"The doors were locked, there were no cars on the road, and there was nothing I could do. I just shut up. I was crying, and he talked to me as if I were nothing. I thought he was going to kill me."
These haunting words are how Kimberly, a domestic violence victim from South America, described how she was sexually assaulted by a security guard while in the custody of immigration officials at the Don T. Hutto detention facility in Texas. Ironically, she faced this violence on the day she had been released from the detention center, having won her petition to seek asylum in the U.S. based on fear of persecution in her home country.
On the car ride to the airport for her flight out of Texas, Kimberly was repeatedly groped and then mocked by the guard, her driver. For months afterwards she couldn't sleep and lay awake, afraid that the man would find her.
Despite Department of Homeland Security officials' statements that sexual abuse is not a serious issue in their facilities and that they have sufficient standards in place to protect detainees from abuse, data recently obtained by the ACLU makes it undeniably clear that Kimberly's case was not an isolated incident, and that the guard who abused her -- and several other women at Hutto -- is not a lone bad apple.
After filing a Freedom of Information Act request related to Kimberly's court case, the ACLU found that almost 200 incidents of sexual abuse of detained immigrants have been reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) since 2007. Alleged sexual abuse of immigration detainees has occurred at jails, ICE processing centers and private detention facilities across the country. Perpetrators have included local police and ICE employees, as well as contract guards and fellow detainees.
As the ACLU has emphasized, these reported cases are most likely just "the tip of the iceberg." Many immigrants are traumatized by what has happened to them, and are afraid to report abuse by the same authority that has the power to deport them. Others are deported before they get the chance to report the abuse. And other still, don't know who to go to or how to file a complaint when they have been raped in detention.
The Women's Refugee Commission has long advocated for government reform around this issue, and our visits to detention facilities over the years have confirmed that sexual abuse of immigration detainees is a problem U.S. officials desperately need to address. Victims have told me they had no idea how to report abuse and so it went unreported until they were transferred or released. Staff at some ICE detention facilities have told us that if penetration is not confirmed by a doctor, they do not consider the case sexual assault. ICE officials often tell us that they comply with federal prison standards; but when pressed on what this means in practice, they do not know.
In 2003, Congress unanimously passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), setting a zero tolerance policy for sexual assault in prisons and specifically citing the vulnerability of immigrant detainees. But recent action by the Department of Justice (DOJ) puts this policy at risk. A February 2011 DOJ document stated that, "Protection from sexual abuse should not depend on where an individual is incarcerated: It must be universal." But their definition of "universal" is in fact limited. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) claims that the PREA standards do not apply to them. Draft regulations issued by the DOJ specifically exclude detained immigrants in DHS custody from the protection afforded to other prison inmates, including those convicted of violent crimes. By exempting immigration facilities from the same standards that are enforced at criminal facilities, the Justice Department is effectively saying that those serving criminal sentences should be protected from sexual assault, but immigrants held in civil custody don't have to be.
PREA should be extended to Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) facilities that house immigrant children as well. Unaccompanied minors who arrive in the U.S. after fleeing trafficking, domestic violence, conflict or poverty need special protection, as they are the most vulnerable group of all -- but they are also excluded from the current draft regulations. At the privately run Texas Shelter Care Facility in Nixon, Texas, a staff member was convicted of sexual assault after repeatedly abusing several children. The facility was eventually closed and the company's federal contract was terminated, but only after the abuse was ignored for over a year. My colleagues and I documented this incident and other cases of abuse of unaccompanied minors in our 2009 report, Halfway Home: Unnaccompanied Children in Immigration Custody. Yet, DHHS lacks a clear, universal policy specifically addressing sexual assault of unaccompanied children in immigration custody.
ICE has issued its own set of standards for the treatment of immigration detainees at its facilities, but these are not legally binding and lack many of the protections in the PREA standards. ICE's standards simply state that sexual abuse will not be tolerated, without making provisions for reporting and addressing abuse, ensuring coordination and oversight across detention facilities or mandating preventative requirements such as staff training and extensive background checks. Our research and monitoring, and the nearly 200 reported cases of abuse, make it clear that the ICE standards are ineffective. Without a way to implement and enforce these standards, the abuse is bound to continue.
The Women's Refugee Commission has long argued that the standards mandated by PREA were intended to apply to everyone who is in detention in the United States. These standards declare that the tolerance of rape and sexual abuse in prison settings is "incompatible with American values." It is time that we apply these values to our treatment of immigrants as well.
Take action now by telling President Obama and other U.S. officials to protect immigration detainees in U.S. custody from sexual abuse.