Democrats Call for Probe of Sexual Assaults, Harassment Claims by Immigrants in Detention

Immigrant detainees help a sheriff's deputy carry items to a truck outside the Yuba County Jail. (Lisa Pickoff-White/KQED)

Updated Monday, 3:15 p.m.

More than 70 members of Congress signed a letter Monday urging the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to investigate “the prevalence of reports of sexual abuse, assault and harassment of immigrants in U.S. immigration detention."

“These are immigrants who are undergoing asylum requests or deportation hearings, and they are put completely at the mercy of others who are sometimes abusing in unscrupulous ways,” said Los Angeles area congresswoman Judy Chu, a Democrat.

Chu co-wrote the letter with Arizona Democratic congressman Raul Grijalva. They're calling for the creation of a special committee in the U.S. Department of Justice to look for a “pattern or practice” of sexual assault in detention facilities that hold immigrants facing deportation.

Thirteen other Democratic representatives from California signed the letter.

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The letter cites data obtained by advocates for immigrants who filed a federal complaint in April with the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. There were 1,016 detainee reports of sexual abuse or assault between May 2014 and July 2016, according to data from the DHS Office of Inspector General. The office investigated just 24, about 2 percent of those allegations.

The advocacy group Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC) obtained the data through the Freedom of Information Act. The nonprofits' analysis found that the DHS investigated less than 1 percent of sexual and physical abuse cases between 2010 and 2016.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Jennifer Elzea responded to the congressional letter Monday in a written statement,  saying, "The agency has zero tolerance for sexual abuse and assault and takes every allegation seriously."

Elzea asserted that ICE provided "strong protections against sexual abuse and assault of individuals in our custody, including with respect to screening, staff training, detainee education, medical and mental health care, reporting, investigation, and oversight. "

In 2014, ICE established new regulations around detention abuse that included mandatory sexual assault training for all staff.

Elzea also emphasized that ICE facilities are inspected and audited annually, "with safeguards against sexual assault as a primary focus."

"Homeland Security has established a zero tolerance policy for sexual assault," acknowledged Christina Fialho, an attorney and the executive director of CIVIC, "but this policy is not properly enforced."

Fialho said that, as far as she knew, "nothing has been done to curb sexual abuse at ICE facilities since we filed our civil rights complaint in April."

CIVIC also analyzed data ICE collected on immigrant calls to a detention reporting hotline.

From October 2012 to March 2016, the greatest number of calls on sexual and/or physical abuse were incidents that occurred at five privately run facilities, including the Adelanto Correctional Facility in San Bernardino County and the San Diego Contract Facility near the U.S.-Mexico border.

The California facilities are run by the GEO Group and CoreCivic respectively.

Read the letter:

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