News Human Rights

Live from Rio+20, Day Three: “The Voices of Women”

Vicky Markham

Today I participated in an extraordinary side-event on “Rio+20 and Women’s lives: A Cross-General Dialogue” at the Ford Foundation Pavilion. This event was very intimate, it drew you in, with women’s personal stories for Rio+20 and beyond.

See all our coverage of Rio+20 here.

The Rio+20 conference is now entering its last days, final negotiations have begun, and tensions are rising as the challenge to our issues is acute. There’ve been demonstrations, heightened advocacy, and frustration:  while we know the issues of “women, reproductive health and environmentally sustainable development” are integrated in the real world (thus essential to achieving the goals of this Earth Summit),  coming away with anything less than them being central and overarching in the final Rio+20 document would be a major disappointment, and more.  Let’s see what the last days actually bring, things can still change.  Soon the Rio+20 outcome document will be finalized and all will be heading home. Participants here are tired, distances to each meeting venue is great, shuttle-busing from one end of the city to the next. Though it’s not a total hardship, we are in Rio de Janeiro after all, beaches, palms, coastline, and the gracious Brazilian hosts.

Today I participated in an extraordinary side-event on “Rio+20 and Women’s lives: A Cross-General Dialogue” at the Ford Foundation Pavilion, co-organized by Climate Wise Women, my own organization,  Center for Environment and Population (CEP), and Columbia University’s Coalition for Sustainable Development.

This event was very intimate, it drew you in, with women’s personal stories for Rio+20 and beyond.  It featured six outstanding global women activists of different generations (from Uganda, Nigeria, Cook Islands, Mississippi/US, Philippines, and Brazil) who shared their colorful personal narratives to help us understand the cross-cutting impacts of climate change and other environmental issues on their lives.  In conversation they discussed the importance of women’s empowerment and reproductive health, and new, innovative connections among women of all ages for practical implementation of the Rio+20 outcome and beyond.   

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We were honored by the attendance of two outstanding global leaders on these issues, Nilcéa Freire, Ford Foundation’s Brazil Representative and gender expert, and the Honorable Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and President of the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice (MRFCJ). Tracy Mann, Director of Climate Wise Women (CW2) moderated, and guest speakers included: Ulamila Kurai Wragg, Executive Director, Pacific Gender Coalition, Rarotonga, Cook Islands; Constance Okollet, Chairperson, Osukuru United Women’s Network, Tororo, Uganda; Sharon Hanshaw, Director, Coastal Women For Change (CWC), Biloxi, Mississippi, USA; Esperanza Garcia, Co-Founder, International Youth Council, President of Philippine Youth Climate Movement and youth leader at the Columbia University’s Coalition for Sustainable Development; Esther Kelechi Agbarakwe, Nigeria, Visiting Advocacy Fellow with Population Action International (PAI) in Washington DC and a member of the “Elders+Youngers” Initiative of The Elders around Rio+20, and; Ana Paula Sciammarella, Human Rights Attorney and Member of the Network of Brazilian Women.

Tracy Mann set the scene,  emphasizing the importance of integrating formal, high-level, international negotiations like Rio+20 with the compelling personal stories of women who experience environmental impacts like climate change in their own villages and communities around the world.  She pointed out how older can teach young, and young can teach older, a theme of today’s event. As each of the women’s stories unfolded I felt like I was sitting around a campfire on a Pacific Cook Island beach or Ugandan village thatched meeting house…the women themselves were colorful in their bright gold, shocking pink, and bronze fabrics, Pacific Island and African prints, and their stories were even more so.

I felt like I was with family – my mother, grandmother or younger extended-family female member – telling me of their life’s experiences and challenges in some exotic setting, and how they personally felt about the issues now being debated at the seemingly more remote, formal Rio+20 negotiations down the road.  While these issues on the surface may seem disparate, they showed us they are not, but very much intertwined in daily life on a Pacific Island coastal village, African farming village, or American town, and that all our lives are acutely affected by global negotiations like Rio+20.  

Sharon Hanshaw, an American-south activist who lost her home during Hurricane Katrina, pointed out, “We ‘Climate Wise Women’, and all of us here, are demographically distant, but so alike” and described how her life changed since the storm, prompting her to organize and legitimize local women for a say in decisions about how climate change affects her family and community.  

She reflected on several themes the group collectively shared:

  • “Climate change has brought us women activists together, it’s our commonality for action because although demographically different, we found we are so alike.”
  • “We didn’t know that what was happening to us – the severe storms, the drought, the flooding, the change in seasonality – was actually climate change. Now we know, we are more informed about the issues, and we’ve organized to do something about it.”
  • “We used to call it weather, storms, now we know to call it climate change.”
  • “We are all one voice to change how we think about green space, and women’s equality, they go hand in hand. We know it, now we want our leaders and negotiators to know it. We are leaders too, we deserve a legitimate place at the decision-making table.”

Constance Okollet, a self-described peasant farmer from Uganda was resplendent in her opulent yellow dress, and her calm and story-telling drew you in, “Come to me, I have stories to tell” made one want to spend the day doing just that.  She talked about the stark difference between the Uganda village of her youth with distinct seasons, dense vegetation and abundant water and animals, to now, where there were no more seasons, and the plants, animals and water are sparse, gone, or far afield.  She learned that what she was experiencing for the most part was due to climate-change induced severe weather, the extremes of flooding and prolonged drought.  She decided to do something about these changes and became a grassroots women’s organizer in her village because, she said, “Climate change is gambling with agriculture, our main source of food and income, and causing spread of diseases like cholera and malaria…Our vulnerable communities need a voice, and I am the voice.”

The Honorable Mary Robinson’s message was powerful, pointing out that women’s stories like those heard today should be at the core of UN debates, such as Rio+20.  She said, “It is essential that these women’s voices come out, be part of the UN debates. They put a human face to climate change, the face of climate change is a peasant farmer from Uganda, or a slum dweller in Brazil.  Climate change is hurting our poorest communities, our most vulnerable, and they are not responsible for climate change. Those most affected are not responsible yet bearing the brunt of its impacts. She had two messages here at Rio+20: we need to come at this from a human rights issue, and these issues of importance to women don’t get raised, they need a critical mass of women who come together. That’s why this group of Climate Wise Women and those like them are critical.”

Mrs. Robinson closed by stating that, “We also need women’s leadership on climate justice, and there needs to be a connection between the two, the women leaders at the UN and as heads of state, and the rural women and villagers, so they form a dialogue and input into global decisions about sustainable development, women’s empowerment, and reproductive health.  This connection is essential to bring the reality to this Rio+20 debate, and beyond.”

Esperanza Garcia and Ana Paula Sciammarella both eloquently represented the youth perspective, showing how the younger generation was concerned and highly organized from the local to global levels, for the future, and for their children.  They shook us to attention with their energy, passion and strong messages on involving youth in broader global sustainable development processes.  Ana Paula also discussed the difficulties of displacement faced by Rio favela women by climatic events, and the need for community and a shared platform for women’s voices in the society.

Ulamila Kurai Wragg relayed the Pacific Islands perspective, as sea level rise will likely render them refugees from their small island states.  In response, she mobilized local women and formed the Pacific Gender Coalition to document their perspective, and advocate on behalf of grassroots women in the Pacific region and to the rest of the world. She stressed the traditional gender-based roles in her Cook Islands and Fiji, how their livelihoods rely on the oceans as fishermen and women, and that her peoples’ lives are at stake.  She said, “Whatever happens with climate-caused sea level rise, we have to live with it, probably move from our homes, and I want to tell our perspective.”

Ulah stressed how a formal opportunity and network through organizations like CW2 and others like them was critical, because it helped bring attention to the many women and girls who have important stories to tell and knowledge to impart.  “There are many like me,” she said, “With unheard voices, their views are important to how we govern and treat our natural resources.  And reproductive health is a big part of it, the balance of people and the oceans, the natural environment, it has to be kept. The UN process has to value the gender and traditional-based knowledge, if not, that is a strong sign that something is wrong, it does not reflect the way life really is.”

Esther Kelechi Agbarakwe, a youth peer-advocate from Nigeria, became involved because she wanted to become empowered to do something not only in her own country, but on a global scale.  She sees the strong connection between the natural environment and health issues such as reproductive health (RH) and rights, wants to advocate on addressing this connection. She said she was disappointed that RH and rights was not included in the Rio+20 document, and was meeting with country delegates and doing social media around these issues here in Rio. She’s also working with MRFCJ on inter-generational perspectives, bringing home the importance of cross pollination between young and older women, one learning from the other, and working as a team to achieve environmental sustainability and reproductive rights.

She told the BBC yesterday ,“We are more impacted than ever by the effects of climate change in all our lives, and as part of this, we also need access to reproductive health and have reproductive rights, because that provides us with choices and opportunities in our lives.  It’s all connected.”

Nilcéa Freire, of the Ford Foundation in Brazil, was compelling with a story about her 3 year old granddaughter.  She wanted to come to Rio+20 to “see the indigenous people”, and she’s learning about the environment and recycling at school.  Nilcéa said her granddaughter has many opportunities, yet that wasn’t true for girls in the Rio favelas, or the slums of South Africa or Pacific Islands. “We can’t predict the destinies for these girls in particular”, she stated, “Because we are not doing enough to include girls and women in the political power of the planet. When we waste more than half of the people of the planet, by not involving women and girls, we waste our future. That’s why we all need to work on gender-based issues, to increase these voices.”  

Nilcéa’ s closing thoughts left us with a charge:  “By Rio+40, will my granddaughter be able to say ‘We are grateful to our own grandmothers who did a good job for us at Rio+20’ – but will she able to say that?” I for one was not at all sure.

Tomorrow I will blog about a side-event on “The Demographic Dividend and Sustainable Development” co-organized by the US Agency for International Development, Aspen Institute’s Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health, and CEP, and look at next steps, including the UK DFID/Gates Foundation’s London Family Planning Summit in July and beyond.  Stay tuned…

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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