The #MeToo movement, a hashtag used on social media to demonstrate a widespread epidemic of sexual assault and harassment, is expected to bring change on how these situations are handled. It is also encouraging women to share their experiences in a show of solidarity. But for some, such as 23-year-old Salvadoran immigrant Laura Monterrosa, going public about her experiences could ultimately lead to her deportation.
Monterrosa has been held at T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas for nine months.
Last fall, Monterrosa wrote a letter to Austin-based immigrant advocacy group Grassroots Leadership detailing the sexual abuse she endured at the hands of two guards, including a woman, beginning in June 2017.
“She looked for or took advantage of every moment she could to touch my breasts or my legs. she knew where and when she did it,” Monterrosa wrote in the letter. “She worked in the recreation area and what she did with me she did with other residents.”
Monterrosa didn’t immediately report the abuse because she was afraid her attackers would take reprisals. But she ultimately did, and, in the process, she inspired two other detainees to also come forward with similar allegations. In December, the FBI took over investigation of her case and interviewed Monterrosa for the first time in February.
Her courageous act has resulted in what she and her supporters say are various forms of retaliation from immigration officials and the immigrant detention center where she is held. For instance, Monterrosa, who has post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression, was placed in solitary confinement after allegedly refusing to eat in the cafeteria where one of her abusers worked. She attempted suicide in January.
This week, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund went before a federal court judge in Austin to request medical care for Monterrosa, who is seeking asylum. The judge ruled in their favor and Monterrosa will now receive much-needed mental and medical treatment off-site. MALDEF officials said they won’t hesitate to go back to court if U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the detention center fail to fulfill their constitutional obligations.
“We’re excited she will finally be able to access the medical resources she needs,” said MALDEF attorney Fatima Menendez. “We are working on getting her outside providers. They will not be selected and chosen by the detention center or ICE, but, we will provide that information to their attorneys, so they can agree.”
Menendez said the process could happen as quickly as next week. But Monterrosa’s supporters said she needs more than adequate medical treatment.
On Wednesday, Monterrosa said ICE officials tried to force her to sign travel papers for immediate deportation. Within hours, her advocates began camping out at Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s (D-El Paso) Austin office to demand that he immediately meets with Kirstjen M. Nielson, secretary at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
“We just talked to his Chief of Staff,” said Bethany Carson, immigration policy researcher and organizer at Grassroots Leadership on Wednesday afternoon. “He called someone at the Department of Homeland Security and is expecting to hear back within the hour.”
A rally, in which participants have vowed not to leave until action is taken, began Thursday morning and is a final effort to put pressure on DHS to grant Monterrosa a release from deportation. The rally and petition come shortly after the court hearing on her medical care.
“We need a champion and are looking to Rep. O’Rourke now to take action on his promise to support Laura by doing everything he can — which is a lot — to get her released from detention, said Claudia Muñoz, immigration programs director at Grassroots Leadership.
Supporters were still camped out as of Thursday night with no developments.
“A lot of the legal avenues are exhausted and we’re staying here until she’s released,” Carson said. “[O’Rourke] has reviewed other cases in the past and we believe in everything he is saying. He cares about folks and has spoken specifically to Laura’s case.”
In the meantime, she said Monterrosa is “extremely scared and hopeless” about her situation.
“We cannot accept that a woman seeking asylum in our country can be sexually assaulted and disappeared with impunity,” Muñoz said.
Monterrosa’s experience put T. Don Hutto Residential Center, which is operated by private prison company CoreCivic, back in the spotlight for its pattern of abuse, including the conviction of a guard for allegedly groping women in his custody on the way to the airport for deportation.
More than 45 congressional representatives, including O’Rourke, signed a letter calling for an investigation into sexual abuse at the detention center. According to Grassroots Leadership, less than 1 percent of sexual allegations made inside immigrant detention centers are investigated.