News Violence

Complaint: Sexual Abuse, Harassment in Immigrant Detention Largely Goes Uninvestigated

Tina Vasquez

CIVIC filed the complaint on Tuesday on behalf of 27 people who are in immigration detention or have been released from detention and who say they have experienced sexual abuse.

Less than a month after the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California filed a legal claim on behalf of two sisters—ages 19 and 17—who say they were sexually assaulted by a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer at an intake office in Texas, a national advocacy organization monitoring immigration detention facilities filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties concerning reports of sexual abuse, assault, and harassment within immigration detention centers.

Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC) filed the complaint on Tuesday on behalf of 27 people who are in immigration detention or have been released from detention and who say they have experienced sexual abuse. People named in the complaint include Rosanna Santos, who said she was sexually harassed by a corrections officer at the York County Prison in Pennsylvania.

An officer escorted Santos, along with another detained woman, to a waiting area prior to an immigration hearing, according to the complaint. During this time, the officer told them “that they were under his control and that if they did not do whatever he said quickly and without question that they would be subjected to a physical sexual assault.” The officer’s exact words, according to the complaint, were “ass-fucking.”

Soon after the incident, Santos filed a complaint. As a result, she said, she was placed into solitary confinement for 11 days.

The York Country Prison did not respond to a request for comment by publication time.

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Santos told Rewire in a phone interview that she experienced other forms of retaliation as a result of filing a complaint, including intimidation from other officers. Some officers, she said, would even detail to her what the officer who threatened her would do to her.

“I was in fear, but I wasn’t the only one,” Santos said. “There were other girls that came [to the facility] from Texas and other places that had similar stories as mine. They were subject to verbal abuse, sexual harassment, all kinds of abuse, but they weren’t able to make a complaint because they didn’t speak English or were too afraid to [file a complaint].”

CIVIC estimates that the United States detains between 380,000 to 442,000 people per year. On any given day, there are at least 34,000 people detained because of the detention bed mandate, which calls for filling 34,000 beds with immigrants in 250 facilities around the country.

Santos was in detention for three more months after the incident, and she told Rewire she thought about the threat daily and had nightmares every night.

“The officer who threatened me with sexual assault was a guard. I didn’t know the hours he worked or when I would see him. I was afraid that he would come into my cell in the middle of the night and take me out of the room and no one would do anything. I didn’t sleep all night, or if I did I would wake up screaming,” Santos said.

To make its claim, CIVIC analyzed data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request regarding sexual assault reports from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG). That information showed that the OIG received at least 1,016 reports of sexual abuse, which were filed by people in detention, between May 2014 and July 2016. This means there was more than one complaint of sexual abuse made by people in detention each day, with 80.8 percent of complainants being men. Of these 1,016 reports of sexual abuse, the OIG investigated only 24, according to the complaint.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had the most complaints, compared with other federal agencies, submitted against it by immigrants. There were 702 complaints of “coerced sexual contact” submitted to OIG between January 2010 and July 2016, with 402 of these complaints lodged against ICE. The OIG declined to investigate 90.8 percent of these complaints, closing 5.5 percent of the cases without taking any action. CBP received 84 complaints of coerced sexual contact, and of these, the OIG opened only seven investigations, the complaint says.

People in detention made hundreds of claims of sexual harassment and sexual and physical abuse between 2010 and 2016, according to CIVIC. The top five immigration detention facilities with the most claims of sexual and physical assaults come from privately run facilities, including those operated by CoreCivic and GEO Group, which are notorious for allegations of human rights abuses.

In an emailed statement to Rewire, a spokesperson for DHS characterized CIVIC’s claim as “grossly inaccurate.” The department said that during the six-year time frame covered by the claim, ICE recorded more than two million admissions to its detention facilities nationwide.

“While ICE’s goal is to prevent all sexual abuse among its custody population, given the volume of individuals who annually pass through its detention system, the agency believes the overall incidence of such activity is very low,” the statement read.

The DHS spokesperson added that ICE has taken “significant steps” to prevent, detect, and respond to sexual abuse, including issuing an agency-wide directive on sexual abuse and assault prevention and intervention, hiring a sexual assault prevention coordinator, and creating an agency working group on sexual abuse in detention.

Santos currently has no legal status in this country. She has a stay pending and may now be eligible for a U visa, which is a protected status for victims of crimes who assist with the investigation. She said she understands the risk she is taking by making her story public, but that she feels an obligation to help others.

“I felt like I was given another chance. I got out of detention and I can be the voice for other girls this is happening to,” Santos said. “It’s not fair for them. They come here for a better life and they’re subject to abuse. I’ve seen with my own eyes and I’ve heard stories from other girls. If I was let out, it’s for this reason.”

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