Investigations Immigration

In Search of Safety: An Investigation of Abuse at an Immigration Facility

Tina Vasquez

Over a ten-month period, Rewire.News partnered with Latino USA to dig into the case of one woman's alleged sexual abuse. What we learned through a FOIA request raised questions about internal investigations at immigration facilities and the safety of thousands of detained immigrants.

This is the first article in a two-part series. Read the second article in the series here.

Content note: This piece contains detailed descriptions of sexual assault.

On May 3, 2017, Laura Monterrosa fled El Salvador for the United States because she heard that she could find protection and safety here. Once in the custody of U.S. immigration officials, she said another “nightmare” began; while at the T. Don Hutto detention center, she alleges, she was repeatedly sexually abused by a female guard.

Monterossa, 24, said through a translator that when she threatened to report the incident, the guard told her that the staff would never believe her. “I was scared because I thought that she was gonna deport me—that they could send me to another detention center and deport me.”

In the United States, there are two primary apparatuses intended to protect detained immigrants from sexual abuse: the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), a series of procedures and policies aimed at the elimination of sexual assault of prisoners, and the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG), which provides “independent oversight” of DHS agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

But immigrants in federal custody and their advocates see these processes as deeply flawed and loophole-ridden. When Monterrosa finally came forward with allegations against the guard, who she says sexually assaulted her for almost five months at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas, nothing changed; the guard continued to work at the facility while a federal investigation was underway. Monterrosa and her advocates were largely left in the dark on the findings or steps taken to prevent such incidents—which data suggests are widespread—from happening again.

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So while ICE released Monterrosa in March 2018, Rewire.News, in partnership with Latino USA, took a closer look into her allegations and the investigation that took place between ICE and local law enforcement. What we learned through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seemed to corroborate Monterrosa’s version of events, but only left us with more questions about the efficacy of PREA and DHS OIG and about the safety of the nearly 50,000 immigrants detained by ICE on any given day.

“I Didn’t Know What to Do”

Growing up, Monterrosa said, her father was physically and emotionally abusive. He struggled with substance use, which Monterrosa said contributed to the reasons for her mother’s suicide when she was just 8 years old. With her mother gone, things only got worse, Monterossa told Rewire.News and Latino USA during a July 2018 interview at the offices of Grassroots Leadership in Austin, Texas. Monterrosa said her father would hit her every time she asked about her mother, and that her aunt and grandmother began trafficking her.

“I couldn’t understand why men were on top of me. I couldn’t ask help from my dad because he was in another world, under the influence,” Monterrosa said through a translator. “I was at the mercy of my family. I thought I was worthless. I didn’t find any reason to be alive.”

Throughout years of hardships Monterrosa had a bright spot: her two children. She was raising them while also dating her partner in 2017. Monterrosa identifies as a lesbian and said that lesbians are “not accepted” in El Salvador. This was especially true among her co-workers at the hospital where she worked as an orderly. Upon finding out she was dating a woman, Monterrosa said her co-workers took her phone and circulated private photos of her and her partner. Monterrosa went to the authorities, which further enraged her co-workers. They harassed her on the street, telling her they didn’t want her in El Salvador. Eventually, she says she was fired.

“[My employer] said I couldn’t work there anymore. They fired me because I was a lesbian,” Monterrosa told Rewire.News and Latino USA.

Things came to a head around 1 a.m. on May 3, 2017. Monterrosa said her co-workers banged on her door, pulled her out of her home, and threw her on the ground. She said they hit her, cursed at her, and sexually assaulted her, all while her young daughter watched.

“That’s what hurt me the most. I told them to do whatever they wanted, but not to let my daughter watch. I kept telling my daughter, ‘Mamita, everything is fine,’” Monterrosa said. “They said they didn’t want me there [in El Salvador]. They said if I didn’t leave, my children would suffer the consequences. So I left.”

LGBTQ people from Central America experience unprecedented levels of violence, driving hundreds to the United States each year. A 2017 report from Amnesty International characterized migrants like Monterrosa as “the most vulnerable refugees in the Americas” because they are “terrorized at home, and abused while trying to seek sanctuary abroad.”

And indeed, Monterrosa says that her abuse at Hutto began almost immediately. Her first day at the facility was May 30, 2017. In June, according to Monterrosa, a female guard at the facility befriended her, asking her questions about her immigration case. The guard worked for CoreCivic, the largest private prison company in the United States, previously named Corrections Corporation of America. Despite years of documented abuse at its facilities, CoreCivic maintains numerous contracts with the federal government, totaling nearly half of the company’s $1.7-billion annual revenue.

The guard’s line of questioning became increasingly inappropriate, Monterrosa said. She asked Monterrosa about her sexual orientation and made it clear to Monterrosa she wanted to pursue a romantic relationship with her: a clear violation of PREA.

Not long after, the Hutto guard began touching Monterrosa without her consent, groping her breasts, touching between her legs, and talking to her about “explicit sexual acts,” according to Monterrosa.

“I told her that I didn’t want to do that; I didn’t want that. I felt completely defenseless,” said Monterrosa. “All my childhood memories came back to me and I started suffering from depression and I started feeling really, really bad.”

The alleged abuse continued until late October 2017, but Monterrosa didn’t report it to authorities at Hutto because she was afraid ICE would deport her. Around the same time Monterrosa alleges she was being abused, she said another woman detained at Hutto came forward with allegations of abuse. Within a few days, the woman was transferred to another detention facility in Texas and eventually deported.

Advocacy organizations working with women detained at Hutto confirmed this information.

Grassroots Leadership, an Austin-based immigrant rights organization that has a visitation program at Hutto, advocated on Monterrosa’s behalf while she was detained, and it also worked with the woman who was eventually deported after reporting her abuse. In public records she is known as S.G.S.; her story is outlined by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) in a complaint the organization filed against Hutto on S.G.S. and Monterrosa’s behalf.

Power Imbalance

While ICE purports to have a “zero tolerance policy” for all forms of sexual abuse, the agency’s sexual abuse and assault awareness pamphlet at Hutto, obtained by Rewire.News and Latino USA during a July 2018 visit to the facility, places a great deal of responsibility on detainees to “protect” themselves.

The pamphlet instructs detained women not to accept gifts or favors “from others,” as it may come with “demands or terms that the giver expects you to accept.” The pamphlet also recommends not using drugs or alcohol, as these can “weaken your ability to stay alert and make good judgements.”

Detainee handbooks at other federal detention centers feature different advice against sexual assault, depending on whether the handbook is in English or Spanish. The English version of the detainee handbook at Berks County Residential Center, a family detention center in Leesport, Pennsylvania, features a single paragraph with bullet points. Meanwhile, the Spanish version “fills four and a half pages and tells women not to drink or talk about sex so they won’t get assaulted during their time at the facility,” NBC Philadelphia reported in May 2017.

This guidance, putting the onus on detainees, is particularly troubling given that sexual abuse allegations are often lodged against individuals employed at detention facilities. An analysis of 33,000 complaints of sexual assault and physical abuse filed with DHS OIG between January 2010 and July 2016 found that more abuse complaints were filed against ICE than any other agency within DHS.

An April 2018 investigation by the Intercept echoed these findings. The publication reviewed 1,224 complaints of sexual and physical abuse filed by detained people between 2010 and 2017. More than half of those accused of abuse worked for ICE.

The complaints reviewed by the Intercept are representative of a much larger problem. Reporter Alice Speri wrote that immigrants in federal custody are regularly subjected to abuse, and then threatened if they speak out.

“Many other women and men held in immigration detention across the country reported routine searches that turned into groping and fondling. Many said they were propositioned, subjected to suggestive stares and sexual innuendo, and threatened with retaliation if they spoke up,” wrote Speri.

All 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government impose criminal liability on correctional facility staff—this includes detention center employees—who have sexual contact with people in their custody, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. “These laws recognize that any sexual activity between detainees and detention facility staff, with or without the use of force, is unlawful because of the inherent power imbalance when people are in custody.”

That power imbalance arises not only during the assault but also when it comes to reporting the allegation. In order for ICE to launch an investigation, the person making the accusation must bring a formal complaint against their abuser. Although they may do so anonymously, or have someone else report the assault on their behalf, this is the point where it typically breaks down for many immigrants who experience abuse in detention centers given fears around retaliation or deportation.

Given how infrequently guards face criminal charges, even when people do come forward with their stories, the experience only brings more trauma. In Speri’s reporting for the Intercept, she shared the story of Rosanna Santos, who said she was sexually harassed at the York County Jail in Pennsylvania:

In March 2013, a male guard who was escorting Santos and another woman to a court hearing told them, “I’m your only protection right now” and threatened them with “ass fucking” if they didn’t do what he said, before placing each woman alone in a waiting room with no cameras, Santos told The Intercept.

Santos told her attorney about the incident, and the attorney filed a formal complaint — prompting an investigation. Officials “from Washington” came to the center to interview Santos. “But at the end of the day, they never did nothing,” she said. The guard kept his job and shift, so she kept seeing him. Soon, she started hearing complaints about him from other detainees — “but they never wanted to report it.”

If a migrant or their attorney files a formal complaint, a PREA investigation is launched immediately, usually the same day. This means investigators with ICE and the local law enforcement agency with jurisdiction over the detention center come to interview the detainee who made the allegation. These investigations are usually swift, and often it’s the guard’s word against the detainee’s. During the course of the investigation, most guards remain employed by the detention center, and allegations are almost always found to be “unsubstantiated.” False claims of sexual abuse are very uncommon, yet according to numbers provided by ICE, only 10 percent of allegations were substantiated in 2018—meaning the agency determined that only 10 percent of the people who came forward with allegations of abuse had credible cases. Sometimes, detention center workers maintain that the “relationship” they had with the detained person was consensual, and they are almost never criminally charged for their crime.

In 2016, Daniel Sharkey became the first ever detention center worker to be convicted of institutional sexual assault, “a third degree felony assault charge for employees of jails, detention centers and other facilities serving children,” as the Guardian reported at the time. The 40-year-old worked at Berks County Residential Center and maintained he had a consensual sexual relationship with E.D., a 19-year-old asylum seeker who fled Honduras after being physically and sexually assaulted by her partner. In April 2016, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six to 23 months in prison. Sharkey reportedly served five months, a shorter amount of time than E.D. was detained at Berks.

Advocates say these unlawful “relationships” are an ongoing problem at Hutto. In our investigation, an email was leaked to Rewire.News and Latino USA that was written by someone who appeared to have been a guard or other employee at Hutto, based on their descriptions of the facility and what might be going on there. In the email, they say that “inappropriate relationship[s]” have been going on “for years” at Hutto, and “nothing has changed.” The person asks that the information they provided be used to “help protect the residents from predators.”

According to the complaint filed by MALDEF, from 2015 to 2018, CoreCivic terminated at least two other Hutto detention center guards for engaging in prohibited relationships with detained women. Like Monterrosa’s alleged abuser, these guards worked in the recreation area at Hutto. According to the complaint, the recreation supervisor, “the sole direct supervisor of guards in the recreation area,” works from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m, leaving several hours at the end of the day when  “guards in the recreation area have no direct supervisor.”

MALDEF’s complaint against Hutto also explained that at the detention center, several video cameras do not function and “CoreCivic does not maintain a sufficient number of cameras to properly monitor the recreation area.” A spokesperson for CoreCivic called this claim “patently false” in a statement to Rewire.News.

In a July 2018 interview with Rewire.News and Latino USA, Monterrosa said her abuser at Hutto was calculating, sexually assaulting her in areas of Hutto where no cameras were present, like in the bathroom or particular parts of the recreational area.

Scratching the Surface

Several months after her abuse reportedly began, an anonymous tipster identifying themselves as a “friend” of Monterrosa’s called CoreCivic’s ethics line on November 3, 2017 and reported that Monterrosa was having “an inappropriate relationship” with a “recess officer” at Hutto,” according to information obtained by Rewire.News and Latino USA through a FOIA request. The tipster said that Monterrosa told them on the phone what had been going on.

ICE did not provide audio of the call the tipster made to CoreCivic, or the original transcript of the call made in Spanish. The federal agency provided CoreCivic’s translation of the call.

“I’m scared that my friend Laura may try to harm herself because of the relationship she is having with this officer,” the tipster said. “She now wants to end the relationship [but] she can’t because [the officer] is very controlling . I am asking that you please protect my friend because I know she is very scared but more so because she knows it is forbidden to have relationships with officers at the center. Please protect her so the officer won’t retaliate against her for revealing the relationship they are having.”

While the anonymous tipster characterized what was happening between Monterrosa and the guard as a “relationship,” the law makes it clear that any relationship would be illegal. During interviews with Rewire.News and Latino USA, Monterrosa also repeatedly said she was “scared” of the guard.

While the abuse was happening, according to Monterrosa, no one ever told her that it was illegal, especially not the guard, who Monterrosa said laughed at her when she said she was going to report her. According to Monterrosa, the guard said, “You really think they’re going to believe you? They’re never going to believe you over me.” (The pamphlet Rewire.News and Latino USA obtained at Hutto in July does note that all “sexual acts between a detainee and a staff member … are prohibited and against the law, regardless of whether they are consensual.“)

ICE moved quickly after receiving the anonymous call, according to information obtained via FOIA. The same day ICE received the tip, a Hutto medical provider conducted a medical assessment of Monterrosa, and ICE reported that “no injuries were reported or identified.” A mental health provider also assessed Monterrosa, reporting to ICE at the time that Monterrosa denied what the tipster had alleged.

“I got really scared, I was afraid. I started to get more depressed,” Monterrosa explained to Rewire.News and Latino USA in July 2018. “I was scared because I thought that she was going to deport me.”

Shortly after the medical assessments, a female ICE investigator visited Monterrosa at Hutto. The asylum seeker described the investigator as “nice.”

“She made me believe that she was going to help me and that she was going to support me,” Monterrosa said. “So I told her the whole story—everything that happened. But after that, [Hutto officials] started threatening me. They locked me in my room and after that night, nothing went well.”

This marked the beginning of the investigation into Monterrosa’s allegations by ICE and the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office, which had jurisdiction over the Taylor, Texas detention center. At the same time, Monterrosa decided to go public, working with Grassroots Leadership to tell her story.

It was around this time, in November 2017, that Rewire.News began covering Monterrosa’s story. Nineteen days after CoreCivic received the anonymous call, ICE told Rewire.News it had found Monterrosa’s allegations to be “unsubstantiated,” a fact the agency did not make Monterrosa aware of, which is in violation of the law. (Rewire.News informed Monterrosa of ICE’s decision during a spring 2018 interview.)

Much of the early reporting Rewire.News did on Monterrosa and her case only scratched the surface, in large part because of the ways that both local and federal agencies failed to provide crucial information that only became available to Rewire.News and Latino USA via FOIA. Williamson County did responded to a single request for comment. ICE would not provide any insight into the nature of its investigation, which it launched, conducted, and concluded in 19 days. In December 2017, when the San Antonio Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) Field Office, Austin Resident Agency Office, and the Civil Rights Division launched a civil rights investigation into Monterrosa’s alleged sexual abuse, the FBI would not comment on why it launched its investigation. But the FOIA request did reveal something that corroborated Monterrosa’s story.

In November 2018, months after Monterrosa was released from Hutto, a special agent with ICE’s Office of Professional Responsibility interviewed a former Hutto officer as part of an administrative investigation, the second set of interviews conducted following sexual assault allegations. (Rewire.News breaks down the two sets in part two of this series, but the first set was the criminal investigation that concluded Monterrosa’s claims to be “unsubstantiated.”) The officer said the same day she resigned from Hutto, she confronted Monterrosa’s alleged abuser and threatened to report her suspicions that the officer and Monterrosa were in a relationship. However, it seems this information did not compel ICE to reevaluate the criminal investigation’s findings.

While these early investigations were unfolding, often without Monterrosa’s full knowledge and understanding of what they entailed, she remained detained at Hutto and her alleged abuser remained employed at the facility. In a November 2017 interview with Rewire.News, Monterrosa said she had seen the guard who assaulted her “about 20 minutes ago.”

In January 2018, advocates working on Monterrosa’s behalf reached out to Rewire.News to say she had attempted suicide at the facility. According to information obtained via FOIA, the Department of Homeland Security reported on January 12 that Monterrosa was given a blood and urine test at the emergency room on the night she was admitted to the hospital for reportedly attempting suicide and “the results showed she took medication, but nothing above normal doses that would cause concern.”

But MALDEF’s court filings state that Monterrosa attempted to get help for her depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts numerous times before she ingested “a large quantity of potent medical pills.” After her suicide attempt, ICE placed Monterrosa in medical isolation for 60 hours, also known as solitary confinement—proven to be a deeply harmful and dangerous tactic for those experiencing mental health issues. In February 2018, about a month after Monterrosa’s suicide attempt, records show she scratched her left wrist to “relieve her emotions.” ICE kept her in the mental health unit again, according to records obtained by Rewire.News and Latino USA. Advocates said Monterrosa was placed in isolation in retaliation for going public about her alleged abuse. (At the time, Monterrosa also alleged immigration officials threatened her with indefinite solitary confinement if she continued speaking out and working with organizers.)

That same month, February 2018, more than 45 Congressional representatives signed a letter to DHS calling for an investigation into sexual abuse allegations at Texas detention centers. Lawmakers also demanded an expedited audit to assess Hutto’s compliance with PREA. According to the PREA auditor’s handbook, PREA audits of detention centers are conducted every three years; given that PREA was only rolled out in detention centers in 2014, Hutto had not yet received its first PREA audit at the time of the letter. It did in May 2018, the results of which were finally published online in February 2019. Rewire.News and Latino USA dive into the audit in more detail in part two of this series.

Loose Ends

In the months since her release, Monterrosa has emerged as an imperfect survivor.

The FOIA regarding the abuse Monterrosa says she experienced at Hutto included a line about Monterrosa allegedly engaging in “harassment of a sexual nature” of another detained woman while she was at the detention center. And since her release from Hutto, Monterrosa has also been accused of abuse by a community member.

Cycles of violence are not uncommon. According to a 2014 brief from the Prevention Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “people who experience or are exposed to one form of violence are at a higher risk for both being a victim of other forms of violence and for inflicting harm on others.”

Monterrosa’s days in the United States may also be numbered. Despite a team of lawyers working with her, at the moment Monterrosa appears to have no recourse for remaining in the United States once her deferred action runs out in a few weeks. There also appears to be no additional movement on the complaint filed by MALDEF against Hutto.

According to a February 22 statement from ICE, the FBI concluded its investigation into Monterrosa’s allegations and as of this time, “no ICE employees or contactors [sic] are being criminally prosecuted in relation to the allegations of abuse at the Hutto facility.” The FBI has not responded to requests for comment regarding the nature of its investigation. Both ICE and the FBI never made Monterrosa aware of the outcomes of the investigations that took place into her allegations, let alone how they took shape.

Meanwhile, CoreCivic told Latino USA and Rewire.News that Monterrosa’s alleged abuser was employed at Hutto until October 2018, but the private prison company would not comment further on whether she left of her own accord or was terminated.

Monterrosa’s case shows how the system designed to end abuse in detention facilities can be ineffective at best and traumatic at worse. The asylum seekers trapped in this system are often only looking for safety in the United States, but as Monterrosa explained, that isn’t always how it works out.

“At the beginning,” upon arriving to the United States, “I thought [immigration officials] were going to help me. I thought that was the day they were going to help me with my problems. But that was not what happened,” Monterrosa said. “What they should say [about detention] is, ‘Come here to live your own nightmare.'”

CORRECTION: This piece has been updated to clarify the timing of events in Monterrosa’s case. We also updated the piece to clarify the community member who accused Monterrosa of abuse was not part of Hutto’s visitation program.

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