WASHINGTON -- A bipartisan group of House members is urging the Obama administration this week to apply the same rape-prevention measures to immigrant detention centers as it will to prisons, after the Justice Department failed to include immigrant facilities in a proposed rule to combat sexual abuse in prisons.
"We ought to prevent and eliminate rape of all people in government custody, including those being detained on civil immigration charges," Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), who is circulating a letter asking that immigrant detention centers be included in the rule, said at a press conference on Wednesday.
Although the Department of Homeland Security has its own standards for preventing sexual abuse, members and human rights advocates say the agency should adopt government-wide rules to ensure immigrants receive the same protections as others in government custody.
The rule is part of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which was passed unanimously in 2003 and will likely be implemented next year. But in drafting proposed rape-prevention rules for prisons, released in January, the Justice Department exempted immigrant detention centers -- even though a commission tasked with writing a draft proposal said those facilities should be included.
Justice Department officials have said they cannot set standards on immigrant detention centers because they are under the purview of other agencies. Immigrant detention centers are run by the Department of Homeland Security, while the Department of Health and Human Services runs facilities that house unaccompanied undocumented children.
But House members and members of the Prison Rape Elimination Commission said the intent of the law was to protect all individuals in government custody, whether U.S. citizens or not, from sexual abuse.
"The idea that immigration detainees, many of whom are housed in jails which will be subject to PREA standards, won't have the same level of protection, the same standards applied to their protection, as their fellow detainees -- that strikes me as a strange way of doing business," John Kaneb, who served as vice chair of the Prison Rape Elimination Act Commission, said at the press conference.
Scott is partnering with Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), with whom he co-sponsored the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003, to ask members to sign their letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano urging her to adopt the Prison Rape Elimination Act rule.
Reps. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) and Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) are also circulating a letter to their colleagues this week asking the Government Accountability Office to investigate sexual violence in the detention system.
The government has received 185 reports of sexual abuse in detention centers since 2007, according to documents released to the American Civil Liberties Union under the Freedom of Information Act.
Department of Homeland Security officials have taken steps to prevent sexual abuse in detention centers, such as mandating outside contractor reviews of privately-run detention centers to make sure they are following DHS rules.
"[Immigration and Customs Enforcement] 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 told HuffPost in October.
Advocates of stricter rules to prevent sexual abuse point out that immigrants face additional roadblocks to reporting abuse by detention center workers, often fearing that reporting an assault could hurt their case for remaining in the United States.
Esmeralda Soto, a Mexican-born woman who says she suffered sexual abuse in detention, said in a written testimony that guards treated her poorly and even implied she was a target for murder after she reported a guard for forcing her to perform oral sex on him. Her written statement was read at the press conference by a representative from Just Detention, a human rights group that advocates for stricter standards on sexual abuse in detention, because Soto could not be there in person.
"I felt scared," she told HuffPost by phone after the briefing, as translated by another representative from Just Detention. "They shouldn't have done what they did to me because they were there to take care of me, not to sexually assault me."