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The tragic cost of family detention: sexual abuse and assault

The Administration's recent expansion of family detention comes at a tragic and horrific cost. This week, allegations of sexual abuse and assault were revealed inside Immigration and Customs Enforcement's new family detention center. I wish I was surprised, but unfortunately, this isn't the first time we have heard this. Rampant sexual assault inside detention facilities has been documented and reported for more than fourteen years.

Many of the women inside the Karnes family detention center are domestic violence survivors; many have experienced rape and sexual assault. They have already survived untold traumas and have come to the US seeking asylum and protection. Yet instead of ensuring their safety, the Obama administration is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to lock them in prisons where guards and staff have further exploited their vulnerabilities by coercing them into sexual acts. The complaint filed by MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) and other groups this week include the following allegations:

  • Removing female detainees from their cells in the late evening and early morning hours for the purpose of engaging in sexual acts in various parts of the facility, and attempting to cover up these actions;
  • Calling detainees their “novias” or “girlfriends” and requesting sexual favors from female detainees in exchange for money, promises of assistance with their pending immigration cases, and shelter when and if the women are released; and
  • Kissing, fondling and/or groping female detainees in front of other detainees, including children.

There has been an insidious culture of abuse inside immigration detention for many years. The Women's Refugee Commission first exposed rampant sexual abuse inside the Krome Detention Center in Miami in 2000. Officers at the Krome facility used the women's lack of immigration status as an inducement to participate in sexual activities. Women reported that officers would make false promises that they could release a woman from detention if she participated in sexual acts. In other cases, detainees said that deportation officers threatened them with deportation or transfer to a county prison if they resisted a guard's sexual advances or if they complained.

The T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor, Texas, originally established as a family detention center, also had a widespread pattern and practice of officer misconduct and sexual assault. In 2007, an ICE officer was terminated for having sex with a female detainee in her cell. In 2009, another Hutto guard was charged with the assault of women he was transporting. Further investigation after this incident came to light revealed that she was not alone.

Also in 2007, another guard was convicted in Florida for raping a woman during transport between detention facilities. In 2009, investigations were pending involving four rapes at the Willacy detention facility in Texas and in 2010, a guard at the Port Isabel Detention Center in Texas was convicted of sexually assaulting three women.

According to government documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union through the Freedom of Information Act, nearly 200 allegations of abuse from detainees in detention facilities across the nation have been fielded by government officials since 2007 alone. And that is likely just the very tip of the iceberg. Sexual abuse is a problem that is widely underreported in the outside world, so there's little question that this number does not represent the full scope of the problem. But one thing is clear: the sexual abuse of immigration detainees is not an isolated problem, limited to one rogue facility or merely the result of a handful of bad apple government contractors who staff the nation's immigration centers.

ICE has had more than fourteen years of documented evidence reinforcing the fact that women are especially vulnerable to assault inside these facilities. Despite the official implementation of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) and a zero tolerance standard for sexual assault and rape in DHS facilities, current policies and oversight clearly still fall woefully short of ensuring women's protection. The detention of women with their children makes them even more vulnerable. The women we have spoken to at detention facilities in Karnes, Artesia, Berks and even Hutto when they still detained families, are all clear on one issue – they brought their children on this dangerous journey to the United States to protect them. This latest example of abuse re-emphasizes what we have knows for years: the detention of families is not only expensive and inefficient, but it also exposes the most vulnerable populations to further abuse and exploitation.

Alternatives to detention (ATD) are one of the key solutions to this problem. There are proven alternatives to detention that would both protect women and their children from further trauma and abuse inside these facilities, while also ensuring they appear for their court appearances and are provided the support they need during the time before their immigration case is decided. ICE alternative to detention programs have a documented 96 percent rate of effectiveness. When enrolled in an ATD, individuals check in with their immigration officer and appear for their hearings.

How much more evidence is needed to make it clear that these women are not safe in detention and that detention is not the answer?

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