In Detention Centers, 97 Percent of Rape Accusations Met by Silence, Report Says

A complaint issued by CIVIC charges that the DHS Office of Inspector General failed to investigate more than 97 percent of reports of sexual abuse from people in immigration detention over a two-year period.

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Apr 24 2017, 4:11pm

Photo by Ilana Panich-Linsman via Getty Images

Douglas Menjivar says the first time he was raped in 2013, he didn't report the assault. His alleged attacker, a fellow immigrant detained in a detention center near Houston, Texas, threatened to kill his family in El Salvador if he told anyone, he says.

The second time, Menjivar says he was attacked in the shower. While trying to flee, he fell on the tiles, banging his head. He slipped into unconsciousness for "some number of hours." He needed medical help for his head wound, so he reported the rape to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent. Instead of providing help, Menjivar says the ICE officer blamed him for the sexual assault.

"He said, 'You're the stupidest of the stupid'," Menjivar told Broadly.

The ICE agent didn't report the assault nor did he get Menjivar medical or mental health care, according to Menjivar. A few months later, he transferred to another facility, where Menjivar reported the rape to a doctor. Soon after, he was put in solitary confinement in "retaliation" for speaking up, he says. While in solitary, the 41-year-old Houston resident tried to kill himself three times. When he requested help from the guards, Menjivar says they told him not to "bother us."

Read more: California Jail Accused of Permitting Sexual Abuse Against Inmates 'for Years'

Advocates say the abuse, apathy, and lack of accountability described in Menjivar's case is indicative of a larger, more pervasive pattern seen in immigration detention centers; detainees are often physically, sexually, and emotionally abused by peers or authority figures, and have little support or recourse to pursue justice. And the governing bodies do little to investigate the assaults happening behind bars, despite a legal obligation to meet federal regulations, they say.

In a complaint filed last Tuesday, the Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC) charges that the DHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) failed to investigate more than 97 percent of reports of sexual abuse from people in immigration detention over a two-year period. CIVIC lodged the complaint with the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties on behalf of Menjivar and 26 other alleged sexual assault victims, who were or are currently detained.

"The majority of the cases that are being so-called investigated may likely be labeled 'unfounded' or 'closed,'" said Christina Fialho, co-founder and executive of CIVIC, a California-based national immigration detention visitation network. "But the real problem is that they're not investigating the complaints."

Between May 2014 and July 2016, the DHS Office of Inspector General received 1,016 complaints of sexual abuse filed by people in detention, according to data obtained by CIVIC through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. That means that, on average, more than one sexual assault report went through OIG per day during that two-year period. Yet, CIVIC found that the DHS agency investigated only 24 — or 2.4 percent — of those cases, according to records released by OIG.

I'm very concerned by the very low percentage of complaints that are being investigated, particularly because it looks like these sexual assaults are being perpetrated by ICE officers, contracted facility guards, and even medical professionals

The gap widens significantly when analyzing data across a longer and larger scope. According to CIVIC's complaint, the Officer of the Inspector General received more than 33,000 reports of sexual and/or physical abuse against various DHS agencies, including within the immigration detention system, between January 2010 and July 2016. In that time, the OIG initiated investigations into only 247 — or less than one percent — of those reports, the complaint states.

"I'm very concerned by the very low percentage of complaints that are being investigated, particularly because it looks like these sexual assaults are being perpetrated by ICE officers, contracted facility guards, and even medical professionals," Fialho said.

Many of the victims represented in the case have reported being raped or sexually abused by either an ICE agent or a corrections officer. And their experiences fall in line with CIVIC's findings. According to the group's complaint, ICE has been accused of impropriety more than any other DHS agency. Between May 2014 and July 2016, more than 970 complaints of sexual abuse, harassment, or misconduct were lodged against ICE in addition to the 1,016 sexual abuse and assault reports OIG received in that time.

Read more: Undocumented Mother of Four Living in Church Basement Named to Time 100 List

Additionally, ICE was the subject of over 44 percent of the 33,126 complaints filed within the six-year period. Customs and Border Protection followed closely behind, accounting for more than 31 percent of complaints. The majority of complaints were clustered in Texas and California — a finding that hasn't changed since 2011, when the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union released its own study of DHS data on sexual abuse in immigration detention centers.

In response to CIVIC's complaint, a spokesperson for the DHS Office of Inspector General told Broadly that, with a staff of about 725 people, the office is "not in a position to investigate all, or even most" of the reports it receives.

Photo by unite images via Stocksy

"Those complaints that DHS OIG does not identify for investigation are referred to the offices of professional responsibility of each individual component," the spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

Immigrants held in detention centers are particularly vulnerable to sexual and physical abuse. A 2009 National Prison Rape Elimination Commission report revealed that a growing number of detained immigrants are at risk for sexual abuse because of language barriers, social isolation, and a fear of authority. They're also removed from their communities and cultures, and often lack access to resources and legal aid. "So that increases the opportunities for abuse, unfortunately, in these facilities," said Chris Daley, deputy executive director of Just Detention International, a California-based health and human rights organization.

CIVIC found sexual assault complaints documented at 76 immigration detention centers. But a review of data from calls made to the ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) Detention Reporting and Information Line (DRIL) found that five facilities had the most sexual assault complaints between October 2012 and March 2016. Those immigration detention centers are operated by either one of two private contractors, CoreCivic or the GEO Group, which runs the detention center where Menjivar was assaulted.

CoreCivic did not respond to Broadly's request for comment. The GEO Group said in a written statement that the company has "a zero tolerance policy towards all forms of sexual abuse and sexual harassment" and has "an aggressive and transparent process" to comply with Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) standards.

"We take these matters with the utmost responsibility and seriousness," the statement read.

DHS Acting Press Secretary Gillian Christensen described CIVIC's report as "grossly inaccurate" in an email statement to Broadly. According to Christensen, ICE had recorded more than two million admissions to its detention centers during the six-year period covered in the complaint. "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," she said in an email statement.

Menjivar says he first reported his rape in 2013, but ICE officials didn't substantiate the case until two years later. The paperwork Menjivar received said he could contact the ICE coordinator for sexual assault prevention for more information on the ruling. He remembers asking his deportation officer to facilitate that meeting.

"[He] started to laugh and said, 'How are you going to do that? Do you see a number there?" said Menjivar, who is now out of detention with a work visa and has an order for deportation.

This is not the first time DHS or its agencies have come under fire for failing to address the prevalence of sexual abuse, assault, and harassment in immigration detention centers. Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California filed legal claims against DHS on behalf of two teenage sisters from Guatemala who alleged that they were stripped and sexually assaulted by Border Patrol agents. And in 2014, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a complaint to ICE on behalf of women at the privately run Karnes County Residential Center near San Antonio who reported being sexually assaulted and harassed by guards.

Among other recommendations, CIVIC is urging the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties to "immediately investigate" its complaint and develop standards to guarantee all sexual assault reports are properly and thoroughly investigated. The organization also wants DHS to create a policy informing sexual abuse survivors in immigration detention of possible eligibility for a U visa, a nonimmigrant visa for victims of crimes.

CIVIC is also calling on Congress to establish the second bipartisan National Prison Rape Elimination Commission to "investigate the effectiveness of PREA," as well as mandate DHS to publish quarterly reports on sexual abuse complaints in its facilities without compromising confidentiality.

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"It is really time for Congress to undertake a comprehensive investigation of sexual assault in the U.S. immigration detention system," Fialho said. "If DHS is either unable or unwilling to ensure that zero sexual abuses occur in immigration detention, then Congress should defund immigration detention and close all facilities."

For Menjivar, being a part of CIVIC's complaint extends beyond holding ICE accountable: It's about giving survivors a voice.

While he wants a legal investigation into his case to be initiated, Menjivar said he wants sexual assault victims in detention to be heard, to be taken seriously, and to receive justice.

"We are standing up and saying, 'No more.' Many people used to be silent. I'm not going to stay silent," Menjivar said. "I am going to shout with my soul so that all of the immigrants are listened to and respected."