Commentary Law and Policy

A Case Study in Awful: The 8 Worst Parts of the Recent Naval Academy Rape Hearing

Erin Matson

I take a look at some of the horrible insinuations, statements, and questions used by defense attorneys to impugn the character of a 21-year-old female midshipman.

Recently, attorneys defending three former Naval Academy football players against allegations of sexual assault at an off-campus party spent more than 20 hours over five grueling days questioning, taunting, blaming, shaming, and what appears to be re-victimizing a 21-year-old female midshipman.

At one point, the midshipman said she was too exhausted to continue testifying and the commander presiding over the hearing granted her a day off. “This is borderline abusive,” her attorney Susan Burke said upon leaving the Navy Yard that day. Abusive, yes, and sadly all too instructive in how rape culture encourages attorneys, members of the media, and others to turn sexual assault victims into the accused.

The routine process of victim blaming, as illuminated by this Article 32 hearing, serves to silence other sexual assault victims, generate sympathy for rapists, and create doubts that the definition of sexual assault includes anything beyond a stranger jumping out of an alley and raping a sweet, chaste woman wearing modest clothing.

In this case, the midshipman saw social media posts that led her to believe she was raped while drunk. All three defendants admitted sexual contact with the midshipman on the night at the center of the allegations—either to her, or prosecutors. What follows is a look at some of the horrible insinuations, statements, and questions used by defense attorneys to impugn the character of the midshipman, which offer an entry point to talk about and refute rape culture as a whole.

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How do you perform oral sex?

Defense attorneys repeatedly asked the midshipman how she performs oral sex. This question is irrelevant, even though one of the defendants has said that he put his penis in her mouth that night. Here’s the deal: It doesn’t matter if a sexual assault victim has had sex, and it doesn’t matter how she (or he) prefers to have sex. People are biologically driven to have sex. Sex is part of normal life. A history or manner of having oral sex, or rough sex, or any specific style of sex, does not mean that you can’t be sexually assaulted orally, or roughly, or in that specific style. There are infinite ways to have sex, minus one: Sex without consent isn’t sex. By definition, it’s rape.

Tell us about your sex life.

Along with repeated queries about how she performs oral sex, the midshipman was asked to describe her sex life in detail. This, like the oral sex question, is also irrelevant and demeaning. Casting the spotlight on a victim’s sexual history in the context of discussing her (or his) rape serves to make others imagine the victim sexually. It serves to degrade her (or him). Sharing your sexuality with others is a personal choice. Being cast in a sexual light can be highly desired, even great, when freely chosen. But painting a sexual picture of someone when they haven’t asked you to serves to shame, silence, and sluttify.

You had sex with him before, right?

The midshipman and other witnesses were called to say that one of the defendants had a history of consensual sex with her prior to the night listed in the sexual assault charges. But this is irrelevant. There is no social role—boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife, best friend, casual sex partner, community leader, religious official—that renders a person unable to rape. The only way to not be a rapist is to not rape. Further, consent is never permanent. Consenting to sex once or even 1,000 times is never consenting to future sex. Consent must be given for every single sex act, every single time. Sexual contact without consent is sexual assault.

But you were flirting!

In tandem with conflating and purposefully confusing previous consensual sex with rape charges, defense attorneys suggested that she was flirting that night. The dog whistle hangs rather obviously in the air: She’s a slut, they’re arguing, she wanted it. As nearly everyone who has attempted romantic interaction with another can say from personal experience, the interpretation that someone is flirting with you does not mean that someone has the intent to flirt with you, and vice versa. Heck, let’s even say she was flirting. Flirting is neither a crime nor an invitation to commit a crime. Flirtation never forces rape. Flirtation never excuses rape.

Did you “feel like a ho” the next morning?

This really happened: The defense attorneys asked the midshipman if she “felt like a ho” the next morning. Applying derogatory terms about sex workers to anyone, including sex workers themselves, is a tool of sexual dominance. Questions like these make it so painfully obvious why sexual assault victims can be hesitant to come forward. If you say something, they’ll trash you. They really will.

You must be hiding something.

While being compared to a “ho” and asked to describe how she performs oral sex, the midshipman said that she hadn’t always been totally forthcoming with information. For any sexual assault victim, it’s not hard to fill in the blanks and explain why. When people come forward about sexual assault, the spotlight is put on them, and it is not flattering. Giving rapists a pass and denying that victims have been victimized, or at least making them appear unreasonable, is what rape culture is all about.

“Drunk sex is not sexual assault.”

Defense attorneys said that a blackout state induced by alcohol “is a function of memory. It is not an attribute of capacity.” This argument is to say that a person saturated with alcohol can do anything, they just may not be able to remember it. That is not true physically, legally, or mentally. An extremely drunk person may be too incapacitated, physically, to walk or speak, or too incapacitated, legally, to drive or operate certain equipment. So, too, an extremely drunk person may be too incapacitated, mentally, to consent to sex. It is irrelevant how much, if any, alcohol is involved: The burden to not rape will always be on rapists, not victims. There is no free pass to rape a person unable to offer meaningful, understanding, reasonably aware consent to sexual contact.

What should we take away from this awful hearing?

Defense attorneys painted the midshipman as a “bad girl” in order to raise doubt about the rape charges against the three former Naval Academy football players charged with sexually assaulting her. In so doing, they relied upon sexism and stubborn myths that make it easy for rapists to get away with rape.

The myth that “good girls don’t get raped” is one of the cruelest lies to be found in the intersecting worlds of male dominance and rape culture. It serves to shift the focus of sexual assault conversations from perpetrators to victims. Culturally, we can understand why this happens, even when women, who are more likely to be victimized by sexual assault, participate.

If there were a checklist to follow that means we couldn’t be sexually assaulted, then we wouldn’t have to live in fear of the reality that sexual assault will almost inevitably touch our lives or the lives of people we know. We wouldn’t have to filter online dates with a wary eye, or drink apple juice at the party, or clutch our keys when we walk home at night. We could just not be sluts. Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way, and the practice of victim blaming neither protects anyone nor creates a climate where women can participate freely in public life the same way men can, including taking a keg stand at a college party where football players are present.

In the context of legal proceedings, a negative focus on victims carries an additional punch. The Naval Academy rape hearing is so gut-wrenching because the woman for whom prosecutors are seeking justice was treated as much (or more) of a defendant as the three alleged rapists.

In our legal system, the burden of proof is on the state to prove that a defendant is guilty. It is a flaw in logic, to say nothing of lazy lawyering on behalf of a defense team, to insist that if a victim is proven guilty a defendant is innocent. Unfortunately, this is often the case when men are put on trial for rape allegations, and it’s happening here within the context of the military chain of command presiding over a sexual assault case.

As Rewire‘s Adele Stan has written on the ongoing push to remove the military chain of command from sexual assault prosecutions in the context of this case:

Those who advocate taking the authority to prosecute such cases out of the hands of the commanding officers of those accused of sexual assault say there is little hope that the military’s rape-culture crisis will dissipate until the immediate commanders of the accused are taken out of the picture.

Certainly, rape culture is a terrible beast, and it came out on full display within this brutal rape hearing at the Navy Yard. It’s a vicious lie to insinuate that you can avoid the threat of rape by being a good girl. Good girls can get raped and bad girls can get raped, and every time, it’s rape. Women (and men) can wear miniskirts and flirt and still get raped. Drunk people can get raped. Drunk people can rape. Victims are not the problem.

A decision is forthcoming as to whether this specific case at the Naval Academy will proceed against the defendants, and it’s also up for grabs whether the U.S. Naval Academy Superintendent will be removed from the case. Given an ongoing push on Capitol Hill to better address military sexual assault, it is likely that additional legislative debates about military sexual assault prosecutions will come along on their own timelines. Whether the routine practice of victim blaming within a broader rape culture is allowed to continue, however, is up to all of us. Perhaps this case has been vomit-inducing enough to advance the conversation.

Commentary Violence

This is Not The Story I Wanted—But It’s My Story of Rape

Dani Kelley

Writer Dani Kelley thought she had shed the patriarchal and self-denying lessons of her conservative religious childhood. But those teachings blocked her from initially admitting that an encounter with a man she met online was not a "date" that proved her sexual liberation, but an extended sexual assault.

Content note: This article contains graphic descriptions of sexual violence.

The night I first truly realized something was wrong was supposed to be a good night.

A visiting friend and I were in pajamas, eating breakfast food at 10 p.m., wrapped in blankets while swapping stories of recent struggles and laughs.

There I was, animatedly telling her about my recently acquired (and discarded) “fuck buddy,” when suddenly the story caught in my throat.

When I finally managed to choke out the words, they weren’t what I expected to say. “He—he held me down—until, until I couldn’t—breathe.”

Hearing myself say it out loud was a gut-punch. I was sobbing, gasping for breath, arms wrapped as if to hold myself together, spiraling into a terrifying realization.

This isn’t the story I wanted.

Unlearning My Training

I grew up in the Plymouth Brethren movement, a small fundamentalist Christian denomination that justifies strict gender roles through a literal approach to the Bible. So, according to 1 Corinthians 11:7, men are considered “the image and glory of God,” while women are merely “the glory of man.” As a result, women are expected to wear head coverings during any church service, among other restrictions that can be best summed up by the apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 2:11-12: Women are never allowed to have authority over men.

If you’ve spent any number of years in conservative Christianity like I did, you’re likely familiar with the fundamentalist tendency to demonize that which is morally neutral or positive (like premarital sex or civil rights) while sugar-coating negative experiences. The sugar-coating can be twofold: Biblical principles are often used to shame or gaslight abuse victims (like those being shunned or controlled or beaten by their husbands) while platitudes are often employed to help members cope with “the sufferings of this present time,” assuring them that these tragedies are “not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”

In many ways, it’s easy to unlearn the demonization of humanity as you gain actual real-world experience refuting such flimsy claims. But the shame? That can be more difficult to shake.

The heart of those teachings isn’t only present in this admittedly small sect of Christianity. Rather, right-wing Western Christianity as a whole has a consent problem. It explicitly teaches its adherents they don’t belong to themselves at all. They belong to God (and if they’re not men, they belong to their fathers or husbands as well). This instilled lack of agency effectively erases bodily autonomy while preventing the development of healthy emotional and physical boundaries.

On top of that, the biblical literalism frequently required by conservative Christianity in the United States promotes a terrifying interpretation of Scripture, such as Jeremiah 17:9. The King James Version gives the verse a stern voice, telling us that “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.” If we believe this, we must accept that we’re untrustworthy witnesses to our own lives. Yet somehow, we’re expected to rely on the authority of those the Bible deems worthy. People like all Christians, older people, and men.

Though I’ve abandoned Christianity and embraced feminist secular humanism, the culture in which I grew up and my short time at conservative Bob Jones University still affect how I view myself and act in social situations. The lessons of my formative years created a perfect storm of terrible indoctrination: gender roles that promoted repressed individuality for women while encouraging toxic masculinity, explicit teaching that led to constant second-guessing my ability to accurately understand my own life, and a biblical impetus to “rejoice in my suffering.”

Decades of training taught me I’m not allowed to set boundaries.

But Some Habits Die Hard

Here’s the thing. At almost 30, I’d never dated anyone other than my ex-husband. So I thought it was about time to change that.

When I found this man’s online profile, I was pleasantly surprised. It was full of the kind of geekery I’m into, even down to the specific affinity for eclectic music. I wrote to him, making sure my message and tone were casual. He responded instantly, full of charisma and charm. Within hours, we’d made plans to meet.

He was just as friendly and attentive in person. After wandering around town, window-shopping, and getting to know one another, he suggested we go to his favorite bar. As he drank (while I sipped water), he kept paying me compliments, slowly breaking the touch barrier. And honestly, I was enthralled—no one had paid attention to me like this in years.

When he suggested moving out to the car where we could be a little more intimate, I agreed. The rush of feeling desired was intoxicating. He seemed so focused on consent—asking permission before doing anything. Plus, he was quite straightforward about what he wanted, which I found exciting.

So…I brought him home.

This new and exciting “arrangement” lasted one week, during which we had very satisfying, attachment-free sex several times and after which we parted ways as friends.

That’s the story I told people. That’s the story I thought I believed. I’d been freed from the rigid expectations and restraints of my youth’s purity culture.

Now. You’re about to hear me say many things I know to be wrong. Many feminists or victim advocates almost certainly know the rationalizations and reactions I’m about to describe are both normal responses to abuse and a result of ingrained lies about sex in our culture. Not to mention evidence of the influence that right-wing conservatism can have on shaping self-actualization.

As I was telling people the story above, I left out important details. Were my omissions deliberate? An instinctive self-preservation mechanism? A carryover from draconian ideals about promiscuity?

When I broke down crying with my friend, I finally realized I’d kept quiet because I couldn’t bear to hear myself say what happened.

I’m a feminist, damn it. I left all the puritanical understandings of gender roles behind when I exited Christianity! I even write about social justice and victim advocacy. I ought to recognize rape culture!

Right?

If only being a socially aware feminist was enough to erase decades of socialization as a woman within rape culture—or provide inoculation against sexual violence.

That first night, once we got to my car, he stopped checking in with me. I dismissed the red flag as soon as I noticed it, telling myself he’d stop if I showed discomfort. Then he smacked my ass—hard. I pulled away, staring at him in shocked revulsion. “Sorry,” he replied, smirking.

He suggested that we go back to my house, saying we’d have more privacy than at his place. I was uneasy, unconvinced. But he began passionately kissing, groping, petting, and pleading. Against my better judgment, I relented.

Yet, in the seclusion of my home, there was no more asking. There was only telling.

Before I knew it, I’d been thrown on my back as he pulled off my clothes. I froze. The only coherent thought I could manage was a weak stammer, asking if he had a condom. He seemed agitated. “Are you on birth control?” That’s not the point! I thought, mechanically answering “yes.”

With a triumphant grin and no further discussion, he forced himself into me. Pleasure fought with growing panic as something within me screamed for things to slow down, to just stop. The sensation was familiar: identical to how I felt when raped as a child.

I frantically pushed him off and rolled away, hyperventilating. I muttered repeatedly, “I need a minute. Just give me a minute. I need a minute.”

“We’re not finished yet!” he snapped angrily. As he reached for me again, I screeched hysterically, “I’M NOT OK! I NEED A MINUTE!”

Suddenly, he was kind and caring. Instead of being alarmed, I was strangely grateful. So once I calmed down, I fucked him. More than once.

It was—I told myself—consensual. After all, he comforted me during a flashback. Didn’t I owe him that much?

Yet, if I didn’t do what he wanted, he’d forcefully smack my ass. If I didn’t seem happy enough, he’d insistently tell me to smile as he hit me again, harder. He seemed to relish the strained smile I would force on command.

I kept telling myself I was okay. Happy, even. Look at how liberated I was!

All week, I was either at his beck and call or fighting suicidal urges. Never having liked alcohol before, I started drinking heavily. I did all I could to minimize or ignore the abuse. Even with his last visit—as I fought to breathe while he forcefully held my head down during oral sex, effectively choking me—I initially told myself desperately that surely he wouldn’t do any of this on purpose.

The Stories We Tell and The Stories That Just Are

Reflecting on that week, I’m engulfed in shame. I’m a proud feminist. I know what coercion looks like. I know what rape looks like. I know it’s rarely a scary man wearing a ski mask in a back alley. I’ve heard all the victim-blaming rape apologia you have: that women make up rape when they regret consenting to sex, or going on a date means sex is in the cards, or bringing someone home means you’re game for anything.

Reality is, all of us have been socialized within a patriarchal system that clouds our experiences and ability to classify them. We’re told to tend and befriend the men who threaten us. De-escalation at any cost is the go-to response of almost any woman I’ve ever talked to about unwanted male attention. Whatever will satiate the beast and keep us safe.

On top of that, my conservative background whispered accusations of being a Jezebel, failing to safeguard my purity, and getting exactly what I deserve for forsaking the faith.

It’s all lies, of course. Our culture lies when it says that there are blurred lines when it comes to consent. It violates our personhood when it requires us to change the narrative of the violence enacted against us for their own comfort. Right-wing Christianity lies when it says we don’t belong to ourselves and must submit to the authority of a religion or a gender.

Nobody’s assaulted because they weren’t nice enough or because they “failed” to de-escalate. There’s nothing we can do to provoke such violence. Rape is never deserved. The responsibility for sexual assault lies entirely with those who attack us.

So why was the story I told during and after that ordeal so radically and fundamentally different from what actually happened? And why the hell did I think any of what happened was OK?

Rape myths are so ingrained in our cultural understanding of relationships that it was easier for me to believe nothing bad had happened than to accept the truth. I thought if I could only tell the story I wanted it to be, then maybe that’s what really happened. I thought if I was willing—if I kept having him over, if I did what he ordered, if I told my friends how wonderful it was—it would mean everything was fine. It would mean I wasn’t suffering from post-traumatic stress or anxiety about defying the conservative tenets of my former political and religious system.

Sometimes, we tell ourselves the stories we want to hear until we’re able to bear the stories of what actually happened.

We all have a right to say who has what kind of access to our bodies. A man’s masculinity gives him no authority over anyone’s sexual agency. A lack of a “no” doesn’t mean a “yes.” Coercion isn’t consent. Sexual acts performed without consent are assault. We have a right to tell our stories—our real stories.

So, while this isn’t the story I wanted, it’s the story that is.

I was raped.

Analysis Human Rights

The Troubling Case of a ‘Fortunate’ Immigrant Seeking Asylum

Tina Vasquez

To her immigration attorney, Nicole Ramos, M’s case is troubling because like many of her clients, M did exactly what she was supposed to do in accordance with U.S. law. But still, her rights were trampled on.

“M” is deeply familiar with the brutal nature of the U.S. immigration system. After waiting in line for more than 30 hours at the San Ysidro Port of Entry to enter the United States from Tijuana, and being held at an immigration facility for almost two weeks, she was released from San Diego’s Otay Mesa Detention Center on April 11.

To her immigration attorney, Nicole Ramos, M’s case is troubling because like many of her clients, M did exactly what she was supposed to do in accordance with U.S. law. But still, Ramos noted, her rights were trampled on.

M, whose name is being withheld to protect her privacy, is considered one of the “lucky ones” (when compared to other immigrants’ cases) for having an attorney who can advocate on her behalf. But even having an attorney couldn’t protect her from inappropriate and abusive behavior that her legal advocates say she experienced while attempting to return to the United States, where she had lived for over two and a half decades before leaving for Mexico to visit a fatally ill parent.

M’s case echoes findings in a new Human Rights Watch report about trans women in detention that suggested the U.S. immigration system often further traumatizes an already vulnerable population.

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Multiple Traumas

Though Rewire was unable to speak to M directly, her attorney explained in an interview last month that M was smuggled by traffickers into the United States from Mexico 25 years ago. As a transgender teenager, M was the victim of multiple sexual assaults, but she was able to escape her traffickers and build a life in San Diego and, eventually, in Los Angeles.

According to Ramos, M received word last year from relatives in Mexico that her mother was gravely ill and dying. Despite being undocumented and unsure of how she would return to the United States, M sold her belongings to pay for her trip to say goodbye to her mother.

M knew it would be a difficult trip, her attorney explained to Rewire, but what she didn’t anticipate was the response from her own family concerning her gender identity. M’s appearance had changed a great deal during her years in the United States, something her family and those in the local community did not respond well to. According to Ramos, M was “pretty much chased out of town.”

“It was not a safe environment for her,” Ramos, who is based in Tijuana, told Rewire. M’s family “basically disowned her, with some family members becoming physically aggressive toward her. She tried to stay at a niece’s and later at a sister’s, but M began receiving threats from men in the area who were known in the neighborhood for targeting members of the LGBTQ community, and trans women in particular.”

To escape from her relatives after an unexpectedly short visit, M left her mother’s town in the middle of the night, hiding under a blanket in a borrowed truck, according to Ramos. A family member drove her to the nearest bus station so M could take a bus to Tijuana.

While staying in Tijuana, M faced more violence and transphobia, Ramos told Rewire. She was repeatedly turned down for housing, she was verbally abused by a therapist from whom she sought treatment, and she was threatened with assault by a bus driver.

“She was in Mexico since last May and she came to me for help at the end of December because it just became too much for her,” Ramos said. “Every time she left her house, she was harassed or threatened. Her bus driver threatening her was the last straw.”

Ramos agreed to help M apply for asylum status in the United States, which would allow her to stay in the country until her claim could be fully evaluated by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, since she would potentially face persecution should she return to her country of origin.

There are two ways to request asylum: Migrants can apply within a year of being in the United States, though one in five fail to file their application within that timeframe due to language barriers or lack of legal information or resources, among other reasons. Failure to do so puts them at risk for deportation. For those outside the United States, migrants fleeing violence can present themselves at the border or a port of entry and request asylum. There are more than 300 land, air, and sea ports where people and goods can enter the country, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

However, there are many challenges to getting an asylum claim approved. For asylum seekers whose claims aren’t deemed legitimate, because for example, they can’t prove their identity, they are deported. But even if the process goes smoothly, an asylum seeker will spend an average of 111 days in a detention center. After a “credible fear” interview with an asylum officer, in which they share personal details about their case and why they will be in danger if they are forced to return to their country of origin, they will be held in detention while they await their hearing in immigration court.

Parole” can be requested, allowing the asylum seeker to avoid a detention center stay, but only if they can verify their identify; if they have family or other contacts in the area; and if they can post a bond, which ranges from $1,500 to $10,000, depending on various factors.

Before accompanying her to the San Ysidro Port of Entry, where M would present herself and request asylum, Ramos explained all of this to M, as she explains it to all of her clients. What Ramos couldn’t prepare M for, she said, was the verbal abuse from CBP officers and their refusal to provide M with food for more than 30 hours. Upon being presented with a letter from Ramos that detailed M’s disabilities and special needs, a CBP officer at the port told M she “wasted her money on an attorney” and that “the letter doesn’t mean shit,” Ramos explained to Rewire.

“I highlighted [in her letter] that [M] has mental health issues, cognitive disabilities; that she has a seizure disorder. She is entitled to special protections because of her mental health issues. I made all of this known, according to [CBP’s] policies, but none of that mattered,” said Ramos: M was still met with disdain and verbal abuse by CBP officers.

M’s experience at the port led Ramos to contact Mitra Ebadolahi, staff attorney of the San Diego ACLU’s Border Litigation Project, which works to “document, investigate, and litigate” human and civil rights abuses in an effort to hold CBP more accountable.

In a complaint filed by the Border Litigation Project to CBP on March 23, Ebadolahi outlined the “unprofessional and abusive comments made” by an officer to M and how officers did not offer M food for 34 hours while she waited in line for processing, something the staff attorney said is unconstitutional and a violation of CBP’s own policies.

Ebadolahi wrote that asylum seekers must wait in line to present their claims for many hours—and sometimes even days. However, a CBP supervisor had assured Ramos that “CBP officers fed individuals awaiting asylum processing three times per day.”

Ramos visited M nearly 24 hours after she had escorted her to the port of entry. She spoke to port staff again about why her client wasn’t being fed and received different responses. One officer said it was M’s own responsibility to bring food to the port. Later in the day, a CBP supervisor named Chief Knox told Ramos that CBP “was not obligated to feed people on the Mexican side,” which Ebadolahi wrote is a “nonsensical” statement “given the fact that CBP officers line up asylum seekers awaiting processing in the U.S.-controlled area of the port.”

This conflicting information indicates CBP officers are not properly trained, wrote Ebadolahi, “or worse—that there is an intentional practice of obfuscating what is required of the agency so that members of the public are confused and can’t assert their rights. Either one of those things is unacceptable.”

This is not the first time the ACLU has filed a complaint against CBP. In 2012, the ACLU Southern Border Affiliates, along with other ACLU programs, demanded a federal investigation into abuse allegations of individuals, including U.S. citizens and legal residents, by CBP agents at ports of entry along the United States-Mexico border. The complaint highlighted 11 cases in which CBP appeared to disregard the civil and human rights of individuals crossing the border in violation of the U.S. Constitution, international law, and agency guidelines. Ebadolahi told Rewire no investigation has taken place.

San Diego’s ACLU Border Litigation Project also hasn’t received a response from local CBP authorities regarding the complaint they filed on behalf of M. The organization is now working on escalating the complaint to national CBP authorities.

In a statement to Rewire post-publication, a CBP spokesperson said that the federal agency “intends to respond to the ACLU this week.” The spokesperson added: “CBP is committed to providing appropriate care for those in our custody, and takes allegations that we have not met those standards of care seriously.”

Ramos has accompanied multiple clients to the port and each time, she said, she has been shocked by the behavior of CBP officers and what appears to be either a complete lack of understanding of laws and regulations, or outright attempts to dissuade migrants from seeking asylum. Once, while helping an unaccompanied minor fleeing violence in Central America, Ramos said an officer was incredulous that the child was presenting himself as an asylum seeker, saying, “You don’t apply for asylum here.” But asylum seekers can present themselves at the border or ports of entry and request a credible fear interview.

M had her paperwork in order, had an attorney, and lawfully presented herself at the port to request asylum. Still, CBP officials violated her rights, according to her attorney.

One of the “Fortunate” Ones

After 34 hours of waiting to be processed, M was then held in San Ysidro in CBP custody for three days. While there, Ramos said M was subjected to verbal abuse from officers who mocked her transgender identity, with one officer passing her cell and saying, “What’s the story with this one,” according to M’s attorney. Eventually, M was transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody at San Diego’s Otay Mesa Detention Center, where M says the trauma continued, explained Ramos.

M was held in a cell with men for 12 hours as she was processed into Otay Mesa, with one detainee staring at her aggressively for the entire 12 hours, according to her attorney. After processing, M was placed in medical isolation for reasons Ramos said she could not share out of respect for M’s privacy. Later, M was brought into the shower area with men. Though she was given her own private stall, male detainees showered nearby, Ramos said.

“She began experiencing flashbacks and felt like she was going to be raped again,” Ramos said. “She felt helpless because the officers were not taking her concerns seriously. It was incredibly traumatizing.”

Ramos’ biggest concern was that once released from medical isolation, M would be placed with men in detention.

“I made numerous pleas to ICE via email and via telephone saying this woman cannot be placed with men. She’s the survivor of multiple sexual assaults at the hands of men because she’s transgender,” Ramos told Rewire. “I literally said, ‘Please give me assurance that she will not be placed with men.’”

An employee at Otay Mesa told Ramos the facility doesn’t have a unit for transgender people, which ICE confirmed in an email statement to Rewire, so once out of isolation, if she wasn’t released from detention, M would be placed with male detainees or in “protective custody.” According to Solitary Watch, involuntary protective custody is “especially common” for LGBTQ individuals and other “at-risk prisoners who live in indefinite isolation despite having done nothing wrong.”

And yet, according to ICE’s own policies, detaining trans women with men should not be a standard practice. In July 2015, ICE released the Transgender Care Memorandum, new guidelines pertaining to transgender detainees in detention, including how officials should assign individuals to facilities based on their gender identity. But Ramos has heard from a trans woman in Otay Mesa that trans women are still detained alongside men.

“It doesn’t appear ICE’s new policies are being followed,” Ramos said. “When I called the facility and spoke with a supervisor, he explained that if [M] still has male genitalia, then she will be placed with male detainees and any special, protective custody would have to come through ICE. Trans detainees shouldn’t have to choose between going into protective custody and being on lockdown for 23 hours a day or being placed in a shark’s tank.”

Human Rights Watch’s report, Do You See How Much I’m Suffering Here?: Abuse Against Transgender Women in US Immigration Detention, sheds light on how M’s experience is not unusual for undocumented transgender immigrants. Based on 28 interviews with transgender women held or being held in U.S. immigration detention between 2011 and 2015, the report details the abuses that transgender women suffer in immigration detention and the U.S. government’s inadequate efforts to address this abuse.

According to the report, it appears as if ICE isn’t prioritizing the needs of trans women in detention despite the fact that, by its own count, there are approximately 65 transgender women in its custody on any given day.

From the report:

In early 2016, the US government appeared to move away from holding transgender women in men’s facilities and began transferring many of them to a segregated unit at the Santa Ana City Jail that exclusively houses transgender women. However, at time of writing, ICE officials were unable to state whether the agency had abandoned the practice of housing transgender women with men, and they had not announced any concrete plans to do so. Under ICE policy, immigration officials may still elect to house transgender women in men’s facilities—placing them at exceptionally high risk of sexual assault and other kinds of trauma and abuse. Others may be kept indefinitely in conditions of isolation simply because authorities cannot or will not devise any safe and humane way to keep them in detention.

Even within the segregated detention unit, trans women are not safe, according to the report. Several who were detained inside Santa Ana City Jail told Human Rights Watch that they were “regularly subjected to humiliating and abusive strip searches by male guards; have not been able to access necessary medical services, including hormone replacement therapy, or have faced harmful interruptions to or restrictions to that care; and have endured unreasonable use of solitary confinement.”

Ebadolahi told Rewire current U.S. immigration policies only subject traumatized, vulnerable asylum seekers to more trauma—and M is one of the more “fortunate” ones. After successfully passing her credible fear interview, M was released from detention on April 11.

“We’re talking about a transgender woman who is a survivor of multiple rapes, who has post-traumatic stress disorder, who has disabilities, including a seizure disorder, who has gone through a lifetime of hurt, and for who the simple act of appearing at the port of entry and applying for asylum took an enormous effort—and despite all of these things, she is considered one of the fortunate ones because she has a pro-bono lawyer working on her behalf,” Ebadolahi said.

“How M and her attorney were treated at the port of entry and … in detention, is unconstitutional, unethical, and outrageous. We shouldn’t tolerate it. This treatment serves absolutely no legitimate, government purpose and only serves to further traumatize and marginalize very vulnerable people. No one should be subject to this kind of abuse. This has to stop.”

UPDATE: This piece has been updated to include a statement from CBP’s spokesperson.