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Immigrant women allege sexual abuse at detention center

Rights groups decry alleged sexual abuse of immigrants at family detention facilities run by private contractors

Women being held at a privately run migrant family detention center near San Antonio say guards sexually assaulted and harassed them, according to a recent complaint filed to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE).

Rights groups say the women have made “serious allegations of substantial, ongoing sexual abuse” at the Karnes County Residential Center, where at least three male guards are alleged to have regularly removed them from their cells late at night and early in the morning to engage in sexual acts, according to a Sept. 30 letter sent to ICE (PDF) by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), a civil rights group that interviewed the women.

The women, mainly from Central America, say guards kissed, groped and fondled them and called them “novias,” or “girlfriends,” sometimes in front of their children. The guards also allegedly requested sexual favors from the women in exchange for money or assistance with pending immigration cases, according to the complaint, which was co-signed by the University of Texas School of Law, Human Rights First and San Antonio-based immigration attorney Javier Maldonado.

Attorneys from the rights groups say the Karnes County Residential Center, which opened on Aug. 1 and holds more than 500 migrant women and their children before they are granted asylum or deported, violates the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003.

“We ask that federal officials immediately investigate these allegations and implement protective measures for the women and children detained at the Karnes Center,” the attorneys wrote in their letter to ICE.

ICE contracted the for-profit correctional services company GEO Group to run the Karnes Center. GEO group owns 99 facilities with a total of 79,000 beds worldwide, according to its website.

GEO says that the women’s accusations are false and that the Karnes facility “provides a safe, clean, and family friendly environment for mothers and children awaiting required processing by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency,” the company told Al Jazeera in an email. “The Center provides high quality care, and our company strongly denies any allegations to the contrary. On-site ICE personnel provide direct oversight to ensure compliance with ICE's Family Residential Standards.”

ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

'Cruelty on top of cruelty'

More than 66,000 unaccompanied minors have fled violence and poverty in Central America since October 2013 to enter the U.S. illegally at the Texas border, according to the Department of Homeland Security. While many children have been released to U.S. relatives, adult migrants have been held in detention centers while they await deportation or apply for political asylum.

The Karnes Center is one of three new family detention facilities meant specifically for undocumented women who migrate with their children, according to a report published Wednesday by Charlotte, North Carolina-based advocacy group Grassroots Leadership.

The first one, which opened in June, was a government-operated temporary facility in Artesia, New Mexico. The Karnes Center was the second, and the third and largest is set to open later this year in Dilley, Texas. It will be operated by another for-profit company, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). 

Starting in 2009, the practice of detaining families in privately run facilities had drastically declined following protests and accusations of unsanitary conditions and abuse, culminating in a lawsuit filed against ICE by the ACLU and the University of Texas Law School over conditions at the CCA-run T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor, Texas. The suit resulted in a settlement from ICE, the release of the families there and the end of family detentions at that center.

As of early this year only one such family detention center — in rural Pennsylvania — remained open, and it held fewer than 100 people, according Cristina Parker, immigration project coordinator at Grassroots Leadership and co-author of the report.

Parker said ICE had promised in 2009 that it would not open more such facilities in the future, so she was shocked that the Obama administration authorized the new family detention centers. “It’s just staggering. We went from less than a hundred beds before the summer to plans for more than 4,000 beds in the matter of few months,” she said.

“They say we need to detain these people to deter them from coming over,” Parker said. “But it makes no sense. When you’re fleeing violence, nothing’s going to stop you.” 

“It’s just cruelty on top of cruelty,” she said.  

Carl Takei, staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said, “This is a complete reversal from the stance of the Obama administration in 2009.” He was referring to the move to eliminate family detentions at T. Don Hutto, only to contract CCA to build another detention center.

Takei said that, given the $160 to $170 per day it costs on average to detain an adult, using alternative detention methods — such as requiring asylum seekers to regularly check in with ICE or to wear electronic monitoring bracelets — would be far cheaper than holding a person at a detention center, and it's more humane, too.

ICE told Reuters that at full capacity the new center at Dilley will cost $298 per detainee per day.

Private prison companies operate 60 percent of the 34,000 detention beds maintained by the ICE, Takei said.

“It’s an industry that depends on and profits from the mass incarceration of people, whether it’s in the criminal justice system or the immigration system,” he said. “Experience has shown that handing control of prisons over to for-profit companies is a recipe for abuse, neglect and misconduct.”

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