Why Immigrant Detainees Still Aren’t Safe from Abuse

November 20, 2013

People held in immigration detention centers still face challenges reporting sexual abuse and assault, sometimes because the government deports them before an investigation is completed, according to a government watchdog report issued on Wednesday.

In Lost in Detention, FRONTLINE reported on allegations of abuse of people held in immigration detention centers run by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, which reports to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Our investigation found no evidence that the vast majority of sexual abuse complaints had been investigated or resolved. Reports of verbal and sexual abuse at one facility, the Willacy Detention Center in south Texas, were so disturbing that DHS launched 13 criminal investigations into staff misconduct.

Last year, the Justice Department issued rules to protect inmates in the U.S. prison system from sexual abuse, and the White House extended the protections to those in DHS immigration detention facilities. In December 2012, DHS said it would adopt new policies to protect immigrant detainees and provide new ways for them to report abuse following a two-month period reserved for public comment. It hasn’t yet done so, though ICE said Wednesday it expected the rules to be finalized “in the very near future.”

Detainees often don’t report abuse for several reasons, including fear of retribution. But when they do, the government doesn’t always track the claims or report them through the proper channels, according to the Government Accountability Office review.

The report also found that ICE still isn’t keeping complete records on abuse and assault allegations. Local offices don’t report all allegations, either because they believe it didn’t happen or they considered the allegation to be harassment, not abuse, the report said.

The GAO, in its analysis of available data, found 215 allegations of sexual abuse and assault in ICE detention facilities from 2009 to March 2013, during which more than 1.2 million people were admitted. Eighty-six were made against staff members.  Of the total allegations, the GAO found that only 15 were substantiated — 11 of those involved detainees assaulting other detainees and in the other four, the alleged perpetrator was a guard.

In about half the allegations, an investigation couldn’t determine whether the alleged incident occurred, either because the victim decided not to cooperate or there wasn’t evidence to substantiate the claim. Many of the allegations involved inappropriate touching, for example, for which there wouldn’t be forensic evidence.

In one quarter of the cases, the claim was considered unsubstantiated because the victim had been deported.

The DHS Office of the Inspector General had also set up a hotline for detainees to report abuse, but the report found that about 14 percent of those who called the number from 2010 to 2012 couldn’t get through, sometimes because there was no one to answer the phone.

The ACLU, which has been sharply critical of the government’s detention policies, said the findings were “troubling” and underscore the need for the DHS rules to be implemented across all ICE facilities. “Congress must demand that the Administration release the overdue final [DHS] rule, which should contain rigorous standards so that allegations of sexual abuse of individuals in the department’s custody are detected, properly investigated, and most of all, prevented from occurring in the first place,” said Ruthie Epstein, a policy analyst at the human-rights group in an email.

ICE detains an estimated 32,000 people every day, the report said, holding them in detention facilities at a cost of about $160 per person per day, ICE has said, until their hearing and likely deportation, which adds up to about $5 million per day.

The vast majority of detainees — 77 percent — have no criminal record, according to ICE data. Most are picked up by local law enforcement after a routine traffic stop and held at ICE’s request until they can be transported to one of its detention facilities and deported. Most are young, undocumented Mexican men, but legal residents and American citizens also get swept up by immigration officials and detained in these facilities.

In its response to the GAO report, DHS said it concurred with the findings and would work to implement them.

ICE “is deeply committed to eliminating sexual abuse in immigration detention,” said Gillian Christensen, a deputy spokeswoman, in an email on Wednesday. “Our zero-tolerance policy is a key part of immigration detention reform, which has been and continues to be an agency priority.”

She said that ICE had already implemented several changes since the report research began, including hiring a full-time sexual assault prevention coordinator and providing comprehensive training on assault and abuse for ICE employees who have contact with detainees, and creating an inter-agency working group on the problem. The DHS rules, once released, would build on these changes, she said.

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