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Immigrants in Detention: Forgotten Victims of Prison Rape

Georgeanne M. Usova,
Former Senior Legislative Counsel
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July 13, 2011

Imagine you are arrested — not for committing a crime, but because of your immigration status. You are then taken to an unfamiliar location and locked up in a detention center, far away from your family and friends, to await complicated, confusing, and potentially very lengthy and confusing deportation proceedings. Most of your interactions are in English, your second (or perhaps even fourth) language. You don’t have any legal representation to explain what your rights are or how to apply for relief you may be eligible to receive. And in the midst of this stressful time, you are sexually assaulted by a guard — the very person assigned to protect you from harm. What would you do? Would you tell someone, or stay silent for fear that speaking up might increase your chances of deportation or further abuse? If you decided to come forward, whom would you tell, or trust?

For Tanya, a transgender woman detained at the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona, this nightmare was a reality. Tanya was intimidated, harassed, and humiliated because of her gender identity during her stay at Eloy — by detainees and staff alike. She was placed in housing with men, where a cellmate threatened her and attempted to force her to perform sexual acts. In a separate incident, a supervisor at the facility sexually assaulted her. Each time Tanya reported the harassment and abuse, she was punished by being placed in “protective custody,” or isolation. Rather than protect her, guards used the threat of isolation to intimidate her. While Tanya has since been released, she still suffers from the emotional pain she endured while at Eloy.

Tanya’s story is common among the extremely vulnerable population in civil immigration detention. For them, detention means not only the possibility of deportation, loss of liberty, and separation from family, but also an increased chance of falling victim to sexual abuse. And in most cases, they have nowhere to turn.

Since January 2007, there have been 125 complaints of sexual abuse in immigration detention, and it is extremely likely that many more incidents have gone unreported. Fear of reprisal, lack of legal representation, and language and cultural barriers all make immigrants in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody less inclined to report abuse, and therefore allowing perpetrators to act with impunity.

Abuse uncovered at the T. Don Hutto Detention Center in Taylor, Texas, is a shocking example of how widespread crimes go unnoticed and unresolved. The incidents took place at a facility ICE promotes as a model of its detention reforms. At Hutto, a resident supervisor molested detainees as he was transporting them to the airport after they were released on bond. Not only did ICE fail to prevent these abuses from occurring, but the agency was also uncooperative with non-governmental organizations in identifying all victims after the abuse came to light. Despite this, the Hutto supervisor was convicted in state court last year on charges involving five immigrant women victims, sentenced to one year imprisonment, and has now been indicted on federal charges concerning four more female victims. But ICE’s lack of transparency and unwillingness to take action to prevent such abuse demonstrates the need for strong, effective standards to protect those in immigration detention.

Disappointingly, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has proposed a rule that explicitly excludes immigration detention facilities from coverage under the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). Congress enacted PREA to protect all persons in custody by setting standards for preventing, detecting, and responding to sexual abuse. But without PREA’s protection, immigrants in detention remain vulnerable to abuse. For a population at such high risk of sexual abuse, this is unacceptable.

The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing this morning on the Violence Against Women Act, which is due for reauthorization this year. This reauthorization is an opportunity to finally ensure that immigration detainees receive the same protection as other prisoners by clarifying that PREA applies to them too.

If your senator serves on the Judiciary Committee, please contact his or her office today to support a legislative solution that applies PREA to all detainees, including those in immigration detention. Call 202-225-3121 and ask for your senator’s office.

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