Ignoring abusers is not an option: A reporter’s notebook covering alleged assault in ICE detention

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Published on: July 21, 2023

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For the past several months, I have been working on an audio documentary by Futuro Investigates. Before the story begins, there is a warning: This is an investigation into sexual abuse at ICE detention centers. So we just wanted to let you know to prepare.

It’s a usual warning to protect the audience. For journalists, though, there’s no similar heads-up.

Last fall, Maria Hinojosa, the host of Latino USA and the executive producer of Futuro Investigates, and I were in Texas interviewing a young asylum seeker from Venezuela, who we’re calling Viviana.

I had begun working as the associate producer for Futuro Investigates only a couple of months before. This was my first reporting trip, and Viviana was the first source I met on the ground for this job. The pressure to prove myself overwhelmed me.

While Maria asked the questions, I held the microphone and took notes. Then, about 30 minutes into the conversation, Viviana revealed something personal — and traumatic. She told us that she was sexually assaulted by a male nurse in a Georgia Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center. 

I was caught off guard by the disturbing details of Viviana’s story. Suddenly, I felt like I was floating. Without realizing it, I put the mic down. Maria immediately picked it back up.

I never told her, but I felt unprofessional for letting my emotions interfere with my role. Maria never condemned or even talked to me about my lapse, so I believe she trusted I had learned from the incident.

I did, and actually, not just from that moment. Before the interview began, Maria asked Viviana if she could kiss her on the cheek, as is customary in greeting someone in our Latino culture.

¿Puedo? ” Maria asked. Viviana nodded yes.

An apparent harmless hug or touch on the shoulder can trigger different emotions in different people. That afternoon in Texas, I appreciated Maria asking Viviana for permission before making a physical gesture. It was something I will take with me and implement forward. 

I think it also meant something to Viviana, who minutes later sat down and said she felt comfortable and confident. She trusted us with her testimony. Another team member was with us that day: Indian journalist Zeba Warsi, Maria’s co-host in the story. Maria explained to Viviana what we were doing there and how we came from immigrant families. 

Building trust with a source starts and ends beyond an interview. I don’t believe in manufacturing intimacy, but I do believe in thoughtfulness. And from these simple gestures toward transparency and care, I saw Maria creating a connection, informed by years of practice in meeting people with traumatic experiences.

For decades, Maria covered ICE raids, abuse in immigration detention centers and has traveled to meet women allegedly sexually assaulted while detained. In 2011, she reported and anchored a FRONTLINE documentary film about how the Obama administration had failed its promise to make the immigration detention system more humane. 

Ten years later, Zeba watched it as part of her research for her graduate thesis on people abused while held by ICE. Maria became an inspiration to her. Several months later, Zeba and Maria decided to collaborate on the audio documentary that anchors this investigation. This led to months of research and three reporting trips. 

For a month, Maria, Zeba and I traveled on weekends to interview women like Viviana, who alleged to have been sexually assaulted while detained by ICE. Listening to these women’s horror stories, I felt anger, sadness and headaches that would whisk in my body for days or weeks afterward.

I was always grateful that I wasn’t doing this work alone. Prior to Futuro, I worked as a border and immigration producer in Texas. I had interviewed people by myself and knew it was, at times, a lonely job. Even with the help of a therapist, it could be a lot of weight to process stories of violence, family separation, and trauma on your own. 

Now, with Futuro, I was working with an all-female team. We witnessed suffering weekend after weekend, and while we didn’t have much personal time to decompress during the weekdays, we had each other throughout the journey. After the interviews, for example, we often had dinner and talked instead of immediately driving home separately.

I was sustained after the interviews by observing that the women felt lighter by sharing their stories. Maria would also often wrap the interviews on an encouraging, future-forward note. She told Viviana that she envisioned her becoming a lawyer. Viviana shyly lit up. 

And I agree. I remember Viviana’s sophisticated analysis that the U.S. immigration system was a business and how lucrative her silence was to its maintenance.

In our audio documentary, we describe Viviana as drop-dead gorgeous. And she is. Long black hair. A curvy figure. Dressed stylishly. And the same will be said about Mari, a fit, former bodybuilder who alleges assault by the same male nurse as Viviana — in the same detention center in Georgia. By the way, these aren’t their real names; we are calling them that to protect their identities. 

We interviewed Mari the weekend after we met Viviana, in Illinois. From the long-term psychological debris she spoke of living with, I deepened my diligence in re-telling the nuances of the wreckage people in power could cause in not just a body but also a soul.

Escaping an authoritarian regime in her native Venezuela, Mari came to the U.S. looking for a free life. Now, she feels silenced, as ICE has not addressed her and Viviana’s complaints of abuse. Today, both women are far away from their alleged abuser, but they say they live in psychological terror every day.

As I listened to Viviana and Mari behind the microphone, I saw these women feel cowardly when they were brave, weak when they risked their safety. I saw them admit to making themselves less attractive, or less traditionally feminine, because they felt their beauty had been turned against them. Mari admitted to having days when she hated herself. She tries to “look like a boy” now, to avoid any further attention to her body. 

Viviana and Mari’s experiences reminded me how, as a little girl, my friends and I sometimes talked about what it meant when someone was mean to us. When it was a girl, it was probably because she’s jealous of you. And when it was a boy, it was probably because he likes you.

As young girls and women, parents or friends often tell us that bullies mistreat us out of desire. We are told that a person treats another with overt or casual cruelty because, perhaps, we are smart, young, or beautiful. We are taught to think that perpetrators feel or see something that we have, and they lack. Somehow, offensive behavior is justified. 

When I grew older, family members, advisors, and friends said there would be poor behavior or perpetrators in almost every environment I entered. I was mainly told to prepare for worse elsewhere and not respond to the attacks. Just ignore them. 

But now I understand differently. While the risk of poor behavior, or worse, may always exist, it should not be decorated in normalcy. That only leads to desensitization — not “preparation.” And abusers should be paid no dues.

It depressed me to hear that both Viviana and Mari were changing their appearance to keep potential perpetrators at bay. But most women have been told, at some point in their life, that another’s harsh behavior had something to do with us

The truth is that abusers do not mistreat us out of desire, or anything that we have or we are. They mistreat us because a culture of deception and secrecy upholds them. 

Viviana and Mari emigrated to the U.S., even knowing about the potential challenges. They were not naive. They were familiar with the U.S.’s immigration and power systems. They anticipated struggles. But, despite the inherent capacity for human cruelty, they did not expect those in power to act as if they had no control.

After each interview, I felt dispirited, and it was demoralizing that someone as accomplished as Maria had days of feeling ineffective too. On social media, Maria shared how women’s testimonies touched her. 

“Weeping as I walk thru the airport. Damn this country that says it loves immigrants and refugees. It treats us worse than animals,” she wrote in a tweet

Later, Maria told me that hearing these women’s accounts — decades after she began reporting on these kinds of allegations — made her wonder how impactful her career had been. How much accountability had she helped gain if she was still listening to women recount similar stories of abuse? She tried not to stay in those thoughts too long, though, she said. 

Maria was right about one thing: Viviana and Mari aren’t the first women to report abuse in ICE detention. Sadly, they aren’t the last ones, either.

“Every day in America men are violent. Their violence is deemed ‘natural’ by the psychology of patriarchy, which insists that there is a biological connection between having a penis and the will to do violence,” wrote bell hooks, one of my favorite authors, in her book The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love.

In the same book, she mentions a United Nations report stating that violence against women is the “world’s most pervasive form of human rights abuse.” A few sentences later, hooks adds a quote from the American Medical Association concluding that ‘sexual assault and family violence are devastating the United States’ physical and emotional well-being.” 

These reports were from the 1990s. The book was published in 2004. 

Almost two decades later, I graduated from college. In school, my teachers warned me that I might not see the financial fruits of my labors in journalism. They didn’t say I might not see the fruits of my actual labor, or that I won’t always succeed in holding the powerful accountable. 

Like Viviana and Mari, I knew there were risks. No matter how many checks and balances to power are out there, you can always choose to be corrupt. Now, I’m also sure: My only choice is to pick up my pen and mic and keep truth-telling. 

I thank Maria and Zeba for uplifting and amplifying the voices of women like Viviana and Mari. After many years of continuing to report the “same, old story,” I appreciate them for not warranting harm a pass and keeping these horrors on the long record.

As a journalist just starting my career, I appreciate Maria holding the microphone and, eventually, passing it to me when I was ready to pick up where she left off. I hope it’s a reminder to all: Damage may be done, but it doesn’t matter how many years go by, or how many times you tell us, abuse is horrific.

It may take a team, or decades — it will consume women — but it should always be accounted for and never ignored. And I hope abuse always stupefies me. At least, I’ll know I was listening—with care.

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