Immigration Advocates: Immigrant Detainees Must Be Included in the #MeToo Conversation

By Alfonso Serrano Jan 09, 2018

Amid reports of thousands of cases of sexual abuse at immigrant detention facilities, and an FBI investigation into sexual assault allegations from a woman held at a Texas detention center, immigrant advocates on Monday said they hope the national #MeToo conversation will include abuse cases at several of the 200 facilities in the United States.

Christina Fialho, co-director of Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement, or CIVIC, told The Associated Press she sees promising signs that sexual assault cases filed by immigrants of undocumented status are beginning to be heard. "Our immigrant prison system thrives on secrecy," she said in an article published yesterday (January 8). "If more people knew what was truly happening behind locked doors, I think there would be an outcry against the immigrant detention system."

Fialho pointed to a FBI civil rights investigation into alleged assault at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Texas as a positive step. In that case, an El Salvadoran immigrant alleges that a guard repeatedly touched her body without consent.  

In April, CIVIC filed a federal complaint with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) underlining the prevalence of sexual abuse cases at U.S. detention facilities. It did so after filing a Freedom of Information Act request for data from the DHS Office of the Inspector General (OIG), which found that DHS received more than 33,000 sexual and physical abuse complaints from detention centers from January 2010 to July 2016.

CIVIC also found that OIG received over 1,000 reports of sexual abuse or assault by immigrant detainees between May 2014 and July 2016. Outside the cases of reported sexual abuse, DHS also received 402 complaints of “coerced sexual contact,” according to CIVIC.

In a statement issued alongside the filing of the complaint, Fialho called for top-down change:

If the Trump administration is serious about "sexual assault awareness and prevention," then he can start by adhering to a zero tolerance policy for sexual abuse in immigration detention. If DHS is either unable or unwilling to ensure that zero sexual abuses occur in immigration detention, then Congress should defund immigration detention and close all facilities.

At the time, DHS downplayed CIVIC’s complaint as “inaccurate” in a statement to NBC News. From Gillian Christensen, a DHS spokesperson:

During the six-year time frame covered by this report, ICE, for instance, recorded more than two million admissions to its detention facilities nationwide. While ICE’s goal is to prevent all sexual abuse among its custody population, given the volume of individuals who annually pass through its detention system, the agency believes the overall incidence of such activity is very low.

Prompted by CIVIC’s federal complaint, 71 members of Congress wrote John Kelly, acting inspector general of DHS, in December and chastised the federal agency for failing to investigate thousands of cases of alleged abuse. The letter, which called on DHS to immediately investigate abuse claims, included the following:

We write to express our deep concerns about the prevalence of reports of sexual abuse, assault and harassment in U.S. immigration detention facilities, the lack of adequate government investigation into these reports, and the government’s refusal to disclose relevant records, as outlined in Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC)’s April 11th multi-individual civil rights complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL).

The letter noted that of the 33,126 abuse claims filed between January 2010 and July 2016, DHS opened investigations into only 225, or 0.07 percent, of the cases.

As the American Civil Liberties Union and other human rights groups have noted, sexual abuse claims at detention centers are not limited to a handful of rogue facilities, and the actual amount of abuse cases is likely much higher than data suggests given that sexual assault is often underreported due to fears of retaliation.