Blog of Rights

New York Times Highlights Urgent Need to Protect Immigration Detainees from Sexual Abuse

By Will Matthews, ACLU of Northern California at 2:57pm

The New York Times in an editorial this morning highlights what increasingly is a poorly kept secret but which is no less disturbing nonetheless: the hundreds of thousands of immigration detainees caught in the far-reaching web of the nation’s punitive and inhumane immigration detention system are at grave risk of being sexually assaulted and abused.

It is critical the Obama administration ensures that the bipartisan Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), unanimously passed in 2003 to set standards for preventing, detecting and responding to sexual abuse in prisons, applies to immigration detention facilities. The Department of Justice (DOJ) earlier this year proposed a rule that would explicitly exclude immigration detention centers, despite Congress’ clear intent that it should in fact cover immigration detainees. The Obama administration must not allow that proposed rule to stand, and we urge you to join us in calling on President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder to make sure that immigration detainees, the vast majority of whom are being held on civil and not criminal charges, be protected under the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003.  On Wednesday at 3 p.m. Congressmen Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Frank Wolf (R-Va.) are hosting a Hill Briefing on DOJ’s proposed rule implementing PREA.

Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), has gone on record touting what she says is her agency’s “zero tolerance” policy when it comes to the sexual abuse of immigration detainees. But as documents obtained by the ACLU through the Freedom of Information Act show, whatever DHS is doing to combat this deeply disturbing problem is not nearly enough. According to the documents, some of which came from DHS’ own Office of the Inspector General, the sexual abuse of immigration detainees is a widespread systemic problem with allegations of assault and abuse being lodged at detention facilities from coast to coast. It is more than clear that this is a problem that is not limited to one rogue facility or merely the result of a handful of bad apple government contractors who staff some of the nation’s immigration detention centers. Indeed, despite the fact that the data in the documents surely represents just the very tip of the iceberg – sexual abuse is a widely underreported problem – the documents crystallize the urgent need for the government to admit just how pervasive a problem sexual abuse is in its immigration jails and take immediate steps to ensure that all detainees are protected.

It is imperative that uniform protections, developed by a unanimous Congress and informed by the expertise of the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, are in place to further the elimination of sexual abuse and assault in immigration detention. The current patchwork of unenforceable DHS standards is just not enough. Those standards fail to mandate that facilities allow for multiple routes to report sexual abuse; they lack sufficient provisions for confidential reporting and protection from retaliation; they lack requirements for proper criminal investigations of assaults and specialized post-assault training for investigators and medical staff; and they ignore the abusive use of administrative segregation in response to incidents of sexual abuse.

Join us in demanding that all immigration detainees be protected under the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

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