U.S. government overlooks thousands of sex assaults in immigration jails: Activists

By Nelson A. King

A civil rights complaint against the U.S.federal government claims that thousands of reports of sexual assaults in immigration detention are yet to be investigated.

According to a new report by Fusion, a multi-platform American company owned by Univision Communication, out of 33,126 complaints of sexual and physical abuse in immigration detention, only 570 cases have been investigated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG), the agency’s oversight arm.

The complaint filed by the immigrant rights group, Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC), includes reports of sexual and physical assaults during medical examinations, strip searches and rapes in detention allegedly perpetrated by guards and other detainees, Fusion said, stating that the complaints reviewed were filed between January 2010 and July 2016.

“There has been no formal complaint filed with this clear and massive amount of data,” until now,” Fusion quoted advocates as saying.

The reports of abuse were made at several DHS agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs & Border Protection, Transportation Security Administration, and the Coast Guard, Fusion said.

In an overwhelming majority of cases, it said CIVIC found that the Office of the Inspector General sent cases back to the accused agency with no request that they follow up with OIG.

The complaint filed by the rights group recommends that the U.S. Congress mandate that DHS start publishing information on all reported complaints of sexual abuse in their facilities — and the investigation outcomes — on a quarterly basis, Fusion said.

The advocates’ complaints found that the top five facilities with the most sexual assault complaints are all privately-run immigration detention facilities.

Fusion said about 44.4 percent of the reports (or 14,693 of the total number of complaints) were made against Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to the complaint, which relied on data obtained from the Office of the Inspector Generation through Freedom of Information Act and state public record requests made by CIVIC. Customs and Border Protection had 10,295 reports, or 31.1 percent of the total, according to the complaint.

“The statistics included in the complaint are especially alarming given that President Donald Trump has proposed quickly hiring 5,000 more Border Patrol agents and 10,000 more ICE officers, and expanding immigration detention to help enforce his executive orders,” Fusion said.

“Advocates fear the hiring spree could lead to less thorough background checks and training for staffers, which could make matters worse,” it added.

Currently, the average daily population in Immigration and Customs Enforcement is just over 40,000 detainees, according to the agency.

A leaked internal Department of Homeland Security document obtained by The Washington Post this week said that the agency has allegedly identified an additional 33,000 detention beds it can use to detain undocumented Caribbean and other immigrants, Fusion said.

It said the documents also showed the agency is considering ending polygraph and physical fitness tests to speed up the hiring process for Border Patrol agents.

“What we have learned from this federal data and from interviews with people in detention is that many of these sexual assaults are being perpetrated by ICE officers, contracted facility guards, and even medical professionals,” Christina Fialho, an attorney and the co-executive director of CIVIC told Fusion.

Acting Department of Homeland Security press secretary Gillian Christensen told Fusion the agency’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties will review the complaint but said the statistics included in the report are not accurate.

“Unfortunately, the report just released by [CIVIC] regarding purported sexual abuse and sexual harassment at ICE and CBP facilities is grossly inaccurate,” She said in a statement. “While ICE’s goal is to prevent all sexual abuse among its custody population, given the volume of individuals who annually pass through its detention system, the agency believes the overall incidence of such activity is very low.”

But Fialho is standing by the data collected by CIVIC, and said the numbers could be even higher because sexual assaults are underreported.

“If DHS is going to say that our statistics are inaccurate, then the agency needs to provide data to back up this baseless statement,” said Fialho, who noted ICE did not comply to CIVIC’s Freedom of Information Act request for statistics on sexual assault complaints.

More from Around NYC