Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees, North America

Female Migrants Charge Sexual Abuse in Detention

William Fisher

NEW YORK, Jun 7 2010 (IPS) - In the wake of allegations that a male guard at a central Texas detention facility sexually assaulted female detainees on their way to being deported, immigrant advocacy groups say stronger oversight and accountability is urgently needed to prevent further abuse of female detainees.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), said last week that the guard has been fired. It added that Corrections Corporation of America, the private prison company that manages the Hutto facility, has been placed on probation pending the investigation’s outcome. The consequences of probation were not immediately clear.

ICE said that several women who were held at Hutto facility in Taylor, Texas, were groped while being patted down and at least one was propositioned for sex.

“We understand that this employee was able to commit these alleged crimes because ICE-mandated transport policies and procedures were not followed,” David Sanders, DHS’s contracting officer, said in a letter to Corrections Corporation of America obtained by The Associated Press.

ICE has ordered Corrections Corporation of America to take corrective actions. Among them is forbidding male guards from being alone with female detainees.

“Hutto is not an isolated incident,” Jacki Esposito of Detention Watch Network, a coalition of organisations that monitors ICE treatment of detainees, told IPS. “Allegations of sexual assault have plagued other facilities where immigrants are being held by the federal government.”

“The latest story of abuse in the U.S. immigration detention system highlights yet again the fact that the immigration detention system is in need of serious repair,” she said. “This scandal is only the latest to come to light in a detention system that has been plagued by abuse, negligence, and even deaths. Stronger oversight and accountability within DHS and from Congress is urgently needed.”

Her view was echoed by Brittney Nystrom, director of policy and legal affairs at the National Immigration Forum (NIF) a non-partisan, non-profit pro-immigrant advocacy organisation in Washington.

She told IPS, “The most disturbing thing about these charges is that involve a facility that’s supposed to be the shining star of ICE’s detention policy. Instead it turns out to be an example of poor oversight and bad management.”

Ali Noorani, NIF’s executive director, said, “News of fresh abuses at this facility is deeply disturbing… The innocent victims of this guard’s abuse are yet further evidence that ICE is warehousing hundreds of thousands of detained immigrants in a poorly managed system that cannot keep them safe.”

The Hutto facility formerly held families, including children, in a setting that critics have labeled totally inappropriate for such a purpose, and attracted both litigation and protesters. Last year, it was converted to a facility for female detainees, conditions were modified, and it was lauded by ICE as a model facility.

“The problem stems from several factors,” Noorani said. “Most importantly, the agency’s enforcement of hopelessly outdated immigration laws funnels many thousands of non- criminal immigration violators into a network of jails designed to serve the criminal justice system. There are so many immigration detainees that ICE must contract the work to companies that run penal institutions, and there is too little oversight of those contracts and personnel.”

“This is not the first scandal arising from the way DHS enforces the immigration law, and it will not be the last,” he added. “DHS must step up its efforts to create a system where abuse and death are rare, and when they do occur the persons responsible are promptly held accountable. Congress must do its part to both monitor the agency and reform the laws that DHS is obligated to enforce.”

In March, ICE took what a coalition of immigrant advocacy groups generally hailed as “important steps to address immigration detention conditions that are currently a national embarrassment”.

“The network of for-profit and government-run facilities that detain deportees needs to be tightly scrutinised and this is a tremendously positive step in that direction,” they said in a statement. “The Hutto facility alone has stood out as a worst-case example – among many other egregious sites – and we are pleased that press attention, lawsuits, and public outcry have sparked definitive action.”

The groups concluded that the “single most important thing we can do with regard to immigrant detention is to reduce the need for its use for millions of non-criminals, families, and workers in the first place”.

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