Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

In the immigrant detention system, female detainees face risks

A participant in a rally outside a contractor-run immigrant detention center in New Jersey, March 2009
A participant in a rally outside a contractor-run immigrant detention center in New Jersey, March 2009
Photo by Brennan Cavanaugh/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Earlier this month, I linked to a story out of Texas about a guard from an immigration detention facility being arrested for allegedly fondling female detainees. The only unusual thing about it was that he was arrested; the type of allegations made were not. Having reported on immigration for several years now, these kinds of stories are, unfortunately, not that uncommon.

In a report issued last week, Human Rights Watch compiled a list of sexual assault incidents, known and alleged, within the extensive network of immigration detention facilities under the auspices of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the vast majority of the facilities operated by contractors.

The report points out how vulnerable female detainees are in what by and large remains a prison-like environment, despite federal government plans for reform. As has been pointed out when other problems have occurred in the detention system, i.e. poor medical care or overcrowding, oversight continues to be an issue. The Obama administration has made some changes after promising to overhaul the detention system, but the report maintains that oversight and accountability are still lacking.

From the report, an incident in Texas:

Five women detained at the Port Isabel Service Processing Center in Texas were assaulted in 2008 when then-guard Robert Luis Loya entered each of their rooms in the detention center infirmary, where they were patients, told them that he was operating under physician instructions, ordered them to undress, and touched intimate parts of their bodies. In April 2010, just one month prior to the most recent alleged assaults at Hutto, a federal judge sentenced Loya to three years in prison to be followed by community supervision for the assaults against the female immigration detainees.

According to the Department of Justice, Loya, who had been employed by a private contractor to work at the facility, admitted to sexually touching the five women. He stated in his guilty plea that he sought out duty in the detention center’s medical unit in order to gain access to the medical isolation rooms. The known assaults occurred in March and April of 2008, but Loya had worked as a guard for six-and-a-half years before he was dismissed when these assaults came to light.

And an incident in California:
...a woman detained at a contract facility run by CCA in San Diego reported being raped by a guard while on work detail. According to the Office of the Inspector General at DHS, which documented the report in an audit of five facilities published in December 2006, the guard was fired following an investigation, but the Department of Justice declined to pursue criminal charges. The audit also found a complaint from December 2004 alleging that a guard had conducted a “physically abusive ‘pat down’ search that was followed up by a strip search conducted within view of other detainees.”

CCA is Corrections Corporation of America, a Nashville-based private prison company that houses that houses a majority of ICE detainees. This is the same company that was in the news earlier this week, after news reports emerged that Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer's campaign chairman and policy adviser works for the company as a lobbyist.

ICE houses a daily population of more than 30,000 people in a patchwork of agency-run and contract facilities around the country. Recent shifts in federal policy have had immigration authorities focusing more on detaining and deporting immigrants with criminal records, with the Obama administration making heavy use of a controversial fingerprint-sharing program called Secure Communities.

Today, ICE announced that the program has led to the removal of more than 5,500 immigrants with criminal convictions encountered by local law enforcement in Los Angeles County during the past year. However, less than half were considered "Level 1" offenders convicted of serious or violent crimes. Both criminal and non-criminal detainees are held in ICE detention facilities as they await deportation.