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The Lawyer Seeking Justice for Undocumented Victims of Sexual Assault

A Manhattan protest against CoreCivic’s immigration detention practices
A Manhattan protest against CoreCivic’s immigration detention practices

Three years since a wave of stories about Harvey Weinstein threatened to change the shape of assault investigations, and two months after MeToo’s symbolic enemy was sentenced to 23 years in prison, the movement is just as instructive for who it’s left out as for who has gone to jail.

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Immigrant women are more vulnerable to sexual assault and domestic violence; incarcerated women are, by some counts, 30 times more likely to be assaulted than the general population. But the movement to bring assaulters to justice favors figureheads over systems, and Michelle Simpson Tuegel, a 36-year-old Texas attorney specializing in sexual assault litigation, understands the somewhat cynical logic that can impact the success of a case.

Tuegel has made her name litigating cases with recognizable enemies. Some have been successful, at least in part, because they highlight groups of plaintiffs with resources and public profiles that help engender widespread support. Now, her firm is taking on a case representing a population historically absent from those conversations, a test of how expansive the public’s sense of justice for survivors has really turned out to be.

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Best known for her work on behalf of athletes assaulted by USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, she has also represented clients in cases against the Boy Scouts and the Catholic Church. Early in her career, Tuegel practiced criminal defense; since 2017 she has specialized in Title IX cases and worked with survivors of sexual assault in civil suits. She considers her most recent lawsuit, filed against a detention contractor on behalf of an undocumented immigrant, to be a “marriage” between those two fields of law.

“It is different from the Nassar cases, or the Catholic Church case,” she says. “And I do worry about it being lost in the conversation. Because these are immigrant women. These are women who have already been marginalized and who are very afraid to come forward. And that’s why very little of this, I think, is even reported.”

This week, Tuegel, Morgan McPheeters, and Jose Sanchez, an immigration attorney, filed a vivid and devastating complaint on behalf of a Mexican woman assaulted and raped in a Texas detention center operated by CoreCivic, among the most profitable private contractors in America. It’s a suit they hopes might help bridge the chasm between MeToo-style advocacy around sexual assault and the immigration detention crisis in the States. For decades, CoreCivil facilities have been accused of mismanagement and abuse by state auditors and advocacy groups. A 2018 class-action suit accused the company of profiting off of forced labor, and the ACLU has sued the company over violence against inmates in a number of states.

But “there’s been a real lack of successful, lengthily litigated and publicly discussed cases connected to these private prisons and sexual violence,” says Tuege. “The essence of the MeToo movement is that it’s not just movie stars and people who are famous that are impacted by sexual violence. It’s the people who are most vulnerable… And I cannot think of a more vulnerable population than immigrant women who are undocumented and being deported.”

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According to the suit, the plaintiff—identified in court documents as Jane Doe—had been living in Texas and spent three months in ICE custody in 2018. On the day before she was scheduled to be released to Mexico from the CoreCivic Houston Processing Center, Doe and two other detainees were separated from the rest of the center’s female population and taken to a dark cell. That evening, attorneys say, three men in plainclothes with their faces covered entered the cell and sexually assaulted the women. “Just hours later, all three women—injured and shaken from the attack—were placed on a bus and deported to Mexico,” the complaint reads. “She was right at the eve of her deportation when they raped her,” adds Tuegel, “which I think is not just happenstance.”

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Unlike the two other women, Doe didn’t have enough money on hand to buy a bus ticket home from the Laredo nonprofit where she was dropped. She stayed at the center for several days without medical care until she was able, with some help, to find her way to her rural hometown. Once there, Doe realized she was pregnant, according to the suit, and in 2019 gave birth to a girl fathered by her alleged rapist. Her family in Mexico was devastated to learn what had occurred: “At points during her pregnancy,” reads the complaint, “she felt so hopeless she did not want to live.” She endured significant complications from a c-section in order to give birth.

According to Tuegel, as Jane Doe was struggling to come to terms with her pregnancy, she reached out to a friend she’d known through her church back in Texas for support. The friend encouraged her to speak to an attorney. Now Tuegel and Sanchez are helping her sue CoreCivic, its subsidiary transport company TransCor America, and the United States in Texas district court. The attorneys hope the suit will bring other survivors forward and finally force the contractor to answer for what is, by now, an established pattern of serious misconduct.

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“I think there’s a reason why CoreCivic and Geo Group have been allowed to operate like this for decades,” Tuegel says. “It’s because of a public that doesn’t care enough about the people who are impacted by it. And because there’s a lot of money and lobbying power.”

Sexual assault in immigrant detention centers is a well-documented issue, but there’s been little oversight or much in the way of consequences for the private companies that allow it to happen. As the Intercept has reported, between 2010 and 2017, adult detainees filed 1,224 sexual assault complaints with the Department of Homeland security. Over the last few years, thousands of children held in federal custody have reported similar abuse.

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Still, ICE has continued to funnel money into companies like CoreCivic, renewing contracts for facilities that have a demonstrated history of failing to comply with regulations: A 2019 report from the Office of the Inspector General found that financial penalties for serious abuses were rarely, if ever, implemented. According to ICE’s own data, the Houston facility where Jane Doe was held has the second-highest number of complaints about sexual assault of any immigration detention facility in the country. Regardless, it was awarded a 10-year, $50 million contract in March—which, as Tuegel points out, was conveniently during a time when most of the country was consumed by covid-19-related news.

In a press conference on Wednesday, Tuegel focused on the misuse of public funds to keep CoreCivic’s business operational even after it had failed to implement any meaningful reform. “Regardless of where you fall in the immigration debate,” she told Jezebel, “rape on the taxpayer dime isn’t controversial, and it shouldn’t be.” She knows that in Texas, immigration and detention practices may not be a high priority for the average person, and she’s conscious that she and her client will need public support. “I keep harping on the money,” she says, “because if you don’t care about the people, care about the dollars.”

Molly Osberg is a Senior Reporter with G/O Media.

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