Commentary Human Rights

Recent SNAP Restrictions Are Another Reminder That Poverty Is a Reproductive Issue

Katie Klabusich

I know firsthand that for many people, poverty is often related to a lack of access to basic health care, including abortion. This growing burden, carried primarily by poor people, is a blind spot for many legislatures and courts around the country.

My decision to have an abortion in 2010 wasn’t influenced by a lack of financial stability; I knew at 30 years old that I didn’t want children of my own. The circumstances that led to my unplanned pregnancy, however, were entirely due to almost a decade of living with food insecurity.

We use the word “choice” constantly in the reproductive rights movement. Almost always, this is to indicate the legal right to choose what happens to us, as though life is so easily reduced to such technicalities. But the existence of a right does not ensure that those who need to exercise it will have access to it. I didn’t choose my economic circumstances or the discrimination inherent in the pre-Affordable Care Act for-profit insurance industry, which together allowed the pregnancy to happen. So I have always bristled at the way an overuse of “choice” implies that options are a guarantee. In order for health and true equality to be in reach for all, we must understand what poverty is, who is affected by it, and deal with our discomfort as a culture acknowledging the millions who live and struggle under its weight.

When you are one of the 49 million United States residents who can’t be sure they’ll eat tomorrow or next week, every aspect of your life is about economics. The longer you live with uncertainty and instability, the more you realize that those who don’t share your experience are unaware that all issues, movements, and public policy are rooted in economic justice—or injustice. I know firsthand that for many people, poverty is often related to a lack of access to basic health care, including abortion. This growing burden, carried primarily by poor people, is a blind spot for many legislatures and courts around the country, particularly where restrictions on abortion and other kinds of reproductive care are concerned.

I was reminded of the link between health-care access and poverty yet again in the face of the justifications from the current wave of governors and state representatives proposing rules undercutting vital food assistance programs. Maine’s governor is worried about pickles; a Missouri lawmaker thinks Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients are living large on crab legs; and the Wisconsin legislature can’t continue to abide poor people eating potatoes and jarred pasta sauce. Every week, it seems, another lawmaker is trying to find a guilt-free way to shave one percentage point off the budget by cutting programs that keep people alive and create economic growth.

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Earlier this month, when the latest of these restrictions trickled down through the media, I found myself brimming with anger in response to the stigmatizing language and the pervasive focus on the middle class with no mention of the poor. Eventually, this spilled over into a hashtag on Twitter, #PovertyIs, which managed to trend briefly, despite the rarity of this topic in public conversations. People from around the world defied stigma and shaming to share their everyday experiences with poverty—the emotion, the strain, the stress, the hunger, the physical discomfort, and the decisions our friends and neighbors don’t have to weigh constantly.

As I read the responses, I was reminded of my own abortion story—how for me, like many others, poverty meant deciding between food and other necessities. In my case, that was birth control.

Five years ago, I was still living in Chicago when the generic birth control pill began to fail at countering my monthly migraines, debilitating cramps, and other symptoms that made working on my feet impossible. So I was prescribed the NuvaRing. It worked like a charm—at almost $80 per month, because it was name-brand-only and the prescription plan I paid for out of pocket wouldn’t cover it. At a healthy, pre-existing condition-free 28 years of age in the years before the Affordable Care Act, my health care was costing me an outrageous total of $350 every month, assuming I didn’t actually use it to see a doctor or fill additional prescriptions. Following my third job loss that year, I was forced to choose between food and birth control—certainly a health “care” system failure.

When I became pregnant as a result, I was relatively lucky in terms of getting to the procedure itself. My Chicago address had made it relatively easy to access care; even though many of the clinics in the city are picketed, there are, in fact many clinics. I was also lucky to have managers and co-workers at both jobs that either understood or didn’t care that I needed a couple days off for a medical procedure. I even had my own OB-GYN with whom to discuss my circumstances. I only ended up at Planned Parenthood because my insurance didn’t cover the elective procedure, so I went where I could find a way to afford the appointment.

Still, the most expensive part of my abortion wasn’t the $400 or so I charged to my credit card at the clinic; it was the unpaid time off from four shifts at two jobs. The ACA may have improved matters in some respects by eliminating the co-pays for contraception and annual exams—for which I am very grateful every day I enjoy the freedom of my IUD—but people still have to be able to physically access a clinic in order to appreciate this policy upgrade. When doctors’ appointments require travel, time off, child care, follow-up prescriptions, follow-up appointments, and trips to the pharmacy, co-pays were never the only expense. And those of us living in poverty feel every payout. I wouldn’t have been in a position where $80 could break me if my economic circumstances had been at all stable before the prescription upgrade or losing that third job.

Recently, an unexpected medical bill led me to a new perspective on my unplanned pregnancy from five years ago. I’m one of many long-term underemployed United States residents with little-to-no room for error in my monthly budget. This latest health surprise put me over the edge completely. I wasn’t able to play bill roulette or juggle basics or max out a credit card to bridge the gap this time around, so I applied for CalFresh, California’s food assistance program.

After two years of covering the fight to keep Mississippi’s only clinic open and spending time with activists in the Rio Grande Valley, my new situation, combined with the flood of proposed SNAP restrictions and the #PovertyIs responses, has re-centered economic justice in my advocacy and reporting. It’s also refocused my abortion story, leading me to be bolder about the root causes of my unplanned pregnancy. I always cared about people’s economic circumstances, but I now have a fundamentally different relationship to those affected by abortion restrictions and to the phrase used to measure the unnecessary ordeal they endure to attain access.

The undefined, unequally applied “undue burden” standard makes the disproportionate effect of abortion restrictions on the poor especially evident. The Fifth Circuit’s most recent ruling again moves the goalposts on “undue burden” by deeming the ambulatory surgical center requirements of the Texas omnibus anti-abortion law HB 2 valid. Though the Supreme Court has stayed the ruling for now, according to advocates, if implemented, this provision of HB 2 could shutter all but nine clinics in the state.

Simply looking at the second largest state in the union on a map is enough to grasp some level of how disastrous this would be for its 27 million residents. Living in the center of West Texas already meant at least a five-hour drive in one direction or another to access a clinic in either San Antonio or New Mexico. Add in waiting periods, ultrasounds, counseling, admitting privileges that limit the number of doctors available to perform procedures in any given region, and my two days off work and $1,000 grand total in out-of-pocket cost and lost wages seems like a drop in the bucket. My ordeal five years ago was enough to go through, considering it shouldn’t have been necessary. But my white, cis, documented, able-bodied privilege all stacks up to a comparatively easy road. Even my finances were less strained thanks to timing and hard work coming together; I didn’t have $1,000 lying around to throw away, but I was able to find it.

Texas is hardly an anomaly—it’s simply a powerful visual depiction of how abortion restrictions affect a population over an enormous area. But the corridor stretching from the western border of Idaho to the eastern borders of North and South Dakota is a nearly 1,200-mile-wide clinic desert. Some states only have a single full-scale reproductive health clinic. Defunding Planned Parenthood through cuts to family planning services has caused five clinics to close in Indiana—none of which even provided abortion care. These “pro-life” policies have created a public health crisis in an area currently dealing with an HIV outbreak.

Meanwhile, on a federal level, House Republicans are attempting to eliminate Title X funding, a program that has provided millions of low-income people with STI testing, cancer screenings, contraception, and treatment since President Richard Nixon championed and signed it into law in 1970.

Nixon matter-of-factly explained why he was backing the law at the time: “It is my view that no American woman should be denied access to family planning assistance because of her economic condition.”

Almost everything seems to have changed in the past 45 years. The more I watched people on the #PovertyIs thread discuss putting off medical care despite having insurance because they couldn’t get off work or couldn’t afford the co-pays, the more absurd the debate about burden became to me. HB 2 alone has been in appeals for two years. How long does it take, exactly, for a handful of judges to decide whether 500 miles over three days or more, hundreds of dollars in lost pay and child care, and the emotional strain of navigating the ever-changing landscape is too much to put people through when they have the power to prevent all of it from happening in the first place? Why do those in power see the concept of “burden” as solely a political and/or legal issue, without direct connection to people’s economic condition?

To those with modest or substantial means, the burden is automatically attached to the concept of our rights: how far is too far and how much is too much to exercise a constitutional right? But for those of us without a safety net, burden is a word that feels heavy. It sounds like the keys of a calculator clicking to determine whether this month’s math means we eat, have heat, and can put enough gas in our cars to get to work. That heaviness is the intersection of reproductive justice and economic justice, and it should be given equal weight in policy discussions, in advocacy, and in our media.

Just as SNAP funding provides a lifeline to those who need it, access and funding to reproductive health care provide a basic level of bodily autonomy and the opportunity to determine one’s own present and future. You can’t be a functional, autonomous human without the ability to eat, just as you can’t be fully human and free without the ability to control if, whether, and when you become a parent. These connections have long been clear and foundational to the reproductive justice movement built by women of color too-often sidelined and silenced by mainstream feminist and reproductive rights advocates. It’s long past time that their voices and approach to culture change became the standard for advocacy work.

Bodily autonomy is about more than just controlling what is happening right now in your reproductive system. Having final say over what happens within and around your body determines whether or not you are the one who decides the direction of your life. Ensuring self-determination for all people is the foundation to achieving economic justice; acknowledging this reality strengthens our movement and ensures that we strive to help people in need today as we secure the rights of everyone for the future.

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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