Reporting a Rape in Immigration Jail: One Asylum Seeker’s Fight for Justice

In a shaky, melancholy voice over a staticky phone line from the Yuba County Jail in northern California, Rene Lopez told Rewire.News she is depressed, scared, and alone.

The gender-nonconforming 24-year-old, who identifies as a gay boy and uses she/her pronouns, said she was raped by another detainee this past spring.

Lopez and her attorney have sought justice without success. They have struggled to access basic information from officials at the jail and within U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) who are investigating the case. The responses they have received often conflict with each other. Meanwhile, Lopez remains detained at the Yuba County Jail, an immigrant detention facility about an hour north of Sacramento.

Lopez’s experience navigating the criminal justice system while detained mirrors others reported by Rewire.News. The situation seems compounded for Lopez and other LGBTQ migrants, who are vulnerable to abuse and neglect in prison-like facilities.

Lopez is held alongside men at the Yuba County Jail. In fact, it seems officials with the jail are completely unaware that Lopez uses she/her pronouns and is gender-nonconforming. Officials with the agency have repeatedly attempted to correct Rewire.News on the use of Lopez’s pronouns, and said, “Lopez is a male.” The gender binary is strictly enforced in detention facilities, subjecting trans, non-binary, and gender nonconforming migrants to great harm.

“There is no safe place for me here. [The jail] makes me very uncomfortable,” Lopez told Rewire.News through a translator.

The California Department of Justice’s 2019 review of the state’s immigration detention notes that Yuba County Jail is 93 percent male and 7 percent female; LGBTQ population data doesn’t appear to have been provided.

Other recent stories demonstrate how even facilities with “LGBTQ pods” wouldn’t guarantee her safety. Advocacy organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, investigated one such facility earlier this year and found multiple instances of abuse, harassment, and discrimination.

What would justice look like to Lopez, who has suffered a lifetime of sexual abuse and harassment? Lopez said on the phone that she doesn’t know, but there’s one thing she is certain of: She is unsafe and wants to be released from detention after her next hearing on Wednesday.

Lopez said she wants people to attend her 1 p.m. hearing at the federal immigration building in San Francisco, where advocates with the Central American Resource Center are hoping they can “pack the court” for her.

“I’m praying people show up for me,” Lopez said. “I’m scared of what will happen next.”

Childhood Bullying and Violence

Lopez is a second-generation asylum seeker. Her parents fled Guatemala in 1982 to escape Guatemala’s civil war. Also known as the Guatemalan genocide, the civil war led to the murder and disappearance of thousands of unarmed Mayan civilians by U.S.-backed forces.

This included Lopez’s grandparents, who like her parents, spoke Q’anjob’al and Akateko, two Mayan languages that less than 2 percent of the country’s almost 18 million people speak.

After the war, her family left Mexico and returned to Guatemala in the late 1990s.

Starting around the age of 7, Lopez said she was bullied because of her sexual orientation and because she is indigenous. At 12, she began to wear makeup and dress in a more feminine way that aligned with her gender identity. The bullying became relentless, so Lopez dropped out of school. About a year later, she moved in with her grandmother to escape the abuse in her home. But her grandmother couldn’t protect her.

Several months into her move, she said two men from the area abducted and raped her. She recognized the men because they regularly hurled unwanted comments at her when she walked around the neighborhood.

“I felt terrified and alone,” Lopez wrote in a prepared declaration she shared with Rewire.News. “I did not tell my parents what had happened to me because I did not have their support, and I was afraid that my father would have beaten me again for being gay and said that it was my fault that I was raped.”

One of her attackers began regularly entering Lopez’s grandmother’s home for the express purpose of raping Lopez. This sexual violence occurred nearly every month for two years, according to the asylum seeker. She fled to a nearby town before leaving for Mexico. Like her parents did before her, she spent the next several years traversing between Mexico and Guatemala in search of safety.

In Mexico, Lopez spent several months working on a vegetable farm, where she said she was sexually assaulted by her boss in front of a group of men. Her boss had withheld some of her wages and told her “that he would only give me my pay if I gave him oral sex.”

At first I refused, but he was with four other men who were laughing and encouraging him and saying ugly things to me,” Lopez wrote in her declaration. “The men came closer to me and circled, and would not let me leave. I was afraid they would hurt or kill me.”

This event prompted her to migrate to the United States to seek asylum.

Life in the United States

Lopez first attempted to enter the United States to claim asylum in 2016, but she was apprehended by Border Patrol agents and returned to Mexico without a credible fear interview or hearing. This happened twice.

Lopez’s attorney, Evelyn Wiese of the Central American Resource Center, said Border Patrol agents had failed to ask Lopez if she was afraid of returning to Mexico, but filled out her paperwork as if they did. They also included incorrect information about Lopez, like that her parents were from Mexico, and failed to use an interpreter when speaking to her, causing a great deal of miscommunication.

Wiese said this is typical for many of her clients. Even before the Trump administration, Border Patrol agents routinely failed to perform basic functions of their job while taking shortcuts to rush migrants through the process, she said.

Lopez’s third attempt to enter the United States was successful. She settled in Sacramento, where her brother is located, and began working at a restaurant, as well as cleaning houses and selling Mexican sweets at a local flea market on the side.

She also took English classes and was able to take hormone therapy for about six months, before deciding to stop.

“I finally felt free and protected by my community,” Lopez wrote in her declaration. “For the first time, I felt safe walking in the street and like I was treated like a person, not a strange phenomenon to be mocked and attacked.”

But it all came crashing down in 2018. Lopez was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. She was sentenced to six months of alcohol awareness class and volunteer work, which she diligently attended. But on March 4, ICE came to Lopez’s home and apprehended her.

She has been in Yuba County Jail ever since.

Shortly after being apprehended, a man detained alongside Lopez began pressuring her to have sex with him. In a second declaration shared with Rewire.News, Lopez wrote that she suspected the harassment had to do with her being “out of the closet” and having “feminine mannerisms.” The harassment was incessant, and Lopez refused each time.

In March or April — the exact date is unclear — as Lopez was showering, the man who had been harassing her raped her, she said. In her declaration, Lopez wrote that the man was larger than her and she was “very afraid” he would hurt her. During the assault, she said that she repeatedly told him she did not want to have sex with him. She further noted that no officers were in the area, and no one came to help her.

For several weeks, Lopez said she did not tell anyone what happened. “I was afraid to tell the officials because I did not know if they would help me — in the countries where I have lived officials will not help people like me and reporting bad things could put me in even more danger since they could hurt me too,” Lopez wrote.

Lopez sought medical attention on May 7 for difficulty urinating, and while there reported to a provider that she had been raped. She also told her attorney what happened. Wiese moved quickly, working with Lopez on her declaration to include as part of an emergency request for release. ICE denied the request.

In the weeks since, Wiese told Rewire.News she has been “astounded” by the level of obstruction and obfuscation she has encountered from ICE and the Yuba County Sheriff’s Office when it comes to obtaining details about the investigation. Wiese said she has faced “an escalating series of roadblocks” while seeking basic information from the agencies.

“We are talking about a rape here, and my interactions with ICE and the sheriff’s office tell me that they don’t care and they don’t believe my client,” Wiese said.

Case Closed?

The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) is the primary apparatus intended to protect detained immigrants from sexual abuse. PREA is essentially a series of procedures and policies aimed at eliminating the sexual assault of prisoners, but as Rewire.News has reported, it’s a deeply flawed system.

Overseen by the U.S. Department of Justice, PREA rolled out in prisons in 2003. But the Department of Homeland Security did not adopt PREA for immigrant detention centers until 2014, and ICE didn’t conduct its first PREA audit until 2017. A bulk of the privately run detention centers in the United States do not appear to have been audited yet.

As Rewire.News reported in March, DHS’ standards are good on their face, and in theory, the policies and procedures would hold perpetrators accountable and get resources to survivors. But the policies that exist are not always put into practice.

When Lopez told her medical provider at Yuba County Jail that she had been raped, the report should have immediately triggered both a PREA investigation and a criminal investigation. But it doesn’t seem that’s what happened.

Wiese shared dated call notes with Rewire.News that she began emailing to herself as the inaction surrounding Lopez’s assault unfolded. Her notes indicate that Lopez planned to cooperate with any Yuba County Sheriff’s investigation, meaning that Lopez was willing to identify her alleged rapist.

Wiese’s notes also indicate that the attorney contacted Yuba County Jail on the same day Lopez went to the medical provider to inform them of the rape and to confirm an investigation was taking place. On a phone call with Lopez’s detention officer, Wiese expressed her “urgent concern” for Lopez’s safety and asked the detention officer to perform an expedited review of Lopez’s parole request and to provide a timeline for his response to the request. According to Wiese’s notes, the officer said he couldn’t provide a timeline because he had “at least 10 cases like yours that require special attention.”

For several days, Wiese was unable to establish contact with Lopez’s detention officer, according to her notes. But by this time, she’d obtained Lopez’s medical records from Yuba County Jail. In the records, which Lopez agreed to share with Rewire.News, a medical provider noted on May 7 that there was a “possible PREA incident” and that Lopez utilized the facility’s language line to fill out PREA forms.

“Patient reports [she] was ‘victimized’ sexually a month and a half ago by a person in jail was forced to have sex,” the medical provider noted in Lopez’s records. A few days later, on May 10, the medical provider wrote that Lopez reported feeling “depressed” because of numerous traumatic experiences, including that she was “raped here one [month] ago.” (None of the documents clearly indicate the date of the incident, but it was sometime around March or April.)

On May 13, an official with the Yuba County Sheriff’s Office told Wiese they weren’t launching a criminal investigation into Lopez’s case because Lopez never told her medical provider that she had been raped. On May 15, officials told Lopez “the case was closed” and that they “can’t raise charges because the person who raped her was deported,” according to her attorney.

On May 17, Wiese sent a records request to Yuba County Sheriff’s Office for Lopez’s PREA incident report, which included a signed release from Lopez. On a call that same day, officials told Wiese that the PREA incident report Lopez filled out when she informed the medical provider of her rape “didn’t indicate sexual assault.” Wiese told the officials that she obtained Lopez’s medical records and that their account of the events contradicted those medical records. In response, the official speaking to Wiese said “the incident report needs edits.”

On May 20, the sheriff’s department told Wiese they were officially launching a criminal investigation, and that they were reopening Lopez’s PREA investigation. Wiese took this to mean the agency made no effort to investigate Lopez’s rape in the preceding weeks. (The sheriff’s office did not respond to questions regarding whether there had been an investigation at this point, by publication time.)

On May 23, Lopez had her first interview with a detective from the Yuba County Sheriff’s Office as part of the criminal investigation. On May 24, officials with the sheriff’s office told Wiese the PREA investigation had been completed. PREA investigations often overlap with criminal investigations, but the PREA investigation often concludes before the other. The sheriff’s office told Wiese they would send her the PREA incident report and the results of the PREA investigation. The documents never came, according to Wiese. On June 12, Yuba County counsel sent Wiese a letter, informing her that they would not be providing her the PREA incident report she requested on May 17, essentially arguing that Lopez is not entitled to view the contents of her own PREA file.

Lopez hasn’t been notified by ICE about what is happening in her own rape case, and neither ICE nor the sheriff’s office has told her the result of the PREA investigation, according to Lopez.

“I’ve been told by the sheriff’s department that the criminal incident report and investigation are not complete, and they do not have a timeline for completing them,” Wiese told Rewire.News.

In a statement to Rewire.News, Yuba County Sheriff’s public information officer, Leslie Carbah, misgendered Lopez and said the agency does have “an open criminal investigation into the matter” and that they could not comment “on active investigations of this nature.” ICE, which also misgendered Lopez, told Rewire.News “an investigation is currently pending with the ICE Office of Professional Responsibility.”

On June 25, Lopez reported to Wiese that someone from the sheriff’s office interviewed her at the Yuba County Jail. Wiese suspects the sudden interest in her case, after what appears to be weeks of inaction, is a result of Rewire.News contacting the agency requesting information about the investigation.

“I Want to Be Free”

Lopez’s ordeal in Yuba County Jail, compounded by a lifetime of trauma, has left her dispirited, frustrated, and anxious about her upcoming hearing. An immigration judge will decide whether to grant Lopez relief, which would be the first step in a long process to allow her to remain in the United States, get out of detention, and eventually apply for asylum.

Lopez has good reason to fear the hearing. Wiese said her last hearing was “very long and brutal.”

In a phone interview with Rewire.News, Lopez said the judge asked her “private questions” that made her feel “uncomfortable” during that hearing. Wiese confirmed with Rewire.News that the judge and ICE trial attorney asked Lopez about her gender, what kind of makeup she wore, and if she wore “tight clothes” or “frilly, flowery clothes.”

The judge wasn’t able to get through all of the experts in the case, so Wednesday’s hearing is a continuation of that initial hearing.

The way the investigation has played out confirms to Lopez that she is being discriminated against — because of her sexual orientation, her gender identity, and her immigration status. Lopez wonders if her rape would have been handled differently if she were a U.S. citizen.

Lopez is frustrated by the harm she’s endured, by the inaction of the agencies involved, and by the fact that she desperately needs public support going into her hearing. She told Rewire.News she loves the people who showed their support during her last court hearing, which included volunteers with Community United Against Violence and Faith in Action. Lopez becomes emotional at the thought that there are people in the world who care about her, and she has trouble envisioning her life outside of the Yuba County Jail. But she knows what wants to do.

“When I get out of here, when I’m free, I want to keep studying. I want to be a nurse,” Lopez said, crying. “I can’t do anything now but trust in God that I will push through this, that I will move forward. I want justice for what happened to me in here. The only logical way, the only way for me to be safe, is to get out of here.”