WASHINGTON -- More than 180 sexual abuse complaints have been reported in immigration detention centers since 2007, according to government documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union as part of a class-action suit filed this week.
The ACLU of Texas lawsuit was filed on behalf of three women, identified by aliases to prevent future harm, who say they were assaulted by detention guards and officers. The three allegations are strikingly similar, according to first-person accounts by each person posted to the ACLU website. In each case, the victims say they were abused on the way to the airport after posting bond to be released from detention facilities.
All three women say they came to the United States -- without authorization -- to escape sexual or physical abuse in their native countries, according to the ACLU. Each says the abuse she suffered by detention officers gave her frightening reminders of earlier abuse.
"As he was doing this I was having a flashback to what happened to me in my home country," a woman referred to as Sarah Doe said in her first-hand account. "I thought, this man is never going to take me to the airport, he is going to take me to a certain place where he will do whatever he wants to me."
The ACLU sued the Department of Homeland Security earlier this year under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain information on sexual abuse in detention centers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Office of the Inspector General and the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.
The ACLU found that detention officers broke a rule that detainees must not be transported without a same-sex officer present. Detention officers are also instructed to call supervisors with their departure and arrival times when transporting opposite-sex detainees, according to a 2007 Immigration and Customs Enforcement document.
Documents obtained by the ACLU show that more than 50 women in Texas were transported alone by male guards between December 2008 and May 2010.
The documents show there have been 185 sexual abuse reports in immigrant detention centers since 2007, nearly a third of which came from Texas. Other states had far lower reports of detainee sexual abuse, with the next highest reports coming from California (17), Arizona (16) and Florida (12). Other states had less than 10 reports of sexual abuse, or none at all.
Texas also has the highest number of detention centers with 12, while California has 9.
All three women in the ACLU lawsuit were held for a time in the T. Don Hutto Residiental Center in Taylor, Texas, a 512-bed detention center privately run on a government contract by private prison giant Corrections Corporation of America.
The suit targets Corrections Corporation of America along with three ICE officials, a former facility manager of the Hutto facility, and a former Hutto guard named Donald Dunn, who was charged last year with assaulting five women and has been accused of abusing more.
ICE immediately removed Dunn from the Hutto facility after the abuses came to light and provided counseling and assistance to the victims. The agency also required Corrections Corporation of America to comply with the rule against drivers being alone with opposite-sex detainees, and made the prison corporation hire an outside contractor to review its facilities for violations of the Prison Rape Elimination Act.
"While ICE does not comment specifically on pending litigation, the agency maintains a strict zero-tolerance policy for any kind of abusive or inappropriate behavior and requires all contractors working with the agency to adhere to this policy," Immigration and Customs Enforcement Spokeswoman Nicole Navas said Friday.
Still, immigrants in detention face a number of obstacles in reporting sexual abuse, including language barriers, a lack of information on contacting authorities and fear that reporting abuses could hurt their chances of remaining in the country. Some are even deported before they get the chance.
Mark Whitburn, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas, pointed out those concerns in a statement announcing the lawsuit Wednesday. He said the complaints of sexual abuse reported so far are "just the tip of the iceberg."
"Immigrants in detention are uniquely vulnerable to abuse, and those holding them in custody know it," Whitburn said. "Many do not speak English, many -- like our plaintiffs -- have fled violence in their home countries and are terrified of being returned. They may not be aware of their rights or they may be afraid to exercise them."