Inside One Attorney's Fight To Protect Undocumented Teenage Girls

Photo: Courtesy of the ACLU.
Brigitte Amiri is a senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project who found herself in the middle of a crucial abortion-rights case last year — that of Jane Doe, the undocumented 17-year-old whom the Trump administration tried to prevent from terminating her pregnancy while she was in detention.
While a federal appeals court finally ruled that the young woman should be able to obtain an abortion, Amiri's fight is long from over.
"The government is trying to keep unaccompanied migrants under lock and key and ban them from having an abortion, and that is blatantly unconstitutional," Amiri tells Refinery29.
As more and more stories emerge of the Trump administration's inhumane border policies, attorneys are stepping in to fight for those who need their help. We spoke with Amiri about the Jane Doe case, other cases she is litigating, and what's next.
How did you first learn about the Jane Doe case?
"I was on vacation with my family in September [2017] when I got the call. She was an immigrant from Central America who was in federal custody. But I should say this was far from an isolated case — after the 2016 election, we started getting documents in the context of that case that raised our eyebrows. ... A judge gave [Jane Doe] permission for the procedure, but the ORR [Office of Refugee Resettlement] wouldn't allow her to do so. At first, they sent her to a 'crisis pregnancy center.' There, we know she was prayed over. She was given the option of either telling her mother, or they would tell her. Eventually, they contacted her mother to tell her she was pregnant. We know Jane Doe had suffered abuse at the hands of her parents. Years before, her sister had become pregnant and her parents beat her.
"I then sent an email to the Department of Justice, thinking this would be resolved quickly. I told the DOJ, 'You can't do this.' They said, 'This is what our client wants.' And I said, 'I won't be surprised if I see you in court.' Essentially, the government was forcing Jane Doe to remain pregnant against her will, holding her hostage.

The government was forcing Jane Doe to remain pregnant against her will, holding her hostage.

"A lot of this was coming from [ORR director] Scott Lloyd. He wrote a shocking memo back in December in the Jane Poe case. Jane Poe was raped in her home country and came to the U.S. Officials forced her to tell her family, and people in her family threatened to beat her. Scott Lloyd still said abortion is not in her best interest because it's the 'destruction of human life,' which is not a scientific fact. So here he is, imposing his own religious ideology on this young person's life. ... If he really cared about young people, he wouldn't be partaking in our government's policy of tearing families apart."
What was it like working with Jane Doe while she was in the detention center?
"The entire time, I was so worried about this young woman who was already so isolated. ... I was worried about how she was being treated at the shelter. For example, she was forced to watch other kids play. They wouldn't let her participate in group exercise classes. They claimed it was because of her pregnancy, but it was actually to punish her. She felt a lot of stigma. She was stigmatized at the direction of the federal government, since the shelter was taking directions from them.
"[Jane Doe and I] spoke through a translator, and they had to be relatively short calls. But through it all, I saw her courage and bravery. She was 17 years old, she had just made this treacherous journey and withstood coercion, her parents abused her. And she continued to be resolute in continuing to ask for an abortion, and be willing to take on the Trump administration. This could have affected her immigration status — she could have faced retaliation. I am in awe of her bravery, courage, tenacity, and strength. ... Jane Doe is now with a family member she wanted to be with. We're monitoring that and she's doing well."
The fight for abortion access for detained migrant teens didn't start with the Trump administration. What happened with the case you took on during the Obama administration?
"We met with the Obama administration multiple times regarding religiously affiliated shelters, which are the subject of another court case. We argue that it's a violation of the separation between church and state. We have oral arguments scheduled in California in August.
"On separation of church and state, the Obama administration just wouldn't budge, despite our FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] request uncovering heartbreaking stories, horrific circumstances of young migrant women being sexually assaulted as they are coming across the border. Why they didn't budge, I can't tell you, I don't necessarily know."
The Trump administration has tried to sanction the ACLU in an attempt to punish you for helping facilitate Jane Doe's abortion. How do you keep going when the government uses these scare tactics?
"It was wild that our federal government filed that. When it first happened, I felt like I was punched in the stomach and was just in shock that this was happening to me. It's really scary that our federal government can intimidate civil rights lawyers who are trying to do their jobs. I was upset about it, but I also can't let it bother me. ... We had other Janes to go to court for, and that was the most important thing. I didn't want ethical accusations to distract from the main issue."
How do minors in detention centers learn about their rights to an abortion?
"Minors are required to be notified of this right. Per court order, it must be communicated multiple times. When they come to shelter, they must be notified in their native language. There are notices posted on bulletin boards in shelters. The ACLU phone number is there."
What's next in this fight?
"We have a class-action lawsuit now, which technically means we're the attorneys for all of these women. We have a court order blocking the federal government from obstructing abortion for all of these minors. So right now, there should be no issue for them.
"Of course, I'm still worried there are young women we won't hear about. There are young women who don't have the will to keep fighting like Jane Doe did, there are young women who succumb to the pressure."

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