OPINION

Opinion: Denying reproductive health care to unaccompanied teens is downright cruel

MISSION, TX - JULY 24:  Salvadorian immigrant Stefany Marjorie, 8, watches as a U.S. Border Patrol agent records family information on July 24, 2014 in Mission, Texas. Like most of the recent surge of Central American immigrant women and children, her family brought documents, often birth certificates, to prove their nationality to U.S. Border officials. Tens of thousands of immigrant families and unaccompanied minors from Central America have crossed illegally into the United States this year and presented themselves to federal agents, causing a humanitarian crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border. Texas' Rio Grande Valley has become the epicenter of the latest immigrant crisis, as more of them enter illegally from Mexico into that sector than any other stretch of the America's 1,933 mile border with Mexico.  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

MISSION, TX - JULY 24: Salvadorian immigrant Stefany Marjorie, 8, watches as a U.S. Border Patrol agent records family information on July 24, 2014 in Mission, Texas. Like most of the recent surge of Central American immigrant women and children, her family brought documents, often birth certificates, to prove their nationality to U.S. Border officials. Tens of thousands of immigrant families and unaccompanied minors from Central America have crossed illegally into the United States this year and presented themselves to federal agents, causing a humanitarian crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border. Texas' Rio Grande Valley has become the epicenter of the latest immigrant crisis, as more of them enter illegally from Mexico into that sector than any other stretch of the America's 1,933 mile border with Mexico. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)  (2014 Getty Images)

The ACLU recently filed a lawsuit seeking documents from the federal government under the Freedom of Information Act to gain more information about unaccompanied immigrant teens’ access to reproductive health care. Dr. Grazie Pozo Christie’s recent opinion piece on our lawsuit gets more than a few facts wrong. 

So let’s start with some facts: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is one of the largest government contractors that provide care to teens who have crossed the U.S. border – they got $10 million in 2013 alone. But they want to block access to critical reproductive health care for these teens, even if they have been raped. That’s against the law, and it’s downright cruel.

In recent years, a surge of children and teens have come across the U.S. border. Many of those minors are fleeing their home countries because of torture and abuse. During their journey to the U.S., up to 80 percent of girls and women will be sexually assaulted. 

The bishops are certainly entitled to their religious beliefs. And they have helped lots of immigrant youth, including with their own money. But they are not entitled to take a multimillion dollar government contract, and refuse to provide all the services required under the contract

- Brigitte Amiri

So imagine that you are one of these teens who is forced to flee your home country because of gang violence or sexual assault. As you make the perilous journey to the United States you are raped. Once you arrive in the U.S., you are placed in a program run by a Catholic entity. You don’t speak English, and your mobility is heavily restricted.You realize you are pregnant as a result of the rape, and you request an abortion (let’s assume you know that abortion is legal in the U.S.). But instead of helping you, your Catholic social worker deliberately delays reunification with your family until it is too late in your pregnancy to get an abortion. Or, best case scenario, you get transferred out of the Catholic program, uprooting you from the only relationships you’ve formed in the U.S., into another program, maybe even in another state.

Those are the stories that we have heard from the ground. And just recently the bishops’ made their policy plain: They refuse to provide referrals or information about abortion and contraception, even if the teen has been raped. They have even gone so far as to say that they refuse to notify the federal government when a teen seeks such care so that the federal government could provide the care instead.  

That is not compassionate care. And that’s what this lawsuit is all about, just like other ACLU cases involving immigrant youth. For example, we’ve fought against locking up immigrant mothers and their children who seek asylum, and we’ve fought to ensure a fair deportation process for women and children who have fled their home countries because of extreme violence, including rape. 

We also fight every day to protect the right to religious liberty, and the bishops are certainly entitled to their religious beliefs. And they have helped lots of immigrant youth, including with their own money. But they are not entitled to take a multimillion dollar government contract, and refuse to provide all the services required under the contract. And most importantly, they are not entitled to impose their religious beliefs on those who they serve, causing them harm, particularly brutalized teenagers who need care and compassion.

Brigitte Amiri is a senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union.

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