Officials at the Office of Refugee Resettlement have prevented a 17-year-old girl at a federally funded shelter in Texas from obtaining an abortion, according to a court filling. Pictured is an examination room for abortions at an Austin, Texas, clinic after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year struck down some of the state's abortion regulations, saying they were medically unnecessary. Credit: Eric Gay/Associated Press

The ACLU announced Friday it had filed suit in federal court in Washington, D.C., to stop the government from blocking a 17-year-old migrant girl’s access to a Texas abortion clinic.

The girl is in federal custody at a shelter in South Texas, but has secured a court order granting her access to abortion and allowing her release to a court-appointed guardian. But in recent weeks, the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement has refused to release her to the guardian, instead sending the girl to religious pregnancy counseling.

On Wednesday, a federal judge in San Francisco refused to tie Doe’s case to a lawsuit already underway in her court, saying courts in Texas or Washington would be more appropriate venues.

The new complaint is filed on behalf of Rochelle Garza, Doe’s court-appointed guardian. It argues that the Office of Refugee Resettlement, under new policies the office began this year, has granted itself an “unconstitutional veto power over unaccompanied minors’ access to abortion.”

“Federal officials have no right to prevent this young woman from getting the care she needs. We’ve filed suit in federal court in Washington in the hope that we can put an end to these unconscionable delays,” ACLU attorney Brigitte Amiri said in a statement. “Jane Doe is a brave and persistent young woman who has already been forced by the Trump administration to delay her abortion for weeks. The government is holding her hostage so that she will be forced to carry to term against her will.”

In a separate court case, first publicly disclosed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in a press release on Monday, Doe’s court-appointed guardians are suing the shelter operator, International Educational Services Inc. That had been a state court matter until the Justice Department took on representing the shelter and argued the case belonged in federal court. That case is mostly under seal, except a hearing announcement for next Tuesday.

“It’s very confusing, to be honest, what they’re doing,” Amiri said in an interview. “It can’t be that any private entity that takes federal money is going to be defended by the DOJ. … Ultimately, it goes to show you the lengths the government is willing to go to ensure Jane Doe doesn’t get an abortion.”

Documents the ACLU filed in court last week suggest the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s new director under President Donald Trump, Scott Lloyd, has begun a policy of limiting access to abortion for minors in its care and steering them instead to religious crisis pregnancy centers.

Responding to questions from Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting about its policies on abortion access for minors in its care, the resettlement agency issued a general statement explaining how unaccompanied minors are referred to its care.

“While the child is in our custody, our goal is to provide food, shelter and care to her under federal statute,” the agency said. “In this specific case, we are providing excellent care to the adolescent girl and her unborn child, who remain under our care until the mother’s release.”

Patrick Michels can be reached at pmichels@revealnews.org. Follow him on Twitter: @PatrickMichels.

 

Patrick Michels is a reporter for Reveal, covering immigration. His coverage focuses on immigration courts and legal access, privatization in immigration enforcement, and the government's care for unaccompanied children. He contributed to Reveal's award-winning project on indigenous land rights disputes created by oil pipelines. Previously, he was a staff writer at the Texas Observer, where his work included an investigation into corruption at the Department of Homeland Security and how the state's broken guardianship system allowed elder abuse to go unchecked. Michels was a Livingston Award finalist for his investigation into the deadly armored car industry. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and a master's degree in photojournalism from the University of Texas at Austin, where his work focused on government contractors grappling with trauma and injuries from their time in Iraq. Michels is based in Austin, Texas.