WASHINGTON -- The Department of Homeland Security announced Friday that it has finalized regulations to prevent sexual abuse in immigrant detention centers.
The Prison Rape Elimination Act, which passed unanimously in 2003, initially applied only to Department of Justice facilities. But the Obama administration announced in 2012 that it would also apply to immigrant holding facilities, where numerous cases of sexual assault and abuse have been reported.
"DHS is committed to upholding a culture that promotes safety and refuses to tolerate abuse," Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a statement Friday. "This rule will strengthen standards in DHS confinement facilities and ensure robust oversight."
The announcement comes after years of work by immigrant rights advocates to ensure more protections for immigrant detainees. They are considered particularly vulnerable to abuse, because they may fear repercussions such as being deported. Some have reportedly been abused on their way to the airport as they're leaving the country, and so they have little chance to report it at all.
The American Civil Liberties Union obtained documents in 2011 finding that more than 180 sexual abuse complaints in immigrant detention centers had been made since 2007.
The new rule, which will likely be released in full next week, builds on existing policies within DHS meant to prevent sexual abuse and protect victims. The agency will add new trainings for detention center officers and workers, and increase audits and compliance reviews in Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection facilities.
Ruthie Epstein, a legislative policy analyst with the ACLU, called the rule "long overdue."
"We're hopeful that it will provide strong protections for immigrants held in ICE or CBP custody, who too often fear retaliation, including deportation, for reporting sexual assault or abuse," she said in an email. "It's particularly important that DHS move quickly to ensure that the new rule covers all facilities -- including local jails that contract with ICE, which hold about 50 percent of all ICE detainees on any given day."
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), an author of the Violence Against Women Act, also applauded DHS for finalizing its rule. The Violence Against Women Act contained a provision that required the agency to comply with the Prison Rape Elimination Act.
"This step by DHS marks important progress toward fulfilling the mission of the Leahy-Crapo Violence Against Women Act to protect all victims from sexual assault and domestic violence," he said in a statement, referring to the bill he sponsored with Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho). "As I have said many times, 'a victim is a victim is a victim.' The law that Senator Crapo and I authored was designed to protect all victims. That includes doing all we can to prevent the sexual assault and abuse of immigrants in our detention facilities."
This article was updated to include remarks from Sen. Patrick Leahy.