“Who’s Going to Believe You?” The Underreporting of Sexual Abuse in Immigration Detention

“We are afraid… each time one of us is interviewed by investigating officers. [S]ome of the women who have given statements have either been transferred or deported…”

          Letters to then-Attorney General Janet Reno from women detainees at the Krome Immigration Center in Miami, Florida.

Due to the relatively closed nature of the system, there is very little publicly available data detailing the extent of sexual abuse in immigration detention centers.  However, recently uncovered documents reveal nearly 200 official complaints of sexual abuse in detention facilities since 2007. This number is probably just the tip of the iceberg given that sexual abuse is one of the most underreported crimes in the US.

Immigration detainees often lack information regarding their rights, the rules governing staff conduct, and the procedures for filing grievances. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the government agency in charge of immigration enforcement and detention, maintains that it has a zero-tolerance policy against sexual abuse. On paper, ICE has recognized that “forceful and pressured interactions are among the most serious threats to detainee safety and facility security and good order.” Still, more needs to be done to improve the system.

Mechanisms must be created for detainees to safely report abuse without fear of retaliation. Immigration detainees are understandably reluctant to speak out against the very authority that is conducting their deportation proceedings. They fear they won’t be believed, and that as a consequence, the government will retaliate against them by deporting them. ICE’s Performance Based Detention Standards dictate that detainees cannot be harassed or punished for filing a grievance and cannot be deported or threatened with deportation for reporting sexual abuse. However, these standards lack the force of law. Without a legally-binding guarantee of the prohibition on retaliation, it’s easy to understand why immigration detainees are reluctant to come forward to report sexual abuse.

Transparency and public scrutiny are necessary to ensure that detention facilities are complying with ICE’s anti-retaliation standards. Without such oversight and accountability, sexual abuse in immigration detention will continue to fly under the radar and many crimes will go unreported and unnoticed.

Get Updates from PHR