Donning a striped t-shirt adorned with a headset and stars, jeans and displaying a bashful grin, Laura Monterrosa made her way toward the media for her first public appearance since her release from immigrant detention on March 16. Her supporters at Austin, Texas-based immigrant advocacy group Grassroots Leadership directed her toward the podium as she looked down at her notebook ready to answer questions regarding her release and her plans moving forward.
(Credit: Christine Bolaños)
Monday’s event was a long time coming, but sometimes seemed nearly impossible, for the 23-year-old Salvadoran immigrant who had been held at T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas for more than nine months. Monterrosa’s case made waves beginning in November, when she spoke out about the sexual abuse she endured at the hands of two guards starting in June.
Monterrosa had the courage to detail her situation in a letter she wrote in Spanish to Grassroots Leadership. It was an unprecedented move for an undocumented woman who had everything to lose if she didn’t get the help she needed. It also marked a turning point for the #MeToo movement, a hashtag used on social media to show that sexual assault and harassment is a widespread epidemic.
Grassroots Leadership immigration programs director Claudia Muñoz said Monterrosa’s case is the only one they are aware of in which a detainee was granted prosecutorial discretion for one year. This means ICE has to stop working the detention case for 12 months.
“This is a huge victory for Laura, for all the women who have organized and spoken out, and for the community that came to their support,” she said.
But during her address, Monterrosa reminded others that there are still 500 women at T. Don Hutto. Many, she said, are suffering the same type of abuse and retaliation that she did.
“The residents do not receive adequate medical care or food,” Monterrosa said. “They are forced to take 15-25 pills a day without caring about side effects.”
(Credit: Christine Bolaños)
She added if the women refuse to take the pills, then they are forced into solitary confinement or transferred to another detention center. But she still encourages them speak out.
Monterrosa, who has post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression, was placed in solitary confinement for allegedly refusing to eat in a cafeteria where one of her abusers worked. She attempted suicide in January.
She is getting used to her newfound freedom.
“I am living a different life and receiving all the medical attention and all the support I need,” she said.
Monterrosa thanked God, the organizations who helped release her, congressional representatives and community who rallied in her support. Thousands signed a petition demanding her release while hundreds called her or made attempts to visit her.
Shortly before her release, a federal court judge in Austin granted the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund’s request for medical care for Monterrosa.
After the ruling, Monterrosa told Grassroots Leadership staff that ICE officials had tried to force her to sign travel papers for immediate deportation. Within hours, her advocates began camping out at Rep. O’Rourke’s (D-El Paso) Austin office demanding that he and other congressmen take the action necessary to help move Monterrosa’s case forward.
Though Monterrosa declined to comment on the circumstances of her release, Grassroots Leadership staff hinted that her release was a result of O’Rourke, Lloyd Doggett and Joaquin Castro’s intervention. They and more than 40 of their colleagues called for an investigation into sexual abuse at ICE detentions across Texas.
Monterrosa pleaded for a united front on behalf of the women at T. Don Hutto. According to Grassroots Leadership, less than 1 percent of sexual allegations made within immigrant detention centers are investigated.
“I know that by all of us working together we can achieve triumph,” Monterrosa said. “I know the women there are watching me. I want to tell them to keep on fighting and moving forward and not allow anybody to violate their human rights. Everyone, regardless of where they came from, deserves to have their rights respected.”