Maria, a 14-year-old Central American immigrant who fled to the United States in 2014, was raped in her home country and again on her journey. After she was detained by federal immigration authorities at the border, she was placed in a Texas-area government shelter — run by a Catholic organization — where she found out that she was pregnant. She asked for an abortion but was denied. Federal authorities looked into transferring her from Texas to a Florida shelter to be closer to her family, but couldn’t because both shelters are faith-based and would not permit Maria to terminate her pregnancy.
Zoe, a 17-year-old Central American immigrant who left for the United States in early 2015, was arrested at the border and transferred to Youth For Tomorrow, a faith-based shelter in Virginia for unaccompanied children like herself. She found out that she was pregnant — also as the result of a rape — and asked for an abortion many times over the course of two weeks. She instead received counseling. When she still asked for an abortion, YFT asked the U.S. government to transfer her to another shelter that would let her get her procedure.
Maria and Zoe are not the only young immigrants who had difficulty accessing health care once placed in a faith-based shelter, according to an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawsuit filed on Friday.
Tens of thousands of unaccompanied children from Latin America have crossed the southern border since the end of 2013. Almost half of the children apprehended by border patrol agents were girls in 2014. Rape and sexual assault are “major motivating factors” for why girls flee their home countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, according to a Women’s Refugee Commission report.
“When a teen has endured unthinkable tragedy — violence, rape, a terrifying journey to an unfamiliar place — and she arrives here afraid and alone, the last thing we should do is deny her the care she needs,” ACLU Senior Staff Attorney Brigitte Amiri said in a press statement. “Our taxpayer dollars should not be used to authorize organizations to violate the law and impose their religious beliefs on these young women and deny them care they desperately need.”
The ACLU lawsuit charged that the U.S. government routinely funds faith-based organizations that serve unaccompanied minors and denied contraceptive and abortion access, thereby violating the First Amendment prohibition on establishment of religion.
These organizations can refuse, on religious grounds, to provide contraceptives and abortion access to unaccompanied minors that are in their custody, even if they were raped. The lawsuit argues that denying abortion access to immigrant teens after they have been raped violates the Homeland Security Act, which requires that the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) “ensur[e] that the interests of the child are considered in decisions and actions relating to the care and custody of an unaccompanied child.”
The ACLU also asserts that allowing government-funded organizations to “impose religiously based restrictions on young women’s access to reproductive health care — care that they are entitled to receive by law — the government has violated the constitutional guarantee of the separation of church and state.”
The U.S. government annually funds faith-based organizations, like the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), about $10 million to care for young immigrants. But the USCCB has long and explicitly refused clients to access contraception and abortion.
The reality is that rape is the price to pay for many immigrants trying to flee violence in their home countries in Central America. According to directors at migrant shelters in Mexico, it is likely that anywhere between 60 and 80 percent of female border crossers were raped along the way by coyotes (human smugglers), law enforcement officials, or other people. But some faith organizations have long held that religious liberty protections exempt them from having to follow laws that violate their tenets. The University of Notre Dame and Little Sisters of the Poor demanded religious exemptions from an Obamacare rule requiring that nonprofit religious groups fill out a form opt-out of a contraception mandate, saying that it would substantially burden them under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which protects religious exercise.