Women Detainees Sexually Abused as ICE Polices Itself

Sexual abuse cases at a Texas detention facility reveals ICE's failures to protect women.

By Michelle Chen Aug 25, 2010

For some of the women at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, the indignity of immigrant detention became a full-blown nightmare when Donald Charles Dunn got his way, according to criminal charges recently filed in Texas. The ACLU reports that Dunn, an employee of the infamous Corrections Corporation of America, "is accused of abusing the detainees as he was transporting them to the airport after they had been released on bond." An announcement from the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office reveals more disturbing details:

Three women that were interviewed told detectives that they were inappropriately touched outside of their clothing on their breast, vaginal or buttocks areas. Two of the three victims said they were unlawfully restrained. The two charges of unlawful restraint occurred when Mr. Dunn took the victims to the above location against their will. One victim told officers she thought she would be either "killed or violated."

The allegations are particularly striking in light of the fact that Hutto underwent a major face-lift when it transitioned from a notoriously cruel "family" facility to a women-only institution. In a letter sent to Homeland Security in June, the ACLU argued:

The ICE Assistant Secretary had long made clear that ICE has a "zero tolerance" policy for sexual abuse. Hutto had been refurbished in recent years (pursuant to litigation brought against Hutto when it was used to detain families with children) and ICE had assigned a Detention Services Manager to Hutto to ensure oversight of daily operations. This raises a troubling question: if sexual abuse of detainees could take place under these ideal circumstances, how then is the detention system today functioning any more securely or humanely than it did under the previous administration? The ICE failure at Hutto ultimately points to a fundamental flaw in ICE’s detention system – ICE cannot regulate itself.

The letter also listed other sexual abuse cases in the detention system. Last September, for instance, "a former guard at the Port Isabel detention center in Texas admitted to forcing female detainees to strip in isolation cells so he could molest them." Dunn now resides on the other side of law enforcement, facing counts of official oppression and unlawful restraint. But that’s hardly comforting to the women who harbor stories of exploitation that may never see the light of day. According to the Sherriff’s press release, "Several women who were interviewed denied any contact with Mr. Dunn," and "Several women could not be located for questioning because of out of date addresses with Immigration and Customs Enforcement." We’ll never know how many survivors were too terrified to come forward. As for the missing women, even if authorities located them, what incentive would they have to cooperate with the same criminal justice system that flagrantly exposed them to sexual coercion? The detention system may well have released many victims of sexual abuse over the years, either deporting them or returning them to their communities in America to live again as second-class citizens. Whatever their fate, they’re forced to live in silence with the trauma, knowing that whatever they say, they’ll always been seen as criminals, not survivors.