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WASHINGTON, D.C., November 27, 2013 – Last week, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report titled “Additional Actions Could Strengthen DHS Efforts to Address Sexual Abuse.” The report examined the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) data system for sexual abuse and assault allegations in immigration detention, whether DHS has provisions to address such charges, and to what extent DHS monitors field office compliance with said provisions.

In its investigation, GAO reviewed 215 allegations of sexual abuse and assault in facilities from 2009-2013 that were recorded in DHS's data system. They found that 55 percent of all allegations were determined to be unsubstantiated, and 25 percent of those were due in part to the detainee being deported. Furthermore, GAO visited a sample of 10 facilities and uncovered that 40 percent of the 70 total allegations from those facilities were never reported to DHS headquarters by ICE field office officials, and were not accounted for in DHS's overall data.

“GAO's report reaffirms many concerns that our organization has been raising over the years,” said Michelle Brané, director of the Migrant Rights and Justice program at the Women's Refugee Commission. “The lack of consistent guidance on reporting sexual abuse and assault allegations across facilities leaves immigrants particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. It is critical that DHS implement standardized regulations for monitoring and oversight in all facilities in order to enhance accountability and protect detainees from abuse.”

In 2012, DHS released draft regulations that detailed the agency's plan to satisfy the requirements of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), the first legislation intended to create a zero-tolerance policy for sexual abuse and assault in all confinement facilities. It passed unanimously in Congress in 2003, yet enactment and implementation of the regulations has been repeatedly delayed.

“The full and immediate implementation of PREA is a necessary step toward fundamentally reducing the threat of sexual assault and rape in immigration detention centers while creating more meaningful pathways to recourse and justice for those immigrants who often do not speak English, are facing deportation and have little access to legal representation,” said Brané. “These regulations, including independent audits of DHS facilities, comprehensive training and access to resources for facility and agency officials, ensuring that local officials are knowledgeable on how to foster safer environments in immigration detention, and a system of accountability will better ensure that individual cases of assault are investigated and that victims have access to justice.”