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  • Department of Justice Rule Fails to Shield Detained Immigrants from Sexual Assault

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    Last month federal charges were filed against Donald Dunn, a former guard at the T. Don Hutto immigrant detention facility in Taylor, Texas. Dunn is already serving time for state charges of sexual assault of detainees, and is now accused of abusing his power by groping four more women while on the job. Last fall, Dunn pleaded guilty to charges in Williamson County for groping five women he was escorting to airports and bus stations; on the way he would pull over and while claiming to frisk them, would grope them instead. Unfortunately, this kind of sexual abuse by guards against detainees is not uncommon. Evidence suggests this abuse is rampant in detention facilities, and the victims in such facilities have no way to protect themselves.  

    A 2010 Human Rights Watch report documents numerous cases of sexual assault of immigrant detainees in the United States, but the number of cases is suspected to be grossly underestimated because such individuals are often afraid to report an incident or are deported before they are able to report it. When Congress unanimously passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) in 2003, it specifically cited the vulnerability of immigration detainees. PREA applies to any “confinement facility of a Federal, State or local government”—including immigration detention centers—and sets a zero tolerance policy for sexual assault. Congress purposefully designed PREA to protect all persons detained in the United States; however, the Department of Justice’s proposed rules on the implementation of this law specifically exclude immigration detention facilities—leaving immigrants in detention centers with fewer protections than prisoners.

    If the Department of Justice continues to exclude immigration detention facilities from its implementation of PREA it will not only be contrary to the intention of the bill, but will continue to violate U.S. and international law and basic fairness. The Women’s Refugee Commission and other organizations addressing human rights issues sent a letter to President Obama earlier this year articulating our deep concerns about this policy. The exclusion of civil immigration detention facilities creates a perverse system by which immigrants detained in local jails are protected under PREA, but once they are transferred to a civil facility for immigrants they are no longer protected by this law.

    Many immigrants who end up in detention are extremely vulnerable and need special protection. Many are asylum seekers fleeing persecution; others are unaccompanied children or victims of past sexual abuse. Many do not speak English nor have attorneys to explain and protect their rights. They are at the mercy of the guards and the deportation officers who have the power to transfer and deport them. By not subjecting immigration facilities to the same standards applied to prisons, the Justice Department is effectively saying those serving criminal sentences should be protected from sexual assault, but immigrants held in civil custody don’t have to be.

    We can do better. Eight years ago, Congress unanimously passed PREA to put an end to this abuse in all detention situations. The Department of Justice should swiftly amend its draft regulations to include immigration detention facilities. Human rights are not location specific—they are universal.