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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Dr. Leakey

Nobody forced this illegal alien to come here. You reap the results of your actions. Look at the two Scandinavian girls who went to Morocco. You liberals say it was unlawful what happened to the detainee but you promote the unlawful entering of this country? She willingly went into a lion's den. You expect these officers to be angels? Get real.

Anonymous

Asylum seekers aren't breaking laws. They're coming to legally-designated points of entry, in accordance with both US federal and international law, to seek entry, usually to escape communities that have been destroyed by governmental corruption or gang violence. If you had children and were in that situation you'd do the same thing and you would take the risk because there was literally no alternative.

But even if these detainees HAD broken the law, this is improper, immoral, and illegal conduct. You can't excuse law-breaking because you want the law protected. Either you haven't thought this through or you're motivated by something other than a desire to see law and order maintained. Either way I think you should look a little more closely at the problem before making statements like the one you've made here.

Anonymous

I am convinced they are using these immigrants and children for human trafficking. All the elements needed are purposely put in place. Stripping parent from child, unable to communicate and tell, people cannot be tracedand worst of all not having any rights. Russia is huge in human trafficking. Trump would do anything Putin wants. I believe our country is supplying Russia immigrants for human trafficking. It just fits all the pieces of the puzzle to me.

Anonymous

Trumps fault... sue him and his damn wall..and the Rep.s...

Anonymous

Yes. They. Are.

Teri

This article is pretty vague and in some instances misleading. Bottom line, these people are here illegally. We don’t owe them anything. If they don’t like the detention centers they should go home. The “caravans” are overwhelming the resources at hand.

Jennifer

Then if they R not responsible Then They should not be housing any detainees... I can’t even imagine how you even state that it’s ok for their personnel to act inappropriately with any of the detainees and then hide behind Were Not Responsible .. what kind of shit is this.. The Current Administration is a joke and an embarrassment.... Seriously

Anonymous

Why does the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) not cover detention centers? These people are incarcerated and at least during the Trump administration are considered to be people who have committed a crime by entering the US. PREA covers county and city jails! People are held in jails prior to being convicted and are covered by PREA. PREA is a federal law. Why can't it be used to cover a federal detention center?????????????????????????????

Justice

There is an easy way to deal with these officials and employees, we simply dox them and release all of them home and contact information out to the general public and then we can see some real justice happen, and happen quickly.

- Justice

rewinn

Name And Shame!
Who are the employees who stood by and laughed at sexual abuse?
Who are the employees who argued that this was o.k.?
Put their names out there. No one is safe around people like that.

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