Laura Monterrosa Released From T. Don Hutto

Could this be a bellwether for detained immigrants?

Demonstrators outside the federal courthouse last week before Laura Monterrosa's court hearing. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

After a lengthy and aggressive activist-led campaign, T. Don Hutto detainee Laura Monterrosa was released from the Taylor facility last Friday, March 16. The 23-year-old, who suffered sexual and psychological abuse at the hands of detention guards there, wishes not to reveal her precise location in Texas. Grassroots Leadership's Bethany Carson, who's proven a vital figure in Monterrosa's release, says the former detainee is "adjusting to her new environment and recovering from the trauma she has experienced."

“This welcome progress is about more than one individual.” – U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett

The Salvadoran first made news last November when she accused a female guard of sexual assault against her, triggering a series of retaliatory incidents. Monter­rosa's detainment has since drawn hundreds of community ralliers and petitioners calling for her release, and is currently being investigated by the FBI. And in a brave move, earlier this month Monterrosa filed a lawsuit against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and its regional field officer Dan Bible, as well as Hutto warden Charlotte Collins, alleging that Hutto unconstitutionally denied Monterrosa medical care, including a full psychiatric evaluation and treatment, thereby violating the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the due process clause.

U.S. Judge Robert Pitman heard arguments on March 13. Clinical psychologist and St. Edward's professor Dr. Martha Ramos Duffer testified that after two sessions with Monterrosa (in January and March) she concluded the detainee suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and major depressive disorder and is in dire need of intensive therapy, which Hutto failed to provide. The sexual and physical trauma she suffered in her home country was only exacerbated by her time in Hutto's prisonlike confines. On at least one occasion, Hutto physician Dr. Lynda Parker "discouraged" Monterrosa from seeking treatment for her mental disability by suggesting the reporting would negatively affect her immigration case, according to court documents. Ramos Duffer reiterated that claim, saying that as a result, Monter­rosa recanted some of her health claims. She attempted suicide in January and remains at "high risk" for taking her own life. "She voices hopelessness and despair about her situation and believes it will not get better," said Ramos Duffer. "She says what a relief it would be to be dead."

Laura Monterrosa

Pitman requested both sides come to an agreement so he didn't have to make a ruling that would displease either party, and attorneys compromised after lunch, allowing Monterrosa access to weekly cognitive behavioral therapy outside the detention facility, paid for by Hutto. "I hope that she gets the help that she needs," said Pitman.

The judge's ruling stopped short of activists' demands, however, as he failed to order Monterrosa's release. In another setback, ICE was reportedly prepared to deport Monterrosa following the ruling, in what appeared to be retaliation for suing the federal agency. (Pressed on that assertion, Carl Rusnok, spokesperson for ICE's central region, would not confirm or deny the claim, only saying "ICE will continue to work with the alien's attorney of record concerning case developments.") Advocates with Grassroots then camped out at U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke's Austin office overnight to demand the senatorial candidate call for Monterrosa's release, which he did late last Friday evening.

Grassroots chalks Monterrosa's release up to O'Rourke's intervention, as well as that of other congressmen including Lloyd Doggett and Joaquin Castro, and the months of community pressure. With 45 of their colleagues, Doggett and Castro have called for an investigation into sexual abuse in ICE detentions across Texas, and Dog­gett's office has been in contact with Monterrosa's attorney and local advocates to monitor her case and prevent pushback.

"For months we've been seeking justice for Laura. But this welcome progress is about more than one individual," said Doggett. "Deporting her would not only have prematurely rejected her asylum claim but also would have impaired an ongoing FBI civil rights investigation. We need answers and action from ICE to prevent sexual assaults during detention and to ensure that victims do not experience retaliation when they come forward."

Advocates rallied outside the courthouse last week, calling attention to systemic abuses at Hutto and detention centers statewide. "ICE is trying to make an example out of Laura to discourage other victims of sexual abuse from coming out," said Grassroots' Claudia Muñoz. "Laura's is not an isolated case. We know that many of the 500 women at Hutto are going through the same abuses but not receiving the same attention. Laura's story is just the tip of the iceberg."

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Laura Monterrosa, T. Don Hutto, Dan Bible, Charlotte Collins, Martha Ramos Duffer

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