Immigration debate brings issue of sexual abuse in detention facilities to forefront

theGRIO REPORT - Advocates for undocumented immigrants see them as highly susceptible to abuse, including sexual abuse, while under U.S. government custody...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Many Americans visualize an immigrant coming into the U.S. illegally as a single Mexican man looking for work. In truth, many crossing our borders are more diverse, and in many cases, more vulnerable.

“Net migration from Mexico is zero right now,” Meghan Rhoad, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, told theGrio. “There aren’t these floods of young single men that are coming to the United States looking just for a short-term job. These are people who call their home the United States. They own homes here. They have family here. They are fleeing persecution and coming here for safety.”

Some advocates for undocumented immigrants also see them as a group that is particularly susceptible to abuse, including sexual abuse, while in government custody.

Sexual abuse of the undocumented: hard to trace

The federal government has documented almost 200 sexual abuse allegations by migrants held in U.S. custody between 2007 and 2011, according to an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) elaborated on these figures according to its records in an email to theGrio, stating that of 168 sexual abuse allegations made between 2010 and 2012, only seven were substantiated.

But human rights advocates fear neither account accurately reflects what may be occurring in a system with what they say has little oversight.

“It’s really hidden,” Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel of the ACLU, said of these alleged occurrences of abuse, which she believes are widespread. “And that’s why it’s happened on such a large scale, because nobody’s expected it and nobody’s been watching.”

A large, decentralized system

Captured persons suspected of violating U.S. immigration law are housed within one of hundreds of detention centers across the U.S. The civil liberties advocates we spoke with characterize these facilities as lacking a uniform implementation of sexual abuse prevention policies, and existing policies as inadequate for properly protecting unauthorized immigrants from such abuses.

Some of the difficulties in applying existing policies have been linked by these groups to what they describe as the sprawling nature of the U.S. immigration detention system, and a lack of outside oversight provided by disinterested entities.

ICE detained 429,000 people in 2011, with some individuals being held for months, or even years, awaiting hearings. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) runs short-term holding facilities along America’s 102,514-mile combined Northern, Southern and maritime border, and in all U.S. airports.

Critics accuse the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees ICE and CBP, of failing to adequately protect prisoners from sexual abuse during its decade of running immigration enforcement.

While ICE allows some outside oversight of its facilities, CBP, with its many tiny prisons, does not permit outside inspection of its detention centers.

“When I talk to friends and family who don’t do this kind of work, they are shocked that there is this huge detention system in this country, let alone the kinds of abuses that are going on,” New York City immigration attorney Jennifer Oltarsh, of Oltarsh & Associates, P.C., told theGrio. “I think for the average person there’s just a lot of ignorance that this is happening, and how many people are being detained, and for how long, and how expensive it is for the U.S. government to be doing this.”

Billions spent on immigration enforcement

According to the Migration Policy Institute, the U.S. spends more on immigration enforcement than on all other federal law enforcement agencies combined. Nearly $18 billion was spent on ICE and CBP in fiscal year 2012, compared to $14.4 billion spent altogether on the FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the United States Secret Service.

In addition, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA) made it mandatory to detain unauthorized immigrants for committing petty crimes, among other circumstances, contributing significantly to both the volume of immigrant detention and its cost.

A subsequent 500 percent growth in the number of facilities housing undocumented foreign nationals occurred between 1996 and 2010, according to the ACLU.

“Unfortunately, it’s a system that exploded without much oversight, and unfortunately the results have been unregulated staff and facilities that have not produced good results,” Fettig said of DHS’s detention apparatus, which includes jails in sub-sets of government-run prisons and privately-owned prison businesses.

TheGrio contacted DHS, which referred all questions to ICE and CBP. CBP acknowledged multiple requests for comment from theGrio on these allegations, but did not release a statement or respond to questions by publication time.

Numerous opportunities for abuse

The ACLU, the Women’s Refugee Commission and other advocacy organizations allege that because of lax oversight at some detention facilities, detained women have reported being sexually accosted, and in some instances even raped, by officers on their way to being deported. Watchdogs warn of other conditions that are ripe for abuse, including the routine segregation of children from their parents or guardians during arrests, a common practice in CBP jails.

Another common scenario that advocates say puts unauthorized immigrants at risk is their transport to and from facilities.

A 2011 ACLU report describes the sexual assault of a woman named Kimberly, who was molested by the officer assigned with releasing her from ICE custody. The fact that she was being transported by him alone was a typical circumstance for which advocates state there are not enough precautions.

“He started yelling for me to look at him, and finally I looked sideways and saw that he was touching himself and he was grabbing me, wanting me to touch him,” Kimberly told the ACLU. “I was leaning away with my seat belt on, pushing into the door and crying.  The doors were locked, there were no cars on the road, and there was nothing I could do. I just shut up. I was crying, and he talked to me as if I were nothing.  I thought he was going to kill me.”