As the national discussion of sexual misconduct grows, advocates for immigrants say they hope the conversation will include immigrant detention facilities. "Our immigrant prison system thrives on secrecy," says one advocate for victims.
HOUSTON (AP) — While she waits at a detention center in Texas to find out if she can stay in the United States, Laura Monterrosa fears that she put herself in danger by coming forward about sexual abuse.
Months after accusing a female guard at the facility of groping her and suggesting they have sex, Monterrosa says she still sees the guard in the dining hall and other parts of the facility. She recalled in a recent interview what the guard had said to her.
“I told her that I was going to tell the supervisor what was happening,” Monterrosa said in a recent phone interview from the facility. “She sarcastically said, ‘Do you think they’ll believe you or me?'”
As the national discussion of sexual misconduct grows, advocates for immigrants say they hope the conversation will include immigrant detention facilities. They point to the FBI announcing in December that it had opened a civil rights investigation into Monterrosa’s case as a positive sign.
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“Our immigrant prison system thrives on secrecy,” said Christina Fialho, co-executive director of Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement, or CIVIC. “If more people knew what was truly happening behind locked doors, I think there would be an outcry against the immigrant detention system.”
Fialho’s organization sent a complaint to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in April that listed 27 allegations of sexual abuse in immigration detention over the last three years. The complaint also says that another 1,016 people reported sexual abuse in detention to the Department of Homeland Security between May 2014 and July 2016.
Fialho said many more cases go uncounted because victims are afraid to come forward or, when they do, their cases aren’t fully investigated.
Based on CIVIC’s analysis of federal data released through a Freedom of Information Act request, DHS investigated less than 3 percent of the sexual abuse complaints it received during that same time period.
Like many of the roughly 35,000 adults in immigration detention, Monterrosa, 23, has requested asylum. She arrived at the southern U.S. border in May after fleeing El Salvador, where she says she was forced into prostitution by her family and that an uncle raped her. The uncle was a policeman, she said.
If her asylum claim is denied, she could be deported. She is currently appealing a denial of her claim in October.
The Associated Press typically does not name victims in sexual assault investigations, but Monterrosa has come forward to encourage other women to report their stories.
The advocacy group Grassroots Leadership, which publicized Monterrosa’s case, says two other women in the same facility have since written letters describing sexual harassment.
“Women are forced to do what they say or stay silent out of fear,” Monterrosa said.
Bethany Carson, an immigration researcher at Grassroots Leadership, called on authorities to release Monterrosa so “she can live in peace and recover from this new trauma she experienced at the hands of those responsible for ensuring her safety.”
Monterrosa is being held at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas, a rural town outside of Austin. Hutto has been the target of lawsuits and criminal investigations since shortly after it opened in 2006, having been converted from a medium-security prison.
Hutto was a facility for women and children until 2009, when the U.S. government transferred families elsewhere and settled a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union over how children were being confined. It’s now a 512-bed facility holding only women.
In 2011, a guard was accused of groping multiple women while he was supposed to be taking them to the airport or bus station. He pleaded guilty to federal civil rights charges and received 10 months in prison.
Advocates say problems inside immigrant detention have persisted despite years of calling attention to the topic, in part because the facilities themselves can be impenetrable to the public.
Hutto is operated by the private prison company CoreCivic, formerly known as the Corrections Corporation of America, which runs detention centers across the country under contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE said it received four reports of sexual abuse at Hutto during the past government fiscal year, which ended in September.
Under policies posted on CoreCivic’s website, any detainee who reports sexual violence should have “no contact with the alleged perpetrator.” Both ICE and CoreCivic prohibit retaliation against a detainee who files a report.
But CoreCivic declined to answer questions about Monterrosa’s report that she had seen the guard in the dining hall and referred comment to ICE, as it’s required to do under its federal contract, which stipulates that private prison operators must consult with ICE before speaking to the media.
ICE previously issued a statement saying that it concluded Monterrosa’s allegations “could not be corroborated and the case lacked evidence to pursue any further action.” The agency says it is now referring to the FBI’s statement that it had opened an investigation.
In a statement, ICE said it has implemented “strong protections” against sexual assault in its detention facilities.
“It is ICE policy to provide effective safeguards against sexual abuse and assault of all individuals in ICE custody, including with respect to screening, staff training, detainee education, response and intervention, medical and mental health care, reporting, investigation, and monitoring and oversight,” the statement said.
ICE has not posted sexual abuse data for all of its detention facilities, despite the commitment it made in 2014 to publish that information online at least once a year, as part of its compliance with a federal law on prison rapes. ICE said that it was “currently working on finalizing such information.”
The agency also committed to third-party audits of its detention centers. While it has released the audits of more than 20 facilities this year, Hutto has not yet been examined, though an audit is scheduled for next year.
Seventy-one members of Congress sent a letter to federal officials last month calling on the Department of Homeland Security to “be held accountable for rampant complaints of sexual assault, abuse and harassment within their immigrant detention facilities.”
“Immigrants are among the most vulnerable people — many of whom are children away from their families,” said Rep. Judy Chu, a California Democrat who signed the letter. “And being detained puts them completely at the mercy of others.”
Follow Nomaan Merchant on Twitter at @nomaanmerchant.
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