birth control is a lot of extra money on top of the salary reduction, but the principle of it is really what gets me,” she told us. “I don’t like being told by some guy that I’ve never met that I can’t use it. The bishops are not even having sex in the first place. How are they supposed to know how to tell me what to do in that situation?”

Her story, as she recognized, is all too common and reflects the repeated marginalization of many women by the Catholic hierarchy—the same women whose voices have been deemed unimportant by those on both sides of the recent debates. Sandra is just one of the many individuals whose conscience is not being protected by refusal clauses exempting entire institutions from covering their employees for services guaranteed to everyone else by the new law.

Catholic teachings on conscience require due deference to the conscience of others in making decisions — that the employer should not be allowed to dismiss the conscience of the employee seeking coverage for the healthcare services guaranteed to any other. In light of this precept, the public policy efforts of the hierarchy should take into account the experiences of individual Catholics as well as the beliefs of patients and clients, workers in social services and healthcare providers of other faiths and no faith, so that patients will not be refused any legal and medically appropriate treatment or be denied services they seek.

You have heard from some conservative Catholics on this issue, but it would be a grave mistake to confuse the individual positions of a few powerful interest groups with the majority view of the more than 68 million Catholics in the United States. For Catholic employers to claim to be the arbiter of any person’s good conscience is clearly disingenuous. When medical professionals refuse to provide legal reproductive health services, or provide timely referrals to other providers, they violate the right to conscience of the person seeking those services. This does not fall under anybody’s definition of a good conscience. Catholics for Choice and the majority of Catholics respect everybody’s individual conscience and their ability to act in accordance with their personal beliefs. However, we expect the hierarchy and their allied organizations, in keeping with the teachings of our shared Catholic faith and our American tradition, to respect our consciences and the consciences of the patients and clients who seek the services they need. We hope that those who serve to represent all of us in public service and in government will respect our consciences, too.

Protecting the freedom of conscience for all Americans no matter what their beliefs may be — for the atheist, for the employee of a Catholic institution, for the sexual assault victim who seeks care at a Catholic hospital — is indeed the job of the government. Expanding individual refusal clauses to include institutions and exemptions for religious institutions to deny the rights of all would sacrifice these people’s rights. Public policy should be implemented to further the common good and to enable people to exercise their conscience-based healthcare decisions.

Lawmakers of all political hues can come together to support a balanced approach to individual conscience rights and access to comprehensive healthcare. It makes sense for all those who want to provide more options to women seeking to decide when and whether to have a child. It makes sense for those who want to keep the government’s involvement in healthcare to a minimum. And it makes sense for those who think that it is the government’s role to facilitate the healthcare decisions that people want to make. Above all, it makes sense for a society that believes in freedom of religion — a right one can’t claim for oneself without extending it to one’s neighbor. The bottom line is that protecting conscience rights and preserving access to care shouldn’t just be about protecting those who seek to dictate what care is and is not available to all. Nor should it be for those who would dismiss the conscience of others by imposing their view of which consciences are worth protecting.

Protecting individual conscience and ensuring access to affordable, quality care is not just an ideal, it is a basic tenet of our society and it is the right thing to do. I thank the Subcommittee for inviting me today and for your attention. I look forward to any questions Members may have.

Analysis Human Rights

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

Tina Vasquez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Appreciate our work?

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

VOTE NOW

“A Grossly Misnamed” Operation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asylum Seekers Become “High-Priority Cases”

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is something Mao takes great issue with.

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

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

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

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

The Plight of Unaccompanied Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fighting for Asylum From Detention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

News Health Systems

What Happens When a Catholic-Run Clinic Comes to Your Local Walgreens?

Amy Littlefield

“It causes us great concern when we think about vulnerable populations ... [who] may need to use these clinics for things like getting their contraception prescribed and who would never think that when they went into a Walgreens they would be restricted by Catholic doctrine,” Lorie Chaiten, director of the women’s and reproductive rights project of the ACLU of Illinois, told Rewire.

One of the largest Catholic health systems is set to begin running health clinics inside 27 Walgreens stores in Missouri and Illinois next week. The deal between Walgreens and SSM Health has raised concerns from public interest groups worried that care may be compromised by religious doctrine.

Catholic health systems generally follow directives issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that restrict access to an array of services, including abortion care, contraception, tubal ligations, vasectomies, and fertility treatments.

“We are concerned that the clinics will likewise be required to follow the [directives], thereby severely curtailing access to important reproductive health services, information, and referrals,” MergerWatch, the National Health Law Program, and the American Civil Liberties Unions of Illinois and Missouri wrote in a letter to Walgreens on Wednesday. They also sent a letter to SSM Health.

In a statement emailed to Rewire, Walgreens said its relationship with SSM Health “will not have any impact on any of our current clinic or pharmacy policies and procedures.”

SSM Health emailed a statement saying it “will continue to offer the same services that are currently available at Walgreens Healthcare Clinics today.” If a patient needs services “that are beyond the scope of what is appropriate for a retail clinic setting, they will be referred to a primary care physician or other provider of their choice,” the statement read.

A spokesperson for SSM Health demurred when Rewire asked if that would include referrals for abortion care.

“I’ve got to check this part out, my apologies, this is one that hadn’t occurred to me,” said Jason Merrill, the spokesperson.

Merrill later reiterated SSM Health’s statement that it would continue to offer the same services.

Catholic health systems have in recent years expanded control over U.S. hospitals, with one in six acute-care hospital beds now in a Catholic-owned or -affiliated facility. Patients in such hospitals have been turned away while miscarrying, denied tubal ligations, and refused abortion care despite conditions like brain cancer.

Catholic health systems have also expanded into the broader landscape of outpatient services, raising new questions about how religion could influence other forms of care.

“The whole health system is transforming itself with more and more health care being delivered outside the hospital,” Lois Uttley, director of MergerWatch, told Rewire. “So we are looking carefully to make sure that the religious restrictions that have been such a problem for reproductive health care at Catholic hospitals are not now transferred to these drug store clinics or to urgent care centers or free-standing emergency rooms.”

Walgreens last year announced a similar arrangement with the Catholic health system Providence Health & Services to bring up to 25 retail clinics to Oregon and Washington. After expressing concerns about the deal, the ACLU of Washington said it received assurances from both Walgreens and Providence that services at those clinics would not be affected by religious doctrine.

Meanwhile, the major urgent care provider CityMD recently announced a partnership with CHI Franciscan Health–which is affiliated with Catholic Health Initiatives–to open urgent care centers in Washington state.

“We’re seeing [Catholic health systems] going into the urgent care business and into the primary care business and in accountable care organizations, where they are having an influence on the services that are available to the public and to consumers,” Susan Berke Fogel, director of reproductive health at the National Health Law Program, told Rewire.

GoHealth Urgent Care, which describes itself as “one of the fastest growing urgent care companies in the U.S.,” announced an agreement this year with Dignity Health to bring urgent care centers to California’s Bay Area. Dignity Health used to be called Catholic Healthcare West, but changed its name in 2012.

“This is another pattern that we’ve seen of Catholic health plans and health providers changing their names to things that don’t sound so Catholic,” Lois Uttley said.

 

In the letters sent Wednesday, the National Health Law Program and other groups requested meetings with Walgreens and SSM Health to discuss concerns about the potential influence of religion on the clinics.

“It causes us great concern when we think about vulnerable populations, we think about low-income people… people who… may need to use these clinics for things like getting their contraception prescribed and who would never think that when they went into a Walgreens they would be restricted by Catholic doctrine,” Lorie Chaiten, director of the Reproductive Rights Project of the ACLU of Illinois, told Rewire.

The new clinics in Walgreens will reportedly be called “SSM Health Express Clinics at Walgreens.” According to SSM Health’s website, its initials “[pay] tribute” to the Sisters of St. Mary.

“We are fairly forthcoming with the fact that we are a mission-based health care organization,” Merrill told Rewire. “That’s something we embrace. I don’t think it’s anything we would hide.”

 

Tell us your story. Have religious restrictions affected your ability to access health care? Email stories@rewire.news

credo_rewire_vote_3

Vote for Rewire and Help Us Earn Money

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

VOTE!

Thank you for supporting our work!