Commentary Abortion

A Pro-Choice Texan’s Dispatch From the National Right to Life Convention

Andrea Grimes

Throughout the convention, I expected to feel rage or anger. I expected to steam, to struggle to hold my tongue. Instead, I felt sadness and, to a small degree, pity.

Two months ago, when I signed up to attend the National Right to Life Convention (NRLC) in Grapevine, Texas, I could not have known that it would kick off the morning after Wendy Davis’ epic filibuster. Two months ago, the media was hailing a legislative session of compromise in Texas, with lawmakers reportedly agreeing to an ostensible truce on the abortion issue, focusing instead on restoring funding to family planning in my state. That was before Gov. Rick Perry pulled a bait-and-switch on progressives who’d had the bad sense to take the Republican Party at its word.

But there I was, in the lesser of the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport’s two Hyatt hotels, stepping off the elevator with two men in priestly garb, their waists cinched with rope. I arrived a few minutes after registration had closed for the day, but a nice lady took pity on my tardiness and handed me my badge and a thick packet of programming notes and baby-plastered propaganda.

I milled around that evening visiting sparsely supervised vendor booths stocked with t-shirts and DVDs before happening upon a deeply unsettling table full “Umbert the Unborn” cartoons. It seems that “the world’s most lovable baby hasn’t even been born yet!” Umbert is a “pre-born infant of yet undetermined gender,” but of course the poster fetus of the National Catholic Register nevertheless prefers male pronouns; his “mother’s womb is his private universe, playground and think-tank from which he can anticipate life and the world that awaits him.”

My outlook was perhaps less sunny than Umbert’s. Despite Tuesday night’s resounding pro-choice victory, during which 500 people chanted Republican Lt. Governor David Dewhurst into cowed frustration in the state Senate chamber, I had no illusions about what came next: a second special session, with abortion legislation at the top of the agenda. I came to NRLC ready to find myself surrounded by fired up right-wingers revved up with the glory of their God.

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Instead, I found a few hundred unfailingly polite white people, mostly middle-aged or older, shuffling sedately from conference room to conference room. It was, in a word, jarring. These were the people who would see Texans die behind legislation that would put 800 miles between a pregnant person and an abortion provider?

Sometime that first night, a flyer appeared under my hotel room door. It warned me: “National Right to Life Cannot Be Trusted.”

Alright, I’m listening.

Between phrases like “radical homosexual agenda” and “Mitt Romney’s assault on liberty,” I was able to gather that the NRLC is not nearly right-wing enough for the personhood crowd, who consider Ann Coulter and Billy Graham to be inveterate baby-killers. I did enjoy discovering, after visiting a suggested website, that the authors of this flyer consider Donald Trump to be a “Republican pretender.” Common ground in the unlikeliest of places.

The next morning, I found a back-row seat in the morning general session, looking forward to the party that was sure to begin with the arrival of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who out-Tea Partied David Dewhurst into a D.C. seat earlier this year. Cruz delivered, but the crowd didn’t, giving a surprisingly tepid standing ovation when Cruz called for the abolishment of the IRS.

But then he got to the good stuff, quoting a friend who remembered the glory days of 1969 when “women still thought aborting a child was a terrible thing to contemplate.” No doubt they did; in America’s pre-Roe v. Wade era, I can’t imagine any woman relishing a visit to a dirty motel room and a cash payment in exchange for bodily autonomy.

The ultimate result of the proposed legislation that Cruz championed, and that has been promoted in Texas’ second special session, is this: Abortion facilities will have to be licensed as ambulatory surgical centers, effectively shutting down 37 of Texas’ 42 existing abortion clinics. No abortion providers will exist west of Interstate 35, leaving the whole of west Texas—half of the second-largest state in the union—without abortion providers. Doctors who provide abortions will be forced to gain admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of those remaining providers, a challenging task considering most hospitals don’t want to deal with protestors lining their sidewalks. And medication abortions—the two-dose regimen that Texans can administer themselves at home—will become a thing of the past.

With that on my mind, I spent the afternoon in seminars; the program listed social media training courses, advice on “overcoming pro-abortion opposition within a congregation,” and one very tempting offering called “We Are the Sheep … Where Are the Shepherds?”

But I didn’t want to hear people talk the talk. I wanted to see them walk the walk. That’s how I ended up in a session on international adoptions of special needs kids, led by a single mom named Joleigh who told us, “My significant other turned out to be a short, swarthy special needs child.”

She said that her toddler, a mouthy little girl from Bulgaria who had begun calling her prosthetic leg “Leggy,” was just one of untold thousands of children across the world housed in orphanages offering varying degrees of safety and care. These are the world’s discarded children, sometimes diagnosed with conditions like Down Syndrome and spina bifida, others simply thrown out because of their racial backgrounds.

I am a child-free person, and during that seminar, even I found myself wondering: Could I give a home to one of these kids? My heart broke when I saw the slideshow of photos of terminally ill children in need of a safe, loving home and welcoming family with whom to spend their final weeks, months, and years.

That seminar was meant to address a favorite refrain of anti-choice folks: that there is no such thing as an unwanted child. But certainly the website Joleigh directed us to,, and the overflow of kids in foster care here in the United States, show that there are many, many unwanted children in search of what Joleigh called “unfound families.” There are simply not enough folks who are answering that call, and I found myself walking out of the room with a profound sense of respect and admiration for a woman who had, as a single person, given a forever home to a child without one.

Of course, for all the good it does and is, adoption is not an alternative to pregnancy. It is an alternative to parenthood. That adoption seminar was a brief relief; the next thing I heard, in another dim, brown room in the basement of the Hyatt, was that Right to Life was largely unconcerned with making adoptions—domestic, specifically—easier for Americans. Indeed, RTL is singularly focused on forcing all people (let’s please remember that cisgender women are not the only people facing pregnancy, whether unplanned, unwanted, or otherwise) to carry their pregnancies to term.

In the next seminar I attended, titled “They Don’t Care,” National Right to Life president Carol Tobias spent 40 minutes hitting the highlights of accumulated anti-Planned Parenthood rhetoric before taking questions from attendees. One attendee asked precisely the question I had on my mind, even if it wasn’t phrased precisely the way I might ask it: If anti-choicers care so much about babies, why not work harder to make adoption easier and cheaper? Her response: “We certainly promote it, but we haven’t gotten into the specifics of that. We just think it’s a good thing.”

Adoption may be “good” in the eyes of the Right to Lifers, but for Tobias and her supporters, forced pregnancy and the dismantling of a social safety net are the top priority. I mustered the gumption to raise my hand, asking Tobias to elaborate on a comment she’d made early in her presentation about abortion as a “huge money-making industry.”

I wondered, aloud, if she could give me some examples of what to say to people who don’t believe Planned Parenthood employees are lining their pockets with gold-plated fetuses?

Everyone in the room turned around to stare at me. That moment in school when you fear you’ve asked the dumbest question of all time, and the A-group is going to mock your knock-off Doc Martens mercilessly until Christmas break? That was this moment.

Tobias told me that if Planned Parenthood really cared about women, its doctors would do abortions for free. This was supposed to be the big burn I could present to “opponents,” as if certain health-care providers—targeted as they are, by violent and murderous anti-choice zealots—should automatically be expected to work gratis. A woman in the row in front of me handed me a flyer detailing Planned Parenthood’s reported income and funding sources from 2010. The look she gave me was a mix of “Oh, honey” and “Prepare to have your mind blown.”

The flyer demonstrated little more than the fact that Planned Parenthood derives its support not from Satan’s heinous minions, but from funds that are a mix of private contributions, government grants, and patient payments. Breaking news, this wasn’t. Mind blown? Not hardly. No, that came later, courtesy of HBO.

I retired to my room in time to watch the original Proposition 8 plaintiffs get married live on the Rachel Maddow Show and stayed up late to finish Magic Mike on premium cable, a luxury I do not afford myself at home in Austin.

Thusly refreshed, I rose the next morning anxious to hear what Lt. Gov. Dewhurst had to say to the gathered sort-of-masses. I watched as he posed goofily with devotees standing to the side of a flag-lined dais, paying not a whit of attention to the NRLC counsel informing a somewhat riveted audience of the government’s plan to summarily kill them all with end-of-life legislation that had nothing to do with pain but with less worthy, in her mind, reasons that included “loss of dignity” and “loss of autonomy.” Pain: important when discussing fetuses, irrelevant when discussing living humans with mixed-up priorities about how they’d like to meet their maker.

I was excited for the Dewhurst show. What would he say to tireless supporters who hadn’t been in that room on Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning? Would he double down on his promise to punish reporters who he believed had incited what he called an unruly mob? Would the crowd welcome him with 15 minutes of sustained applause?

They did not. They clapped, they stood, and they sat the hell down, ready for instructions. It is no wonder, I thought, that Dewhurst interpreted Tuesday night’s uproar as a mob—if this is as excited as Right to Lifers get, I could see why Dewhurst became overwhelmed by some raucous clapping in the senate chamber.

But we have to remember that David Dewhurst suffers from a terminal lack of self-awareness. On Tuesday night, as the minutes and seconds ticked down toward midnight, and the gallery resonated from end to end with a righteous uproar, he actually told people to quiet down so he could take a vote on the very bill everyone was there to oppose.

David Dewhurst told people to shut up so he could take their rights away.

That morning in his NRLC speech, he blamed Planned Parenthood, the International Socialist Organization, and the Occupy movement for whipping SB 5 opponents into a frenzy. This man, who literally told people in one sentence how they could prevent him from taking a vote on a bill that was guaranteed to pass, blamed his own failure on his constituents, who he believes are so profoundly stupid that they would blindly do the bidding of whatever scrub-clad, speculum-wielding demon bitch he imagines pulls the delicate brainstrings of Planned Parenthood’s ignorant devotees, slaves as they are to affordable cancer screenings and contraception.

“We got the bill passed at midnight only to see that time ran out to sign the bill,” Dewhurst explained to the crowd, conveniently omitting the fact that state Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston) had been making the media rounds that night, telling reporters that the 12:02 a.m. vote on June 26 was perfectly legal. This despite the fact that the special session had ended at midnight, shooting Wendy Davis into political stardom. This despite the fact that 180,000 people watched the midnight deadline pass on the Texas Tribune’s live feed.

I might feel bad for David Dewhurst if he didn’t so perfectly embody the bizarre combination of haplessness and malevolency that has come to define the flailing right wing in this country.

Probably the newly filed second special session legislation, which mirrors SB 5, will pass. I have very few illusions about that, despite my excitement about seeing thousands descend upon the capitol this week to make their voices heard in support of reproductive justice.

But if and when this legislation passes, it won’t be because anti-choice groups are better organized, more energized, and more representative of average Texans who are reasonable, pro-medicine, pro-science people who respect bodily autonomy. That much was apparent at the NRLC. No, if and when it passes, it will be because Republican politicians want to win primaries and have, over the past decade or so, very successfully capitalized on public fear—of a non-white America, of foreign terrorist threats, of empty gun racks. Those issues have conveniently aligned with an anti-choice base that is happy to piggyback on a party that thrives on the intersection of their anti-woman, pro-patriarchal ideals with the larger message, which is: Screw everyone who threatens my wholly unearned privilege.

In that decorous applause for Cruz and later Dewhurst, what I heard was a deafening smugness, emanating from hundreds of people who believe, deeply and passionately, that they know what’s best for others, not just in terms of reproductive rights, but in many ways. At Carol Tobias’ seminar on Planned Parenthood, a question about whether anti-choicers only care about people when they’re in the womb was answered, blithely, with the solution that individual Christians could do nice things for other people sometimes.

What the NRLC taught me is that there is a disconnect between the people who attended that convention and the politicians who claim to speak for them.

David Dewhurst, the consummate stooge, could not have spoken more dispassionately or with less conviction and charisma. Ted Cruz, on the other hand, oozed with a well-oiled D.C. slickness. And Rick Perry opened the convention by speaking, as he always does, with the confidence of a man who hasn’t heard the word “no” in decades. More than the fact that these men don’t know what it would be like to face an unplanned pregnancy, they plainly do not care.

nrlc photoThroughout the convention, I expected to feel rage or anger. I expected to steam, to struggle to hold my tongue. Instead, I felt sadness and, to a small degree, pity. Maybe I was hanging out at the wrong seminars, but the people sitting in those dimly lit brown rooms weren’t rage-inducing. They were versions of my grandparents. They were people whose faith—however misguided in my eyes, and however predicated on a fear of autonomous female sexuality—had been co-opted by affluent men looking to secure a seat of power.

After racing back down I-35 to Austin, eager to put sticky, searing Texas pavement between myself and 500 people with a collective fetus fetish, I met my best friend for mimosas. I never drink mimosas, but orange is a color that’s happening in my life these days. I tried to describe, for her, my feeling of sadness and pity. But I could see the skepticism in Carrie’s face. It’s hard to feel pity for people when Texans, desperate to end their pregnancies, will die because of the legislation they support.

News Abortion

Anti-Choice Leader to Remove Himself From Medical Board Case in Ohio

Michelle D. Anderson

In a letter to the State of Ohio Medical Board, representatives from nine groups shared comments made by Gonidakis and said he lacked the objectivity required to remain a member of the medical board. The letter’s undersigned said the board should take whatever steps necessary to force Gonidakis’ resignation if he failed to resign.

Anti-choice leader Mike Gonidakis said Monday that he would remove himself from deciding a complaint against a local abortion provider after several groups asked that he resign as president of the State of Ohio Medical Board.

The Associated Press first reported news of Gonidakis’ decision, which came after several pro-choice groups said he should step down from the medical board because he had a conflict of interest in the pending complaint.

The complaint, filed by Dayton Right to Life on August 3, alleged that three abortion providers working at Women’s Med Center in Dayton violated state law and forced an abortion on a patient that was incapable of withdrawing her consent due to a drug overdose.

Ohio Right to Life issued a news release the same day Dayton Right to Life filed its complaint, featuring a quotation from its executive director saying that local pro-choice advocates forfeit “whatever tinge of credibility” it had if it refused to condemn what allegedly happened at Women’s Med Center.

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Gonidakis, the president of Ohio Right to Life, had then forwarded a copy of the news release to ProgressOhio Executive Director Sandy Theis with a note saying, “Sandy…. Will you finally repudiate the industry for which you so proudly support? So much for ‘women’s health’. So sad.”

On Friday, ProgressOhio, along with eight other groupsDoctors for Health Care Solutions, Common Cause Ohio, the Ohio National Organization for Women, Innovation Ohio, the Ohio House Democratic Women’s Caucus, the National Council of Jewish Women, Democratic Voices of Ohio, and Ohio Voice—responded to Gonidakis’ public and private commentary by writing a letter to the medical board asking that he resign.

In the letter, representatives from those groups shared comments made by Gonidakis and said he lacked the objectivity required to remain a member of the medical board. The letter’s undersigned said the board should take whatever steps necessary to force Gonidakis’ resignation if he failed to resign.

Contacted for comment, the medical board did not respond by press time.

The Ohio Medical Board protects the public by licensing and regulating physicians and other health-care professionals in part by reviewing complaints such as the one filed by Dayton Right to Life.

The decision-making body includes three non-physician consumer members and nine physicians who serve five-year terms when fully staffed. Currently, 11 citizens serve on the board.

Gonidakis, appointed in 2012 by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, is a consumer member of the board and lacks medical training.

Theis told Rewire in a telephone interview that the letter’s undersigned did not include groups like NARAL Pro-Choice and Planned Parenthood in its effort to highlight the conflict with Gonidakis.

“We wanted it to be about ethics” and not about abortion politics, Theis explained to Rewire.

Theis said Gonidakis had publicly condemned three licensed doctors from Women’s Med Center without engaging the providers or hearing the facts about the alleged incident.

“He put his point out there on Main Street having only heard the view of Dayton Right to Life,” Theis said. “In court, a judge who does something like that would have been thrown off the bench.”

Arthur Lavin, co-chairman of Doctors for Health Care Solutions, told the Associated Press the medical board should be free from politics.

Theis said ProgressOhio also exercised its right to file a complaint with the Ohio Ethics Commission to have Gonidakis removed because Theis had first-hand knowledge of his ethical wrongdoing.

The 29-page complaint, obtained by Rewire, details Gonidakis’ association with anti-choice groups and includes a copy of the email he sent to Theis.

Common Cause Ohio was the only group that co-signed the letter that is decidedly not pro-choice. A policy analyst from the nonpartisan organization told the Columbus Dispatch that Common Cause was not for or against abortion, but had signed the letter because a clear conflict of interest exists on the state’s medical board.

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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