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  • Women’s Refugee Commission Applauds Move to Protect Detained Immigrants from Rape and Assault

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    WASHINGTON, D.C., May 18, 2012—In a critical week for immigrant rights, the Obama Administration announced yesterday that the long-awaited 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) protections should extend to adult and children immigrants who are detained in U.S. facilities, as intended by the bipartisan legislation. In its decision, the Administration directed that each federal agency responsible for populations in confinement shall draft its own standards but will work with the Justice Department to ensure that these standards meet PREA requirements. It is now critical that the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services, which detain adult immigrants and unaccompanied immigrant children, respectively, immediately draft and enact their own regulations. These regulations must be fully and meaningfully compliant with PREA and apply to all custodial facilities in their jurisdiction.

    The Women’s Refugee Commission, which has for years strongly advocated for the application of PREA regulations to adult immigration detention facilities as well as those holding immigrant children, commends the Obama Administration’s recognition that strong standards against sexual assault should apply to all people who are confined. In a week where anti-immigrant factions have weakened protections against domestic violence and attempted to limit reproductive health rights based on immigration status, it is more critical than ever to ensure that everyone in government custody is offered equal protection against rape and sexual assault, regardless of their immigration status.

    “Immigrants, including thousands of children, who are in federal custody and vulnerable to abuse and sexual assault every day, cannot wait one more minute for the protections they so desperately need,” said Michelle Brané, Director, Detention and Asylum Program. “Every adult and child in confinement should be safeguarded from sexual assault and rape.”

    PREA, passed unanimously by Congress and signed into law by President Bush in 2003, is the first federal civil law to address sexual violence in confinement. PREA’s requirements apply to all detention facilities, including federal and state prisons, jails and immigration detention centers. PREA states that sexual assault in detention can constitute a violation of the Eighth Amendment and requires that facilities adopt a zero-tolerance approach to this form of abuse.

    Although an important step in the right direction, the decision to allow Homeland Security and Health and Human Services to write their own regulations, rather than requiring both agencies to follow one uniform set of Justice Department regulations, now requires political will from each agency to acknowledge the need for better measures against sexual assault in their facilities and to move forward with effective and meaningful protections that comply with PREA.

    Health and Human Services has historically refused to acknowledge that many of its facilities even constitute “confinement,” despite the fact that juvenile detention centers and shelters all have locked doors that limit freedom of movement and are often surrounded by razor wire fencing. The agency lacks any meaningful standards to address the risk of sexual assault in these facilities, standards that are especially critical considering the vulnerability of the children—who often don’t speak English and have already experienced trauma en route to the U.S. “The Obama Administration must insist that all Health and Human Services facilities are accountable to strong PREA regulations or this directive will be meaningless. They have to hold facility staff accountable,” said Brané.

    Homeland Security’s current standards and protections do not meet PREA requirements either, and the agency lacks meaningful compliance with these already weak standards. “Although top officials continue to emphasize that they have a zero-tolerance policy on sexual assault, most local immigration detention facility officials we meet cannot even articulate the policy and its rules,” said Brané. “Given the huge numbers of immigrants in Homeland Security custody and the stories of assault we hear regularly, the agency must act quickly and decisively to issue regulations that fully and meaningfully comply with PREA.”