ICE Detention Center Says It’s Not Responsible for Staff's Sexual Abuse of Detainees

All 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government impose criminal liability on correctional facility staff who have sexual contact with people in their custody. 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. Yet, one immigration detention center is trying to avoid responsibility for sexual violence within its walls by arguing that the detainee “consented” to sexual abuse.

E.D., an asylum-seeker and domestic violence survivor from Honduras, was sexually assaulted by an employee while she was detained with her 3-year-old child at the Berks Family Residential Center in Pennsylvania. At the time of the assault, E.D. was 19 years old.

She filed suit against the detention center and its staff for their failure to protect her from sexual violence, even though they were aware of the risk. The record in the case, E.D. v. Sharkey, shows that her assailant coerced and threatened her, including with possible deportation, while the defendants stood by and made jokes.

Although the employee pled guilty to criminal institutional sexual assault under Pennsylvania law, the defendants contend that they should not be liable for any constitutional violations. Their argument rests in part on their assessment that the sexual abuse was “consensual” and that they should be held to a different standard because the Berks Family Residential Center is an immigration detention facility rather than a jail or prison.  

The ACLU, ACLU of Pennsylvania, and partner organizations filed an amicus brief this week supporting E.D., explaining that officials wield such tremendous control over the lives of those in their custody, including through coercion and exploitation, that consent to sexual contact cannot be freely given in these circumstances. We also discuss how sexual violence in custodial settings is a serious and pervasive issue, including in immigration detention. For many years, the ACLU, various advocacy groups, and immigrants themselves have reported on the unsafe conditions in immigration detention, including sexual violence and the retaliation that detained immigrants face when they decide to come forward with these violations.  

A recent investigation into sexual abuse in immigration detention found that there were 1,448 allegations of sexual abuse filed with ICE between 2012 and March 2018. In 2017 alone, there were 237 allegations of sexual abuse in immigration detention facilities.

Other reports include a 2014 complaint documenting widespread allegations of sexual harassment at the Karnes County Residential Center, where more than 500 women were detained with their children. In 2017, advocates filed a complaint on behalf of eight immigrants who recounted their experiences of sexual violence while detained in various ICE detention facilities across the country.

The Government Accountability Office reported in 2013 that officials at immigration prisons and jails failed to report 40 percent of sexual abuse allegations to the ICE headquarters. After looking at 10 different detention centers and analyzing over 70 cases of sexual abuse, researchers found that only 7 percent of 215 allegations of sexual assault in immigration detention facilities from 2009 to 2013 were substantiated, calling into question the thoroughness of investigations as well as reporting and oversight mechanisms.

Sexual violence impacts immigrants across federal agencies that are charged with immigrant detention. Most recently in Arizona, the state’s Department of Health Services, which licenses facilities that are used by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Office of Refugee Resettlement to detain migrant children, moved to revoke the license of Southwest Key, a nonprofit contractor that rakes in about a half a billion dollars to detain migrant children in facilities across the country. The state moved to revoke the group’s license because Southwest Key failed to comply with required employee background checks. At least three former employees have been arrested for sexually abusing migrant children. One was convicted, and one of the facilities was closed down following allegations of staff abusing children.    

These are not isolated cases. They clearly show that officials are not doing enough to detect and respond to incidents of sexual abuse in immigration detention. The result is that immigrants are put at serious risk for sexual violence while they are detained.

The Prison Rape Elimination Act was passed by Congress in 2003 to protect against sexual assault in prisons and jails across the country. It took the Department of Homeland Security until 2014 to finalize regulations implementing PREA. Even with those regulations in place, DHS PREA standards do not protect immigrants in all detention facilities because the agency has taken the position that those requirements can only apply when the agency enters into new contracts or renews or modifies old ones.

Rather than meaningfully addressing these endemic problems in immigration detention, the Trump administration continues to aggressively target immigrants and asylum seekers by stripping away legal protections, ramping up enforcement, and expanding immigration detention. E.D.’s case highlights the real need for greater protections against sexual abuse and more robust oversight and accountability measures in immigration detention, not less.     



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We need to first stop thinking of immigrants as people of lesser value. Our president talks about them like their inconvenient lesser beings. Not all immigrants are criminals. A mother seeking a better life for her children in a country that's societal roots grew from a whole mixture of different immigrant ethnicities is just unfortunate that those roots have outgrew their meager beginnings and forgotten where they came from. She wants for safety and security, freedom and peace; principles our country prides itself on. But pride can be dangerous. We can't individualize those principles. Then we lessen the value of some lives. If we stand for equality, then we must honor it. No child or person should ever suffer the life lasting trauma of sexual abuse or physical abuse, especially while in our country's care (with the assumption of safety). If we're looking to name criminals, then we can look as far as the perpetrators commiting these offences against immigrant children and adults. The perpetrators need to be prosecuted. The victims are human beings, no lesser than. They are even children; someone's son, daughter, sister, brother, niece, nephew and grandchild. They are mother's, father's, uncles, aunts, cousins; a hundred years ago, they could have been any one of our great grandparents or grandparents. I can't imagine my grandmother being demoralized and sexually degraded by this kind of treatment. Not to mention the traumatic after effect. And some of these victims are children, the innocents of society. We shouldn't feel angry that they are here, we should feel ashamed that they have been welcomed by such treatment. No one is a lesser being. Rape and sexual abuse are crimes. The perpetrators belong in prison, not immigration detainee camps. We wouldn't allow them to care for our children in daycares, why are they in that position with children and people whose safety and well-being is left in our care?


There's a name for these people, its human beings. No matter the color of ther skin, they are our brothers and sisters. We dont allow anyone to rape our loved ones, whay are we allowing this? Mr. President, we need to be responsible.


Doesn’t just being a decent person make you responsible?!??!



As an immigration officer I have to say that there is some level of sexual assault in detention. The GAO review noted that only 7% of cases were substantiated. The story attributes this to poor investigations, which I don't agree with. The issue is that the reporting standards are far above the PREA threshold, for example, if a detainee, looks at another detainee, in what is perceived to be a sexual manner, it is reported as a sexual assault. Likewise, when a detainee slaps another on the buttocks while horse playing, it is reported as a sexual assault. It is good that ICE wants to report the smallest alleged sexual abuse, but it numbs the officers judgement, because its just another PREA claim. Even when a cases is substantiated, i.e. you can prove through witnesses that detainee "A" smacked detainee "B" on the buttocks, but spanking does not meet the threshold for sexual assault within the PREA language. But it makes a good story.

Pat hanson

Vet these people who are in care of detainees as stringent as you vet the immigrants who want to serve In. Military. What a screwed up admin.


Dr. Timothy Leary was a behavioral scientist in the 60s who bought a bus, packed it with Hippies and drank LSD koolaid all across the country calling it an experiment.
This guy here is just a troll.


One day all those creeps will be held accountable


They are sons of bitches. If we were a barbaric society, we would cut their penises off and for the rest of their lives they can urinate via catheters inserted directly into the


When the Russians came into Berlin after World War II they wanted their pound of flesh for what the Germans did and they took women and young girls and raped them, are these ice agents no better than the Nazis or the Russians after the war in regards to the treatment of women.... Perhaps not


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