Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Immigrant Detainees Especially Vulnerable to Sexual Abuse

A new report on sexual abuse in the prison system commissioned by Congress through the unanimous passage of the Rape Elimination Act of 2003 finds that immigrant detainees -- men, women, and children -- are especially vulnerable to sexual assault and need extra protections.

In one particularly disturbing example, the Commission report found that the Krome detention center in Miami has a record of over 20 years of abuse perpetrated by immigration officials, ranging from sexual harassment and fondling during searches to molestation and rape. Women who reported rape were denied gynecological exams or other treatment, in line with a standard lack of health care in detention; two actually became pregnant by immigration officers. Yet there has been little accountability, and in 2008, the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center was still reporting cases of sexual assault.

The report finds that "officers who are included to abuse their authority have an astounding degree of leverage, especially when detainees are not well-informed of their rights and lack access to legal counsel." As I posted on the Women's Right blog last week, immigration officials have been found to force sexual favors from detained women through the threat of immediate deportation, being held in isolation, or getting transferred to another facility. When there are entire families in detention, officials will threaten to separate them, so abused parents will keep silent in fear of having their children taken away in retaliation.

The Supreme Court has ruled, "Sexual abuse is 'not part of the penalty that criminal offenders pay for their offenses against society" -- and the vast majority of immigrant detainees don't even have criminal records. Though they become de facto prisoners, detention is not legally a punishment: it's merely a holding center for suspected undocumented immigrants, who face a wait of usually at least a year as their case proceeds through immigration courts. Some may be innocent of even an administrative violation of immigration law, and are waiting to prove this and be released.

One-tenth of detainees are petitioning for asylum, often after fleeing the likelihood of death in their country of origin; many suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) due to the violence they've seen or torture they themselves were subject to. This trauma makes them easier targets for abuse as they are less likely to be able to cope and try to protect themselves. There are also detained children, many survivors of human trafficking, who unfortunately the system treats as criminal offenders rather than victims. Youth's reports of being molested or sexually assaulted have been ignored by guards.

Detainees' vulnerability is further increased when they cannot communicate, a problem faced by, for instance, Vietnamese-speaking detainees in Texas jails. Cultural differences can deter detainees from reporting sexual assault, since victims can be viewed as the ones "shaming" themselves and their family. In addition, many detainees simply don't know they can report sexual assault, or who to report it to, especially when they are being victimized and intimidated by staff. Yet these victims may actually be eligible for a special "U-visa," which allows abuse victims to remain in the United States legally.

The Commission report makes a number of recommendations for standards to protect immigrant detainees, including improved access to medical and mental health care; screenings to identify detainees at high risk for abuse and to remove the few who do have criminal records from the general population; better avenues for reporting, investigating, and punishing sexual abuse; protections for abuse victims and witnesses; and education of detainees about their rights.

The recommendations are now open for public comment: please sign this petition to send a letter to the Attorney General urging him to take steps to stop sexual abuse of prisoners and detainees

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