It could be said that Audemio set his own trouble in motion, in 1993, when he paid a coyote $300 to help him cross the border outside Tijuana, as a 20-year-old seeking adventure and good pay in California’s fruit and almond orchards. He crossed back and forth between Mexico and the United States a number of times that year, and he says he was caught on eight occasions, but never officially deported. Things were different then. The consequences for getting caught rarely amounted to more than a free ride back to the border. For Audemio, as for millions of Mexican laborers, skirting the official immigration system was a way of life.
After about a year of border-hopping, Audemio returned to Michoacán with his earnings. He fell in love with a young waitress named Amparo Ángel, who worked at a restaurant in La Huacana. They were married, and soon after, Amparo gave birth to Juan Luís. Before Juan Luís’s first birthday, Audemio led his new family north on a two-day bus journey to Tijuana, where the couple paid a coyote $2,000 to guide them across the border. They had passed Juan Luís off to a couple who had visas, and who claimed the infant as their own as they went through the Border Patrol checkpoint at San Ysidro, California. Audemio and Amparo collected Juan Luís safely on the other side, joining millions of undocumented families living the shadow side of the American dream.
Over the ensuing decade, Audemio found work as an electrician, a mechanic, a fruit picker, a welder, and a tractor driver. Living in and around Merced, California, where Amparo gave birth to five of the couple’s children, the family blended easily with the large population of Chicanos and Spanish-speaking immigrants. But they were building a life on a fragile foundation, and in September 2011, whatever pretensions of security they had were shattered when ICE raided a field in Mariposa County where Audemio was working, sweeping him up along with several others and deporting him across the California border the same day. In the next six weeks, Audemio would be caught trying to cross the border three times, once with a counterfeit Mexican passport and B-2 tourist visa in the pedestrian lane at San Ysidro. (He had provided passport photos, signed official-looking documents, and paid almost $600 for the fake documents, which he believed to be real.) Following these four deportations in a short period, Audemio received his 20-year ban. With the removal orders on his record, he would probably never again have a case for legal immigration. For Audemio, this was a hassle, but not an insurmountable one. By early December, he’d found another hole in the border and was back with Amparo and the kids.
If there’s a precise date when things went irreparably wrong for Audemio, though, it was October 2, 2013. By that time, Audemio had moved his family—nine people—to Sidney, where he’d found work maintaining rental housing for oil workers on the
Montana-Dakota border. That morning, he was on his way to work, riding in the passenger seat of a coworker’s truck, when a Sidney police officer stopped the driver for speeding. The officer demanded Audemio’s identification, too, even though he had nothing to do with the traffic violation. Sensing the risk, Audemio protested as best he could in his halting English, but he eventually handed over an ID from Washington state, where he had been living with his family for a brief time before moving to Montana.
The officer retreated to his squad car, returning a few minutes later with a cell phone, which he handed to Audemio. A man on the other end began asking questions: Did Audemio have papers? Was he in the United States legally? The man let on that he was a Border Patrol agent, and Audemio confessed that he didn’t have papers. The Sidney officer detained Audemio until an agent from the closest Border Patrol station arrived to take him into custody. (California, Illinois, and many municipalities throughout the country have implemented policies that limit collaboration between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities; other states, including Arizona, Alabama, and Georgia, have passed laws to give local law enforcement greater freedom to probe suspected immigration violations. As for the Sidney officer who questioned Audemio, he appears to have been operating outside of his authority. According to the Montana Immigrant Justice Alliance, “Local police or the Montana Highway Patrol are not immigration officers. They are not authorized by law to investigate or arrest people for their immigration status, and have no right to ask questions about your immigration status.”)
Border Patrol agents transported Audemio to two different jails over the course of two days, until he arrived late in the afternoon of Friday, October 4, at the Jefferson County Criminal Justice Center in Boulder, Montana, more than seven hours from Sidney. He was issued a pair of orange pants and an orange shirt, a gray blanket, a blue bedsheet, a towel and washcloth, and orange socks. As the jailer placed Audemio into a group cell called A-Pod, he told the nine inmates already in the cell that Audemio was an immigrant who was going to be deported. Audemio made his bed on the only empty bunk and took stock of his new companions. They scared him. He could understand a lot of English, but he couldn’t speak more than a few phrases. No one spoke Spanish in his cell, and neither did the two guards, who didn’t seem to be wearing official uniforms. The guards’ clothing confused Audemio. He couldn’t tell which agency they worked for or what level of authority they possessed. Likewise, he didn’t know that he was entitled under DHS regulations to be in contact with an immigration services organization, and no one told him so.
A couple of the men seemed to be leering at him, making lewd gestures and laughing. Perhaps, knowing that Audemio was about to be deported, they looked at him as an easy mark. One tall and scrawny man with a long neck appeared to be the group’s ringleader. Audemio sensed that the other inmates were afraid of him. Near bedtime, the skinny man asked the guards for a pot of coffee, which they brought. Audemio drank two cups, then filled a third, which he set down to drink after his shower.
When he returned from the bathroom, he finished his coffee and immediately felt drowsy. Soon he was fast asleep.
Audemio awoke in the middle of the night face down on his bunk, gasping for air, unable to move his legs or his arms. His legs were angled off the bed so that he was almost on his knees on the floor. Someone was on top of him, and he felt the painful sensation of being anally penetrated. He tried to get free, but they had his feet and hands pinned. He attempted to look over his shoulder at his assailants, catching only a brief glimpse of shadowy figures standing around the bunk before someone forced his face back into his pillow. He was asphyxiating and thought he might die. He suffocated and passed out without ever managing to scream.
The following morning, he woke fully dressed. There was an acute pain in his abdomen and he could feel moisture in the seat of his pants. He felt groggy, suddenly certain that someone drugged his coffee the night before while he was in the shower. In the bathroom, he felt what he assumed to be semen drain from his rectum. He didn’t tell anyone what had happened, because, as he later told investigators, there was no one he trusted enough to tell: No one spoke Spanish, and the guards seemed as afraid of the inmates as he was.
For two more days in A-Pod, Audemio waited out the nights sitting up in his bunk with his back to the wall, clutching sharpened spoons in each of his fists.
Before his rape, Audemio was certain to be deported. He did not even have the right to see a judge because of his prior removal order. But the sexual assault made him eligible for a special category of visa for crime victims. The U Visa, created as part of the 2000 Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, is intended to help law enforcement investigate human trafficking, sexual assaults, domestic violence, and other mostly violent crimes. The idea is simple: Protecting undocumented immigrant victims and their families from deportation makes them more likely to assist law enforcement, which makes it more likely that criminals will be caught. Audemio would have been a strong candidate to secure a U Visa in 2013—or at least a spot on the waiting list, which now numbers 128,000 people—if Jefferson County authorities or ICE had been willing to certify his application. They refused.
The hitch was that in order for a U Visa application to be completed, a law enforcement official must fill out a “certification” form attesting that the applicant has been the victim of a qualifying crime, has information that could be useful to investigators, and is cooperating in the investigation. In the case of a person escaping a sexual trafficking ring or of a domestic violence victim, the relationship between victim and law enforcement is straightforward—but what happens when a crime occurs under the protection of the would-be certifying agency, as it did in Audemio’s case? If Jefferson County had certified Audemio’s U Visa application, it would have admitted, indirectly, that a rape occurred in its jail. This would have been an admission of failure to follow the protocols of the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act, which includes a stated “goal of keeping separate those inmates at high risk of being sexually victimized from those at high risk of being sexually abusive.” (Inmates “detained solely for civil immigration purposes” can be considered high risk according to the PREA criteria. Notably, two of the inmates in Audemio’s pod were convicted felons who had been forced to enroll in the state’s violent or sexual offenders registry.) ICE would have further had to admit that it contracts with jails that cannot guarantee the safety of immigration detainees, despite implementing a “zero tolerance” policy years before to prevent such incidents and to penalize contract facilities that do not meet the agency’s standards. Not only did officials from Jefferson County and ICE refuse to certify Audemio’s U Visa application, they denied the rape ever happened.
Audemio didn’t report the rape until three days later, when he got to another ICE way station in Rigby, Idaho. A Spanish-speaking ICE agent named Blanca Chapa was sufficiently concerned that she immediately sent him to the Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center, where a nurse gave him a sexual assault interview and a physical examination. She measured Audemio’s pulse at 122 beats per minute—about what you’d expect for a fit person like Audemio after a few minutes of jogging. Using medical shorthand, she wrote, “Pt is tearful, appears embarrassed, looks at his hands and floor during interview.” She wrote that Audemio’s symptoms—tenderness and inflammation in his anus—were “consistent [with] rectal penetration.”
The nurse handed her report, bloodwork, digital photos, and swabs from Audemio’s genitals and rectum under seal to an ICE detective, who sent these by next-day UPS to the Jefferson County Jail. That same day, ICE contacted the Jefferson County authorities to inform them of the incident. The jailers were able to retrieve Audemio’s still-unwashed clothing and bedding, which may have contained critical DNA evidence from Audemio’s attackers. They told the Jefferson County sheriff—who had officially opened an investigation—that they would review the security camera footage from the entirety of Audemio’s stay.
On October 10, Audemio was transferred back to Montana, where he passed through an ICE office in Helena en route to the Cascade County jail. At the ICE office, a Jefferson County investigator and an ICE agent interviewed him, with Blanca Chapa translating via speakerphone from Idaho. They kept Audemio in handcuffs, as if he were the suspect and not the victim. Describing his rape, Audemio broke down and cried. He asked for the attorney he’d hired with help from the Mexican Consulate in Boise, Idaho, but the officers told him his attorney was unavailable.
This was not true. In fact, Shahid Haque, a Helena, Montana-based immigration attorney, was in the building, but was not allowed to see Audemio until after the interview ended. Amid the ensuing media coverage of Audemio’s case—the alleged sexual assault of a deportee while in government custody was newsworthy—there was speculation that Audemio made up the rape story for the purpose of securing a U Visa. Haque told me Audemio didn’t even know what a U Visa was when he reported the incident. At the time, his most urgent concern was getting the HIV prophylactics that had been prescribed for him in Idaho.
A week later, Haque secured Audemio’s release on the order of supervision. In the following months, Audemio repeatedly offered to assist in the investigation—to look at mug shots or a lineup, to comment on testimony from his cellmates—but he would not hear from the investigators again. Still more concerning, when Haque acquired the security camera footage through a court order, he found there were gaps on the night of the assault totaling nearly three and a half hours, including a two-hour block from 2:13 to 4:10 a.m. that coincided with Audemio’s estimation of when the rape occurred. Jefferson County Attorney Matthew Johnson—who fought Haque’s efforts to obtain the evidence, on the grounds that releasing it would jeopardize the pending investigation—said the gaps resulted from motion-sensitive cameras turning off when there was no activity in the cell. “When the video skips,” Johnson said in an email to Haque dated November 7, 2013, “it is because there was no movement for a period of time.” This was a red flag: The video from Audemio’s pod cuts out for the first time at 10:30 p.m., while people are still milling around and very much awake.
Haque became concerned that Jefferson County was engaged in a cover-up. Hoping that public exposure would force Jefferson County’s hand, Haque turned over the footage to John S. Adams, an investigative reporter for the Great Falls Tribune, who contacted the manufacturer of the jail’s security cameras. In his subsequent article, Adams wrote, “a Pelco technical support specialist . . . said it doesn’t make sense that the motion-activated DVR would stop recording on its own when motion is clearly visible.” In other words, Johnson’s explanation for the gaps made no sense, and though he would later supply Haque with more video to fill in some of the gaps, he was never forced to supply the footage from the critical 2:13 a.m. to 4:10 a.m. window.
For a year and a half, Audemio and Haque waited for the results of Jefferson County’s investigation, hoping, at the very least, for an acknowledgment of the crime that would compel the county or ICE to certify Audemio’s U Visa application. In 2015, with the investigation seemingly shelved, Haque filed a civil suit alleging that Jefferson County had violated Audemio’s constitutional rights by detaining him punitively and in unsafe conditions, causing him to suffer “serious and severe emotional distress.” Two weeks later, as if on cue, Johnson finally emailed Haque with the investigation results: “My review of this case concludes that there is not sufficient evidence to support the allegations of [Audemio],” he wrote. “The investigation and a second investigation by Homeland Security”—DHS had cooperated in Jefferson County’s investigation and conducted an investigation of its own—“conclude that there was no cover up, videos were not deleted nor blocked out, and a crime was not committed against [Audemio]. Therefore, the case will be closed.”
Nevertheless, in November 2016, a few weeks after Trump’s election, Jefferson County agreed to pay Audemio a $125,000 settlement, although without having to admit to any liability for the assault. “That to me is an indication they knew they did something wrong,” Haque told me this past May at his office in Helena. As we talked, he occasionally dragged on an e-cigarette, exhaling clouds of vapor into the room. His work on behalf of immigrants had earned him an award from the American Civil Liberties Union the year before, but it had also drawn vitriol from right-wing groups who attacked him online and, occasionally, at public rallies. He seemed wearied by the work, and by the invasion of his privacy, but also defiant. “I can’t believe that our system allowed all of this to happen and then deported him, and there was no one along the way who helped him at all, in the entire system,” he said. “It’s shameful that they could pay $125,000 but they couldn’t just sign this U Visa. They couldn’t just admit that this happened to him.”