By William Fisher
In an immigration detention system that has been plagued by abuse, negligence, and even deaths, stronger oversight and accountability is urgently needed to prevent further sexual harassment of female detainees.
This is the view immigration advocates are expressing in the wake of allegations that a male guard at a central Texas detention facility sexually assaulted female detainees on their way to being deported.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), said last week that the guard has been fired. It added that Corrections Corporation of America, the private prison company that manages the Hutto facility, has been placed on probation pending the investigation's outcome. The consequences of probation were not immediately clear.
ICE said that several women who were held at Hutto facility in Taylor, Texas, were groped while being patted down and at least one was propositioned for sex.
"We understand that this employee was able to commit these alleged crimes
because ICE-mandated transport policies and procedures were not followed," David Sanders, the Homeland Security Department's contracting officer said in a letter to Corrections Corporation of America obtained by The Associated Press.
ICE has ordered Corrections Corporation of America to take corrective actions. Among them is forbidding male guards from being alone with female detainees.
An IPS reporter asked Jacki Esposito of Detention Watch Network, a coalition of organizations that monitors ICE treatment of detainees, how she thinks increased oversight could prevent what some are calling an isolated abusive aberration by a single person. She responded:
“Hutto is not an isolated incident. Allegations of sexual assault have plagued other facilities where immigrants are being held by the federal government. With appropriate oversight, including meaningful inspections and better access by independent agencies the fact that this guard had been engaging in a pattern of sexual assaults against females could have come to light earlier.”
She added, “The latest story of abuse in the U.S. immigration detention system highlights yet again the fact that the immigration detention system is in need of serious repair. This scandal is only the latest to come to light in a detention system that has been plagued by abuse, negligence, and even deaths. Stronger oversight and accountability within DHS and from Congress is urgently needed.”
Her view was echoed by Brittney Nystrom, director of policy and legal affairs at the National Immigration Forum (NIF) a non-partisan, non-profit pro-immigrant advocacy organization in Washington. She told IPS, “The most disturbing thing about these charges is that involve a facility that’s supposed to be the shining star of ICE’s detention policy. Instead it turns out to be an example of poor oversight and bad management.”
Ali Noorani, NIF’s Executive Director, said, “News of fresh abuses at this facility is deeply disturbing. The newly discovered violations reinforce the urgency of major reforms that are overdue in our immigration detention system and in our immigration laws. The innocent victims of this guard’s abuse are yet further evidence that ICE is warehousing hundreds of thousands of detained immigrants in a poorly managed system that cannot keep them safe.”
The Hutto facility formerly held families, including children, in a setting that critics have labeled totally inappropriate for such a purpose, and attracted both litigation and protesters. Last year, it was converted to a facility for female detainees, conditions were modified, and it was lauded by ICE as a model facility.
Noorani says, “The problem stems from several factors. Most importantly, the agency’s enforcement of hopelessly outdated immigration laws funnels many thousands of non-criminal immigration violators into a network of jails designed to serve the criminal justice system. There are so many immigration detainees that ICE must contract the work to companies that run penal institutions, and there is too little oversight of those contracts and personnel. There are no standards of detention that have the force of law. “
He adds, “This is not the first scandal arising from the way DHS enforces the immigration law, and it will not be the last. DHS must step up its efforts to create a system where abuse and death are rare, and when they do occur the persons responsible are promptly held accountable. Congress must do its part to both monitor the agency and reform the laws that DHS is obligated to enforce.
In March, ICE took what the immigrant advocacy community generally hailed as “important steps to address immigration detention conditions that are currently a national embarrassment.”
“After years of advocacy with this agency and its predecessors, the National Immigration Forum and other pro-immigrant watchdogs are pleased to see some movement by the Obama administration in a very helpful direction. No modern, developed nation should tolerate the conditions under which we have jailed hundreds of thousands of families and individuals – conditions that have proven life-threatening and fatal in far too many cases,” the groups said in a statement at that time.
They added, “The network of for-profit and government-run facilities that detain deportees needs to be tightly scrutinized and this is a tremendously positive step in that direction. The Hutto facility alone has stood out as a worst-case example – among many other egregious sites – and we are pleased that press attention, lawsuits, and public outcry have sparked definitive action. Expanding the use of cost-saving alternatives to detention will take some of the pressure off of the overburdened system and make immigration enforcement more in tune with the nature of the civil violations immigrant detainees are accused of.”
The groups concluded that the ”single most important thing we can do with regard to immigrant detention is to reduce the need for its use for millions of non-criminals, families, and workers in the first place.”
“By having a functioning legal immigration system so that people come with visas and within the law and by establishing a system for processing the millions of immigrants living here illegally into legal status, we can put our immigration system back on a legal footing and move away from the fantasy that we can simply enforce our way out of our current situation,” the groups said.