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Justice for All Victims of Sexual Assault

By taking strong and decisive action to protect against sexual abuse in the Peace Corps, the Obama Administration signaled a commitment to protecting all people against sexual assault.
Georgeanne M. Usova,
Former Senior Legislative Counsel
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December 2, 2011

Last week, President Obama signed a bill named in honor of Kate Puzey, a 24-year-old Peace Corps volunteer who was murdered while serving in West Africa. The Kate Puzey Peace Corps Protection Act will, among other things, ensure that volunteers are protected against sexual assault while serving abroad. It will also require the Peace Corps to hire victims’ advocates and improve volunteer training to reduce the risk of sexual assault.

By taking strong and decisive action to protect against sexual abuse in the Peace Corps, the Obama Administration signaled a commitment to protecting all people against sexual assault. In the same spirit, it should now extend that protection to immigration detainees by making clear that the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) applies to those in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody.

PREA was unanimously passed in 2003 to set standards for preventing, detecting and responding to sexual abuse in prisons, and it broadly defined “prison” to mean “any confinement facility of a Federal, State, or local government, whether administered by such government or by a private organization on behalf of such government.” Despite Congress’ clear intent to protect every person in government custody, the Department of Justice (DOJ) this year proposed a rule that would explicitly exclude immigration detention facilities from PREA coverage. A final DOJ rule on PREA is expected imminently, and the Obama administration must guarantee that the rule provides immigration detainees with the same protections afforded all other people in government custody.

Government documents recently obtained by ACLU through the Freedom of Information Act reveal that the sexual abuse of immigration detainees is a widespread systemic problem and that allegations of assault and abuse have been lodged at detention facilities from coast to coast. In October, the ACLU of Texas filed a lawsuit on behalf of three immigrant women who were assaulted by a male guard while being transported from the T. Don Hutto Detention Facility in Texas. All three had come to the United States to escape violence in their home countries, but instead experienced sexual assault by an employee of the very government from which they sought protection. Though a policy prohibiting opposite sex solo transport of detainees was in place, no one ever noticed that it was consistently violated in practice, displaying a stunning lack of oversight at the facility.

Countless more abuses have doubtless gone unreported, as detainees face serious obstacles to reporting crimes against them. Because they are civil, not criminal, detainees, they have no right to an attorney to help them navigate the difficult process of reporting abuse and seeking legal recourse. Many fear that they will be deported in retaliation for speaking out.

Kate Puzey’s tragic story highlights exactly why it is so crucial to put protections in place for populations that are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse and have few outlets available for seeking help. Immigration detainees are one such vulnerable population that remains woefully unprotected, and the Obama administration has an opportunity to change that.

A final DOJ rule on PREA is expected in early 2012, and the Administration must make it very clear that all people in government custody, including immigration detainees, deserve to be safe from rape and sexual abuse.

Join us in calling on President Obama and Attorney General Holder to ensure the protection of immigration detainees under the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003.

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