Advocates Accuse ICE Officials of Systematic Sexual Assault of Detainees

By Shani Saxon Aug 18, 2020

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention continues to be a dangerous environment for detainees. According to a complaint filed by a Texas advocacy group, guards in one El Paso, Texas, detention center have reportedly been sexually assaulting and harassing immigrants in a "pattern and practice" of abuse, The Texas Tribune in collaboration with ProPublica reports. The group is calling for the local district attorney and federal prosecutors to launch a criminal investigation into the matter. 

Reports The Tribune:

The allegations, detailed in a filing first obtained by ProPublica and The Texas Tribune, maintain that guards systematically assaulted at least three people in a facility overseen by Immigration and Customs Enforcement—often in areas of the detention center not visible to security cameras. The guards told victims that no one would believe them because footage did not exist and the harassment involved officers as high-ranking as a lieutenant.

The complaint, which was filed with the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of Inspector General and sent to prosecutors, multiple guards “forcibly” kissed and groped one woman. That victim’s attorneys are asking for a delay in the woman’s deportation pending an investigation into the claims, according to The Tribune. 

In a phone interview with The Tribune, the woman said she would rather go back to Mexico, where she is also in danger. She fears being targeted for speaking out about the abuse she suffered at the hands of ICE officials. “It’s going to get worse now,” she said. “I can’t handle this anymore.”

According to The Tribune:

Since the complaint was filed Wednesday [August 12], two more women, including one who is currently detained in the El Paso facility and one who was previously held there, have come forward with abuse allegations. At least one other woman was deported after a guard assaulted her, detainees told lawyers.

An El Paso County District Attorney’s Office spokesperson said that the agency had forwarded “potentially criminal allegations” to the DHS’ Office of Inspector General, which did not respond to emails seeking comment. A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas said that it had received the complaint and takes allegations of “misconduct by public officials extremely seriously.”

In an email sent to The Tribune, a representative for ICE said the agency has “zero tolerance for any form of sexual abuse or assault against individuals in the agency’s custody and takes very seriously all allegations of employee misconduct. When substantiated, appropriate action is taken.”

ICE currently detains 50,000 immigrants across the country each year, The Tribune reports. According to Time, at least 120 of those in ICE detention are children, even though a court ordered them released by July 27 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As Colorlines previously reported, “The ruling by Judge Dolly M. Gee of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California states that migrant children must be freed either along with their parents or to “available suitable sponsors or other available COVID-free non-congregate settings.”

As Time reports, despite having a month to plan for the release of the children, and also despite parameters set by the Flores Settlement Agreement, a court ruling that requires immigrant children to be released after 20 days in detention, “at one Texas facility alone, 47 kids have been detained for longer than 300 days.” 

Reports Time:

…“It seems a month has been squandered not doing much of anything,” Gee said at an Aug. 7 hearing, according to Law360. At the hearing, both parities—ICE and the lawyers representing the children—explained to Gee that they had not yet reached an agreement as to how to safely and humanely remove children from custody.

As of Monday [August 17], 73 immigrants detained at the Karnes County Family Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas, have tested positive for COVID-19, and three have been confirmed at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, according to ICE data. The third family detention center, located in Leesport, Pa., has not confirmed any cases of COVID-19. 

As Colorlines reported on July 15, detained immigrant parents will likely be forced to make an impossible decision. According to Time, “The parents will likely end up having to decide whether to sign away their children’s legal right to be released under Flores or release the children to sponsors, a situation lawyers and advocates call family separation 2.0.”  

Time reports negotiations have been long and complicated:

Back at the negotiating table, ICE attorneys and those representing children were working towards an agreement, developing protocol to meet Judge Gee’s order. But negotiations fell through. The parties could not agree on a plan that would separate parents from children, and some of the attorneys for the children argued that under the circumstances—COVID-19 and prolonged detention—it was impossible for a parent to provide consent that is not coerced.

…Not having a protocol is not a good enough reason not to carry out a court order, in other words, according to Gee, because ICE has always had the option to release parents together with their children.

By the end of the Aug. 7 hearing, Judge Gee asked the lawyers representing the children to submit proposals for possible solutions. Gee was critical that the attorneys had not yet gone around ICE to inform their clients that parents could already choose to release their children if that was their choice. “I’ve never in my years of practice…heard of an attorney who was unwilling to let a client know what their rights or options are, even if they don’t like them,” Gee said.