Immigrants in detention are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse and assault because they are being held by the same agency that has the power to deport them, according to GAO report.John Moore/Getty Images
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) has not reported all allegations of sexual abuse and assault that were made in their immigrant detention facilities to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), according to a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
GAO investigators visited 10 facilities and found that 40 percent of allegations provided to them by field officials were not sent to DHS headquarters, as is required of them, because the officials determined the incidents to be harassment rather than assault, or that the allegations were unfounded.
"That’s a very troubling statistic," Chris Daley, deputy executive director of Just Detention International, a human rights organization that seeks to end sexual abuse in detention, told Al Jazeera. Daley said the report points to a lack of understanding about what constitutes sexual abuse and assault.
The investigation reviewed the 215 allegations reported betwen Oct. 2009 – March 2013, a time period which saw 1.2 million people admitted and detained in ICE facilities. It found that headquarters’ data did not include all locally-reported allegations.
ICE, which oversees the largest civil detention system in the U.S., with detainees from almost 200 countries, told Al Jazeera in an email statement that, between the initiation of the report and its release, it had implemented a number of steps to address issues raised by GAO.
These included “strengthening the safeguards against sexual abuse and assault of detainees in ICE’s detention standards; hiring a full-time sexual assault prevention coordinator; providing comprehensive sexual abuse and assault prevention and intervention training for ICE employees who have contact with detainees; creating an inter-agency working group on sexual abuse in detention and the September 2012 creation of the community and detainee helpline.”
The Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 (PREA), which led to the publishing of standards for the elimination of prison rape that became effective in 2012, has been a strong impetus for ICE to create a new set of standards.
“In May 2012 [ICE] created a new oversight system specifically about sexual abuse … that required folks in the field to make sure these reports are elevated up,” Daley said. ICE, he added, is still working to finalize all of their PREA regulations.
The new standards may also lead to a deeper understanding among field officers about what constitutes sexual abuse and assault.
Most of the allegations that field officers chose not to forward to headquarters consisted of harassment, offers of sex, and verbal misconduct – which they did not deem to be sexual abuse or assault. The new PREA standards, however, emphasize that these types of allegations must also be forwarded.
The GAO report found that more allegations were made against other immigration detainees than against staff. And most of the allegations against staff were related to actions while conducting job duties, such as pat-downs.
Of the 215 allegations, 123 were against fellow detainees, 86 were against staff, and the remaining six did not specify.
The GAO report added that “social, cultural, and language isolation, poor understanding of U.S. culture and subculture of U.S. prisons, and often traumatic experiences they have endured in their cultures of origin” contribute to the vulnerability of detainees and an unwillingness to report such incidents.
Furthermore, immigration detainees may hesistate to report sexual abuse and assaults by staff because they are being held by the same agency that has the power to deport them – resulting in a fear of retaliatory deportation, according to the GAO report.
Detainees in ICE facilities can report sexual abuse and assault orally or in writing or make free phone calls to DHS headquarters hotlines, their consulates, and other pro bono services. But the GAO report showed there were some technical difficulties with the hotline at the time of reporting.
Overall, there are still hurdles to full implementation of ICE policies on reporting sexual abuse and assault.
The vast majority of detainees are held in county or city jails or in private facilities not run directly ICE. But these private facilities will not be bound by ICE’s finalized PREA regulations until each facility’s contracts are renewed, Daley told Al Jazeera.
This poses a problem because some of the contracts will not be renewed for five to 20 years or will renew automatically without negotiation.
"We don’t have an indication that ICE is going to be proactive about getting these standards implemented in all the facilities,” Daley said. "We really need leadership by DHS and the White House to say these are good regulations, but they need to be implemented."