In recent weeks, the media has been abuzz with the allegations of sexual assault by Jerry Sandusky, Penn State’s former assistant football coach. Onlookers have reacted with appropriate disgust — including our president, who called the case “heartbreaking.” President Obama pointed out that what matters most is not the institution, but our immediate need to protect the vulnerable children directly impacted by Sandusky’s alleged actions. As this piece from New America Media smartly points out, there’s another highly vulnerable population being tormented by incidents of alleged sexual assault across the country, one that the administration has thus far failed to protect: detainees in custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) was enacted to protect every individual in government custody, including immigrants, from sexual abuse and assault. Unfortunately, earlier this year the Department of Justice introduced a proposed rule that would exclude ICE facilities from the protections of PREA. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano has responded to arguments against this exclusion by claiming ICE’s “zero-tolerance policy” for sexual assault leaves no need for oversight of any kind. Documents obtained by the ACLU through the Freedom of Information Act — depicted in this interactive map — make it clear that Napolitano has a wildly misguided and unacceptable idea what “zero-tolerance” really means. And it’s worth noting that rape and sexual assault are widely unreported, meaning our numbers likely represent just the tip of the iceberg.
Interestingly, the president’s commentary on our need to “protect” not the institution but the “vulnerable” victims are synonymous if not identical to the language we use when discussing the horrific incidents of assault occurring in immigration detention centers across the country. The parallels in the defense of these victims exist for a reason: no one should have to suffer through the experience of sexual assault or abuse — not children and not immigrants in government custody. Both of these populations are uniquely vulnerable, and both need protection.
President Obama was quick to defend the children impacted by the incidents at Penn State — and rightly so. As he pointed out, “What happened at Penn State indicates that at a certain point, folks start thinking about systems and institutions, and don’t think about individuals.” Well, Mr. President, we couldn’t have said it better ourselves. We cannot permit our desire to maintain a nationwide system of immigration detention to overshadow the vast number of individuals impacted by rape and sexual assault in that system, right under our administration’s nose, in their own facilities and often at the hands of their employees. Luckily, our administration has an opportunity to ensure that PREA applies to all detainees in custody of ICE facilities. Let’s hope President Obama can see how his own Penn State rhetoric applies to the hundreds of other alleged victims he has a chance to protect.