Immigrants in Custody Should be Protected from Sexual Assault

When reports surfaced last year that a guard at the T. Don Hutto Detention Center in Texas had sexually assaulted several detainees there, advocates familiar with the US’s immigration detention system were saddened, but not surprised. There has been a steady stream of news reports over the past several years of similar assaults on immigrants in custody:

  • In May 2007, a guard at the same facility was accused of sexual assault.
  • In December 2008, the public learned of reported sexual assaults by guards against detainees at Pearsall Detention Center, also in Texas.
  • In September 2009, a former guard at the Port Isabel facility in Texas admitted to forcing detainees to strip in isolation cells so he could molest them.

Despite clear evidence of a pattern of sexual abuse in immigration detention facilities, the Department of Justice’s recently proposed regulations to implement the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 (PREA) exempts all immigration detention facilities from their reach.

This conscious omission is particularly troubling when considering that immigrant detainees are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse. Many detainees are survivors of persecution who have come to the US from countries in which reporting state-sanctioned or even private domestic abuse only results in further persecution and danger. Unlike criminal detainees, immigrants do not have government-provided attorneys to advocate for them. Language and cultural barriers further imperil immigrants in detention, and make it extremely difficult to resist or report sexual assaults.

By turning a seemingly blind eye to this population, the Department of Justice is ignoring its obligations under international human rights treaties.

The International Covenant on Civil andPolitical Rights, which the US has signed and ratified, requires us to ensurethat people deprived of liberty are treated with humanity and respect for theirinherent dignity. Failure to prevent sexual assault in detention also amountsto a violation of our responsibility as a signatory of the Convention AgainstTorture.

It does not take an international agreement, however, to know that sexual assault is a grave abuse of human rights, whether it occurs abroad or on our own shores. In fact, we welcome as refugees thousands of sexual assault survivors from around the world each year to protect them from additional abuse. It is inconsistent and unconscionable for the US to act decisively to prevent rape and sexual assault abroad and in our own criminal detention facilities, but to ignore similar abuse occurring in our own immigration detention centers.

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