On a Tuesday afternoon in march, Aura Hernández drew a bath for her daughter, Camila Guadalupe, in a makeshift bathroom tucked inside the basement of a Manhattan church. The water was warm, but the toddler shivered as she stood inside her inflatable hot-pink tub. Hernández smiled at the girl and chuckled. “You know how it feels—the first time in a new place,” she said. “Everything is different. It’s an adjustment.” Indeed, everything was different, both for mother and daughter. One day earlier, the pair had moved into the Fourth Universalist Society of New York, a 120-year-old English Gothic church across the street from Central Park. They had made the dramatic move in an attempt to find safety and to avoid Hernández’s scheduled deportation to Guatemala. Both were still adjusting to the novelty of their new home: the cavernous sanctuary, with its soaring arches and an altar designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany; their overheated bedroom, nestled into a corner of the church’s second floor; the bathroom, with its newly renovated shower just feet from the cast-iron boilers.
Hernández bent down to lather Camila’s hair with shampoo, moving gently but efficiently so as to shorten her daughter’s discomfort. The 15-month-old’s pudgy legs wobbled, but she kept her balance. At last, Hernández wrapped the shivering girl in a towel and navigated the trek from the basement to the second floor. There, she placed Camila gently in her crib and, satisfied that the child was resting, began to explain why she had decided to go to extreme lengths to fight her deportation.
Hernández had come to the United States over a decade ago, she said, fleeing deadly domestic violence. But when she arrived, one of the supervisory agents in a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) station in Texas pulled her aside and threatened to indefinitely detain her 9-year-old nephew, with whom she’d traveled, unless she followed the agent into a private office. Once there, he sexually assaulted her—and vowed to hunt her down if she ever revealed what had transpired.
For many years, Hernández said, she was so traumatized by the experience that she stayed quiet. But recently—under the threat of being detained by the same immigration system in which she’d been sexually abused, and then deported back to a country in which her life is still in danger—she has decided to break her silence. In so doing, she has joined the scores of women from across the United States and the world who have come forward in recent months to tell their stories of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. These women include Hollywood actresses and hotel cleaners, journalists and farmworkers, and their abusers were almost invariably men who had power over them: A-list producers and shift managers, network executives and farm owners.
But largely missing from the #MeToo movement are the stories of women who have been sexually abused by members of the largest law-enforcement agency in the United States: Customs and Border Protection. In such circumstances, the power differential is extreme: The men, often armed, are federal agents tasked with hunting down, capturing, and detaining these women; the women are unarmed civilians who have often survived gender-based violence in their home countries or along the dangerous journey to the US border. And because they are undocumented, speaking out, even many years later, means risking deportation—leading to widespread impunity for abuse by border agents.
But as she sat in her new church bedroom, Hernández said she was determined to go public with her story—to demand justice for herself and for other undocumented women who have suffered similar abuse. She was adamant that the system that allowed her to be victimized while she was fleeing for her life would not be allowed to separate her from Camila and her other child, a son named Victor Daniel. And she was committed to doing whatever it takes to protect the little girl sleeping in a crib just a few feet away.
“I’m here,” she said, “because I’m never going to let anything like what happened to me happen to my daughter.”
The story of how Hernández wound up in Texas, trapped in a room with a border agent, begins thousands of miles away in Guatemala. It was the summer of 2005; she was 24, and facing such life-threatening violence that she felt her only choice was to go north, to a place, she’d heard, where domestic abuse wasn’t tolerated. “I never wanted to leave my country,” Hernández said. “I was forced to flee.”
She did this by bus, car, and foot—across parts of her own country and the length of Mexico. For the very last leg, she floated across the Rio Grande River in a red inflatable raft. The trip took two arduous weeks, but when she finally arrived in Texas, she was there for barely 30 minutes before she was apprehended by border agents and driven to the nearby CPB station.
This facility, located in Rio Grande City, is part of a sprawling web of detention centers that have sprung up along the US-Mexico border in recent years to hold immigrants and asylum seekers when they first arrive in the United States. While they look innocuous enough in pictures—like a low-slung suburban bank—lawyers and advocates say these border-region facilities are among the most secretive and least regulated of all jails or detention centers in the nation. The National Immigration Law Center has spent years in litigation simply trying to access surveillance footage from inside some of these places. When video stills from one CBP center in Arizona were finally made public, the law center denounced the “deplorable and unconstitutional” conditions depicted in the images.
In a series of interviews with The Nation, Hernández has described her own experience in the Rio Grande City station as degrading and inhumane. It began in a cell that was completely bare, save for concrete benches, where Hernández waited for hours with her nephew and a few other women as CBP officers called the immigrants out one by one to record their personal information. There was no toilet, food, or water, and the whole facility was freezing. “It was so cold, it burned,” Hernández recalled.
“They treated us like animals,” she added. “They called us ‘illegals, illegals, illegals.'”
At last, Hernández and her nephew were called to a crescent-shaped desk to share their information. It was there, Hernández said, that they encountered a supervisory Border Patrol agent with dark hair and a medium build who eyed her up and down and began “saying obscenities” to her. “What beautiful breasts!” she recalled him telling her. “They’re so big.” As he leered, one of his colleagues—a fat white man, Hernández recalled—began to laugh.
As an abuse survivor, Hernández had an acute sense for when a situation was on the verge of going wrong. “I felt like my heart was going to jump out of my chest,” she said. Yet she continued to answer the agent’s questions, even as he derisively asked her whether she had a husband. She told him she had fled domestic violence—a response that might have evoked sympathy. Instead, after a few more questions, the supervisory agent told Hernández he needed more information from her “in private.”
Years later, Hernández says she still remembers what happened next “as if it were yesterday”: the fat officer laughing even harder than before, as if he knew what “in private” meant; the dark-haired officer denying her efforts to bring her nephew with her and instead shooing the boy back to their cell; the officer’s threatening suggestion that perhaps she wasn’t really the boy’s aunt, that perhaps she was actually engaged in trafficking children. “He told me, ‘If you ever want the boy to get out of here, you’ll cooperate with me,'” she recalled.
For Hernández, the threat carried weight: During the hours in which she was detained, she said, she had seen the agent personally signing other immigrants’ paperwork just before they were released. So she complied, following the agent into a small office with a desk and a filing cabinet and the window shades pulled low. It was there, she said, that the officer sexually abused her.
In a statement responding to Hernández’s allegations, a Customs and Border Protection spokesperson said: “A full investigation by [the] US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office of Professional Responsibility, the US Attorney’s Office, and local law enforcement, was conducted and the allegations against the border patrol agent were found to be unsubstantiated.” The agency refused a request to provide documentation of these investigations.
Nonetheless, lawyers and experts say there is a widespread pattern of sexual abuse perpetrated against immigrants in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security. Over a recent two-year period, immigrants filed, on average, more than one complaint every single day of sexual abuse or assault inside DHS facilities. According to this data, obtained by the group Freedom for Immigrants, less than 3 percent of these complaints were even investigated. (Meanwhile, under the Trump administration, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE, has gained provisional approval to begin destroying its sexual-assault records after 20 years.)
Denise Gilman, the director of the immigration clinic at the University of Texas School of Law, says Border Patrol jails like the one where Hernández was held are among the most unaccountable of all DHS facilities. “These facilities are sort of a black hole,” she said, highlighting how immigrants who dare to report abuse can face many forms of retaliation, including immediate deportation.
Still, the accusations abound. Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union filed claims on behalf of two teenage Guatemalan sisters who asked border agents for help after crossing the border, only to be taken to a CBP field office and then sexually assaulted, one after the other, in a closet. In 2014, human-rights groups filed a complaint on behalf of more than 100 children who suffered abuse in CBP custody; a quarter of the children said they were the victims of physical or sexual assault.
That same year, a border agent apprehended two girls and a woman traveling from Honduras. He sexually assaulted and attempted to kill the woman and her 14-year-old daughter, then kidnapped the other girl and raped her in his apartment. Around the same time, James Tomsheck, then chief of internal affairs at Customs and Border Protection, e-mailed the head of CBP to report a “disturbing” number of sexual-abuse cases “that appear to exist in disproportionate numbers in our workforce.”
Few of these reports ever result in prosecution. But a rare case that was successfully prosecuted in 2002 shows the risks and retaliation that migrant women in the border region can face. In 2000, a Salvadoran woman named Blanca Amaya-Flores was apprehended by border agents in Arizona and then driven by one of the agents, Dennis Johnson, out into the desert. His co-workers watched them leave. Once they were alone, Johnson forced her to perform oral sex on him while she was naked and restrained by handcuffs. He then dropped her off in the middle of the night a few blocks from the border and pointed her in the direction of Mexico.
To this day, Hernández has said that she does not like to discuss publicly the specific details of the sexual abuse she experienced in detention. But what she does say is that when it was all over, the CBP agent issued a barely veiled threat. “He said, ‘I know I’ll never hear anything about this because I have all of your information. And if you ever speak about this, I will find you,'” she recalled. “This is why I didn’t say anything, why I stayed silent.”
Once back in her cell, Hernández said, she was so disgusted that she couldn’t stop gagging. She was overwhelmed by the urge to vomit, but she had nothing in her stomach to throw up, as the detainees had been denied food and water for many hours. “My nephew kept asking me, ‘What’s wrong? What’s wrong?'” she recalled. But she didn’t tell the boy anything. Instead, she remained silent even as the officer walked by the partial glass wall of their cell and, seeing her dry-heaving, laughed.
In the days that followed, Hernández and her nephew were left alone—too alone—stuck in detention as all the other members of their group were released. They stayed until new border agents arrived with another group of captured immigrants, and one of the agents asked why Hernández and her nephew were still in the cell when their paperwork had already been processed. Hernández recalled another agent saying that her release was up to the supervisory agent—the very man, she said, who had sexually abused her. Under pressure from the new agents, she and her nephew were allowed to leave their cell, and then one of the new agents loaded them into a truck and drove them away in the summer heat.
Where is he taking us? Hernández wondered. What is going to happen next?
To her relief, they arrived about 15 minutes later at a small bus station, where the agent handed her a few pieces of paper written in English. According to government documents reviewed by The Nation, one of those papers was a notice to appear in a Texas courtroom, and it was signed by the same supervisory agent who Hernández says sexually abused her.
Years later, Hernández’s nephew recalled that his aunt seemed profoundly different after their detention. Before, he said, she had encouraged him throughout their long journey through Guatemala and Mexico, cheering him up when he cried and making him laugh by saying they were going to “the Oooo-sah,” her joking way of pronouncing “the USA.”
He was only 9 years old, so he didn’t understand what had changed. “I just knew something was wrong,” he said. “I remember we were on the bus and she wouldn’t talk…. She wasn’t normal. She was quiet, and I don’t think she slept. She would just stare out the window.”
For nearly a decade, Hernández stayed silent about her experience with Customs and Border Protection. When she first arrived in New York State to join family members, she hid her paperwork away in a drawer—and tried to bury the memories of what had happened. She worked first in a restaurant, then as a housekeeper. She fell in love and gave birth to her son, Victor Daniel. She found humor in adjusting to life in a new country, laughing with her family members when she confused olives for black beans at a party, or when she cooked bacon for the first time and was shocked by the cloud of smoke.
Yet the trauma leached into all aspects of her world. Hernández has described herself in this period as timid and unassertive, which she attributes to the violence she suffered in Guatemala and the abuse while in custody in Texas. If someone told her to do something, she’d do it—even if she disagreed. On her first date with her husband, she told the waiter she’d eat whatever he was eating. “I barely spoke,” she said. “It was like I was delayed, almost like a child, because of all the trauma.”
Still, she managed to create a fragile equilibrium for herself—until, in the fall of 2012, on her way to church, she mistakenly drove down a street that was one-way on Sundays and was stopped by a police officer who reported her to ICE. Suddenly, she faced the very real possibility of deportation. This would mean returning to Guatemala, from which she’d fled for her life nearly a decade earlier and which, over the ensuing years, had become only more dangerous. By 2012, violence was proliferating across the country. The femicide rate was among the highest in the world—and the conviction rate for the women’s killers was between only 1 and 2 percent.
But Hernández’s first fear was closer to home: She was terrified of being sent back to a US detention facility, convinced she’d see the same agent who had abused her in Texas. Hernández was overcome with distress from the moment the police officer pulled her over and she saw his blue uniform—the same color the agent’s had been. “They wanted to send me to the place that was the nightmare of my entire life,” she said.
A therapist who treated her at the time diagnosed her with acute post-traumatic-stress disorder, writing: “Because of the mistreatment at the hands of an American citizen, Aura is suffering from nightmares, flashbacks, body memories, extreme anxiety, and panic attacks.”
As her agony began to alarm her family, Hernández eventually worked up the courage to break her silence, sharing the story of what had happened to her with them. (The Nation has spoken with several members of Hernández’s family as well as the therapist, all of whom confirmed that she told them shortly after the police stop that she had been sexually abused while detained in Texas.) But while her secret was out, a larger problem remained: What was she going to do?
Among the many lessons of the #metoo moment, one of the more pronounced has been just how hard it is for women—even the most powerful and well-resourced—to wrest any kind of accountability from the people who violate and harass them. For women who are poor, disenfranchised, and undocumented, as Hernández was, the possibility of redress slips to almost zero. Nonetheless, when Hernández contacted a lawyer to help with her immigration case, he offered an unusual suggestion: He said that the abuse she had suffered in CBP custody could make her eligible for something called a “U visa,” a special visa offered to victims of certain crimes who cooperate with law enforcement in the investigation or prosecution of that criminal activity. Hernández agreed to try and, shortly after, found herself sitting in her lawyer’s office in front of multiple DHS internal-affairs investigators.
This meeting was not easy for Hernández. “I felt fear, terrible fear,” she recalled. “I felt like they were going to tell me, ‘I don’t believe you. I don’t believe you.'” But she spoke out anyway, denouncing the agent who had abused her by name and recounting what had transpired.
What happened next was… nothing. As is so often the case for women in Hernández’s position, the Department of Homeland security declined to certify her petition for a U visa. “It’s very hard to get these certifications,” explained Barbara Hines, the founder of the immigration clinic at the University of Texas Law School. In many sexual-abuse cases, she said, “the authorities say it was consensual, or pretend it didn’t happen, or transfer the agent, or deport the woman as fast as they can.”
Without the certification, Hernández’s lawyer was unable to file the U-visa petition. Her case stalled and, with it, any hopes for accountability from the DHS as well as a chance to solidify her immigration status. Still, Hernández was allowed to continue living in the United States by attending regular ICE check-ins; she also received a work permit and a driver’s license. As time passed, her life stabilized and, thanks to professional counseling and family support, she grew more assertive and outspoken. In late 2016, she gave birth to her daughter.
And then Donald Trump took office, and with him an administration that made a priority of deporting all immigrants without status. Despite her regular attendance at ICE check-ins, her thriving family and diligent work life, Hernández was one of these targeted immigrants—a fact she learned at an ICE check-in in late 2017 as she held Camila in her arms. She was enraged. After five years of fighting her immigration case, after reliving her abuse and reporting her attacker to the authorities, she was being told that some unnamed supervisor had said it was time for her to go—that very day.
“They treat me like I’m a criminal, but they are the criminals,” she said. “After everything they’ve done to me, how can they say that I’m the criminal?”
So, rather than given in, she pushed back, mounting such a fierce protest that the immigration officer agreed to postpone her deportation until March 1. With this reprieve, she scrambled to find a new lawyer, who submitted an asylum petition based on the domestic violence she had suffered in Guatemala and resumed work on the U-visa route. But as the clock ticked, it became clear to Hernández that legal maneuvers would not resolve the situation in time. She decided to keep fighting her case from sanctuary.
On March 29, Holy Thursday, Aura Hernández stood inside the sanctuary of the Fourth Universalist Society and, in front of a throng of cameras, declared, “I am not going to keep silent any longer. I’m asking all of you not to keep quiet, to defend your rights and the rights of our children.”
Directly in front of her, resting on a table, was the Unitarian Universalism chalice: a burning flame inside a cup encircled by two metal rings. The church’s senior minister, Schuyler Vogel, explained that the symbol was used throughout World War II as a secret code showing the persecuted where they could find safety. Behind Hernández stood a poster, drawn the night before by her son, reading “Please Don’t Deport My Mommy.”
Away from the limelight, Hernández and her daughter have been settling into their new life in the church, without any idea of when they can leave. Hernández’s 10-year-old son visits at every opportunity, and the two of them play basketball and soccer in the gymnasium in the basement, carefully avoiding tripping over Camila as she crawls across the court.
The church’s congregation and leaders have also begun adjusting to the family’s stay. A year ago, two swastikas were carved into the building’s heavy wood doors after the members voted to make it a sanctuary space. But rather than shrink from the responsibility, the church and its congregation have rallied to help Hernández. Many have volunteered to bring her food, keep her company, and support her nonstop efforts to call attention to her story.
In recent weeks, these efforts have included Skyped-in appearances at conferences and in classrooms, as well as countless interviews and an address to a group of middle-school students who visited her in the church. She also wrote a speech to be read aloud at a Washington, DC, protest against sexual violence by immigration authorities, and she coached her son to speak on her behalf at a march outside Trump Tower in New York City as well as at a recent sanctuary symposium in Washington Heights. Her most recent action has been to help organize a Mother’s Day march to demand freedom for herself and all the other immigrants who have been forced to take sanctuary to avoid deportation and separation from their families.
So far, despite repeatedly denouncing the border agent for sexual abuse, she hasn’t received the type of justice that other women have won through the #MeToo movement. But she’s resolved to keep fighting. After all, despite the odds, a handful of women have successfully denounced immigration authorities in recent years for perpetrating sexual abuse. In March, Salvadoran immigrant Laura Monterrosa was finally released from detention in Texas after publicly accusing a female guard of sexually assaulting her. In 2010, a Guatemalan woman reported surviving an attempted rape by a Corrections Corporation of America guard named Donald Dunn. (The company has since been renamed CoreCivic.) The complaint spiraled into a massive sexual-abuse scandal as a slew of other women came forward, and Dunn was jailed after pleading guilty to assault charges. And in 2002, Blanca Amaya-Flores, the Salvadoran woman who was sexually assaulted by border agent Dennis Johnson, saw him convicted of sexual assault and kidnapping and sentenced to seven years in prison.
“It’s not just me—there are so many women who have suffered this and stay silent because of fear, like I was afraid,” Hernández said a few days after she had taken sanctuary. As Camila toddled around the room, Hernández paused for a moment to reflect on how dramatically her life had changed—not only because of her need to take sanctuary, but also because of her own transformation.
“In the past, I wouldn’t have said a single word about any of this to you—not a single word of this,” she said. “But now, I say that if there’s anything I can offer with my experience, I’ll do it. Anything—you understand?—to put an end to so much evil and injustice.”