NEW YORK — Brigitte Amiri, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, was spending the weekend on Long Island with her family in late September when she got the call about Jane Doe.
She wasn’t Jane Doe just yet. She was a pregnant 17-year-old immigrant from Central America being held in federal custody after entering the U.S. illegally. She’d obtained a judge’s permission to get an abortion. But the Office of Refugee Resettlement — a branch of the Trump administration responsible for unaccompanied immigrant minors — wouldn’t allow it.
It required Jane Doe to visit a “crisis pregnancy center,” where she has said staff tried to discourage her from having an abortion and prayed for her. When she persisted, ORR blocked her from traveling to an abortion clinic.
Her advocates with Jane’s Due Process in Texas knew whom to call for help — Amiri, a tireless, quick-thinking lawyer with a reputation as a fierce champion of women battling government restrictions on abortion and access to contraception.
“Ever since I was little, I had a streak in me that fought back against what was unfair, particularly when it came to girls being treated differently than boys,” she told STAT.
As an attorney at the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project, she has challenged a South Dakota law requiring women to visit a crisis pregnancy center before obtaining an abortion and an Alaska law restricting Medicaid funding for abortion. She has sued the Obama administration over abortion and contraception access for immigrant teens. And she has played a key role in responding to high-profile challenges to the federal mandate that requires insurers to cover birth control.
Now, she’s at the center of a lawsuit that’s captured the nation’s attention, and brought her face to face with the architect of the Trump administration’s policies to stop immigrant minors from getting abortions.
The Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees ORR, has said that it refuses to “facilitate” abortions and that unaccompanied immigrant minors have “no constitutional right” to an elective abortion. Officials have also said they’re required to care for all children in the resettlement program, including an “unborn baby.”
Late last month, a federal judge temporarily banned HHS from preventing detained teens from accessing abortion care or counseling. That judge allowed the lawsuit to move forward as a class-action case, meaning the ultimate ruling will apply to any and every Jane.
“Ever since I was little, I had a streak in me that fought back against what was unfair, particularly when it came to girls being treated differently than boys.”
For Amiri, 43, the case feels personal. She is deeply invested in the Janes in a way that can’t be measured by hours worked or court briefs filed. She knows the kinds of things that young women crossing the border might have gone through — some fleeing abuse or violence in their home countries, some sexually assaulted, all at a young age, all hoping for a better life in the U.S.
“These young women have already been through so much,” she said. “I feel so honored to be able to help them.”
The road to Jane Doe
The fight over abortion access for detained immigrant teens didn’t start with Jane Doe. It didn’t even begin with the Trump administration. It began a decade ago, with four employees of a Catholic charity in Virginia.
In 2008, the workers were fired after helping an immigrant teen in their care obtain an abortion. The case put the issue of abortion access for immigrant teens on the ACLU’s radar.
The organization began filing Freedom of Information Act requests with HHS and found that, in 2008, the Bush administration had adopted a policy saying that any time an unaccompanied teen immigrant requested an abortion, there needed to be “heightened involvement” with ORR — meaning, essentially, that all abortion requests had to come through the office.
The Obama administration interpreted the policy differently, according to the ACLU, requiring ORR to get involved only to approve requests to use federal funds for an abortion, in cases of rape, incest, or endangerment of the young woman’s life.
But religiously affiliated organizations that were caring for minors were still allowed to refuse to provide access to contraception or abortion. If a minor needed either, the administration would transfer her to a shelter willing to provide it. That didn’t sit right with Amiri. To her, transferring a minor meant uprooting her from her immigration attorney, her peers, her social worker.
“It was really punishing them for even requesting an abortion,” she said.
So in 2016, the ACLU sued the Obama administration, arguing it was violating the constitutional separation between church and state.
Then, in March 2017, Scott Lloyd was appointed to run ORR. Lloyd worked in the Bush administration as an attorney at HHS, where he co-authored a “conscience rule” that allowed health care workers to refuse to provide abortions, contraception, or other care they opposed on moral grounds.
“That was really the start of a sea change in the ORR,” Amiri said.
During the discovery process for the 2016 case, the ACLU found documents showing a striking policy shift under the Trump administration.
“In the Obama administration, the government essentially looked the other way and permitted religious organizations to obstruct access to abortion for these minors,” said Meagan Burrows, another ACLU attorney who is working on the Jane Doe case with Amiri. “But under Scott Lloyd, the government has taken those policies upon themselves,” she said.
The ACLU staff was debating how to challenge the new administration’s actions when Amiri got the call about Jane Doe. “That was the point where it was like, everyone go! Fire drill!” Burrows said.
Over the past six months, the case has brought long hours, nights with too little sleep, and last-minute trips for Amiri.
Like the October morning when she got a call that a federal appeals court might hear Jane Doe’s case in D.C. — the next morning. She grabbed a suit off the back of her office door that she keeps for press conferences, pulled her fancy-enough-for-court shoes from under her desk, and scoured the ACLU office for a free T-shirt to sleep in.
After weeks of legal back-and-forth, Jane Doe was able to obtain an abortion. Amiri breathed a deep, long sigh of relief. But then came Jane Roe — and Jane Poe, and Jane Moe.
A lifelong streak of fighting
Amiri has fought for fairness for as long as she can remember.
As a fifth-grade crossing guard, she realized only boys were assigned to the station that was tasked with raising the American flag every morning. Week after week, a boy got the privileged assignment. Amiri wasn’t having it. So she collected signatures from her classmates and brought the issue to the principal.
She got the policy changed. Girls could start hoisting the flag.
It’s a basic principle her parents encouraged: Work hard, as hard as you can, and fight for what you believe in. Born and raised in Ann Arbor, Mich., Amiri and her sister used to tag along with their mother to political rallies. Her dad, an immigrant from Iran, encouraged his daughters to think they could be anything they wanted to be.
She didn’t always want to be a lawyer — she wanted to be a jazz dancer. But when she realized her moves weren’t going to cut it in the professional world, law looked like a good plan B. Amiri majored in English and political science at DePaul University in Chicago, where she tried to start an abortion rights group on the Catholic campus.
After attending Northeastern University’s law school, she landed a job at the Center for Reproductive Rights. Her first case: arguing that the Indiana constitution forbids the denial of Medicaid coverage for abortion. It was nerve-wracking. She read the bulk of her argument in court off a piece of paper.
But she won the case. And in the years since, she’s learned how to calm her nerves, at least a little bit. She keeps binders full of relevant cases so she can cite them quickly. She types out the questions she wants to ask. She memorizes the first few lines of her opening argument, so she can get the ball rolling without having to look at her notes. And she always eats breakfast. An opposing counsel once fainted after skipping it.
“She is very laser-focused on what she’s doing,” said Suzanne Novak, an attorney who worked with Amiri at the Center for Reproductive Rights. “She’s very committed to the people she’s trying to help.”
In the corner of her office, she keeps a print that reads “Nolite te bastardes carborundum.” It’s from Margaret Atwood’s novel “A Handmaid’s Tale.” In popular culture, it’s translated to “don’t let the bastards grind you down.”
With this particular case, there’s one big thing that keeps her going, “besides coffee,” Amiri said. The Janes.
In an interview in her Manhattan office, she teared up talking about the courage of teens who are willing to fight the government for their rights — even when that very same government holds their immigration status in its hands.
“As outraged as I am at the federal government,” she said, “that outrage is only matched by sheer awe of the courage and bravery of these young women.”
A ‘sea change’ in refugee office
Amiri’s fight for Jane Doe has thrown her in the ring with Lloyd, who has personally intervened in the cases of some of the immigrant teens in federal custody who are seeking abortions.
He flew to visit a young woman who was seeking an abortion to talk to her about continuing the pregnancy. In another case, a couple reached out to ORR after coming across a news story about one of the Janes, offering to adopt if she continued her pregnancy. Lloyd had his staff pass along the offer from the couple, which hadn’t been vetted in any way, to that Jane.
“Coercion is really at the heart of this,” said Heather Boonstra, the director of public policy at the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights organization.
Neither Lloyd nor an ORR spokesperson responded to a request for comment.
“As outraged as I am at the federal government, that outrage is only matched by sheer awe of the courage and bravery of these young women.”
The Trump administration has gone after Amiri and her colleagues for their work on the case. In November, administration lawyers suggested to the Supreme Court that it should consider disciplining the ACLU’s lawyers, including Amiri, over the case. The government alleged that Jane Doe’s lawyers, including Amiri, misrepresented the timing of her abortion in a bid to prevent the Supreme Court from reviewing the case.
The justices didn’t take any action. And Amiri dismissed it as an attempt to intimidate her and to distract from the “real issues” in the case. She wasn’t bothered.
“I’ve lost sleep over whether our clients are going to be able to get the care they need,” she said. “I’ve not lost sleep over whether the government will be successful in their attempts to discipline me.”
But she does find herself outraged at how the government has treated young immigrant teens, which she said has happened “at Scott Lloyd’s direction.”
“I am infuriated at what he has done to these young women,” she said.
Amiri had to set that anger aside when she confronted Lloyd in February, when she deposed him for the second time. But her questions were forceful, and she said the nearly two-hour session at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., was frustrating, and at turns, surprising.
She asked Lloyd to explain whether he personally views abortion as a sin, because she felt that belief might be seeping into his work at ORR. Lloyd denied letting his views affect his official duties, but did say he believes that abortion is a sin and that if he helped to facilitate the procedure, he could potentially be complicit in that sin.
Amiri then pushed Lloyd to reveal why he’d taken such a particular interest in the medical care of Jane Doe, as opposed to any other minor in his custody. The answer surprised her.
Lloyd: “Because she’s undergoing a major procedure where a human life was being destroyed. I wanted to know the details of that. …”
Amiri: “So this particular minor … had your attention about the type of procedure that she was going to undergo because in your mind, it was a procedure that would involve the destruction of human life?”
Lloyd: “Well, it’s not just in my mind. That’s objective.”
Amiri: “That’s objective?”
Amiri: “You believe everyone regardless of their belief systems believes that abortion is the destruction of human life?”
Lloyd: “I think the objective facts are that it involves the destruction of a human life. How people internalize every element is a different question.”
A cautious celebration
Until the judge’s ruling last month, Amiri’s work was also driven by sheer fear. She worried about the Janes that might be out there that she’d never find out about.
The ACLU team knew it would be difficult, if not impossible, to find the Janes that didn’t come directly to them for help. Pregnant teens in federal custody are scattered across the country. There might be teens seeking abortions living in religiously affiliated shelters that oppose abortion and wouldn’t be likely to notify the ACLU.
“It’s just a very vulnerable, dispersed, and transient group,” Burrows said.
There was reason for their concern: In court documents, the government acknowledged that there were at least 420 pregnant immigrant minors in federal custody in 2017. Of those, 18 requested abortions. The ACLU has represented four Janes.
But U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan’s ruling has provided these unknown Janes some protection, for now. She put a hard — but temporary — stop to the government’s policy of blocking abortion services for minors in federal custody. And she ruled that the ACLU’s case could move forward as a class-action lawsuit that ropes in every Jane who might cross the border illegally and wants to obtain an abortion while in federal custody.
“The court concludes that ORR’s policies and practices infringe on female [unaccompanied immigrant children’s] constitutional rights by effectively prohibiting them from ‘making the ultimate decision’ on whether or not to continue their pregnancy prior to viability — a quintessential undue burden,” Chutkan wrote in her opinion.
Amiri got the call about the decision around dinnertime on Friday, March 31. She was home alone with her daughter. It was a holiday weekend, and the work week had ended. But when she heard the news, she sprang into action. The ACLU team alerted the press, then started doing media interviews.
“It was hectic, but such a relief,” she said. “Now, young women would be protected without us having to go case by case to court.”
It could be months before the judge rules on whether to overturn the policy. With the temporary ban in place, Amiri will sleep better and worry less about the Janes she might be missing. She’ll keep charging ahead, buried in binders and surrounded by stacks of court documents.
She wants justice for the Janes.