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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Worked as a correctional officer before retiring. These contract agencies don't screen their clients to an extent. They are not properly or educated nor certified. The dept officers have degrees and completely screened. They can be off street security officers placed in these spots do agencies make a good profit. Agencies might get 35.00 per person but the agency will pay around 6.00 to the person. Just pocket the rest. It's scary t can be a paraphile.


Congrats on helping with an issue that is in your wheelhouse. The last one I remember is when the ACLU came to the defense of Rush Limbaugh. Please continue to pursue this issue. Arizona with Southwest Key has these problems and oversight is definitely needed. You are helping with that.


SHAME on these agencies and the trump administration for their abuse and lack of over sight! Yay for the ACLU for their magnificent caring work!


These nasty men and/or women keep your hands off these CHILDREN, it obvious you can't get pleasure from somone your age, a grown person. You took a oath to serve and protect, how can you protect if continue being inappropriate with them. Find your pleasure else where, nasty people and leave those women and children Alone.

Debbie Soares

There has to be a way to shut down these detention centers, move these children and families to safe facilities or back to their countries. Unemployment is high, hire and train people asap to process these immigrants back to their countries or to sponsors within the USA. Any cases of assault of any type should be prosecuted and offenders held accountable. This administration has only caused chaos and hate. It needs to stop. It needs to stop like now. Where are those educated and able to file lawsuits to use the law and constitution to the advantage of Americans and not just the rich and powerful.


Then I believe if the immigration Corrections Officers don't want to take responsibility than the people shouldn't take any responsibility if something happens to those pedophiles

Tuller Merrifield

If ICE isn't responsible, then why is? The Man in the Moon? This the same abuse of power that has involved centuries of abuse by priests, ministers, pastors, fathers, stepfathers, cousins, grandfathers, etc. Mostly, but not always, men who have enjoyed so much more power throughout history.

Jason Melendez

Of course they aren't responsible. Absolutely insanity to assert otherwise. Let me get this straight - groups of individuals attempt to cross the border illegally, violate federal law and enter without going through the same process MY family went through to come in legally, expect the US to provide them, get caught and locked up, get molested by their same people they tried to cross the border with, and its OUR fault? How about you stay home where you KNOW you won't get molested


Disgusting, violating human rights, such corruption because the supervisors of these rapist turn a blind eye. Sexual assault isn't consensual, what kind of twisted logic is that? The government condones raping undocumented people? women and children? WTF? Where is the UN? anyone to hold the US government accountable?


Should they have brought this to federal court?


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