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Immigration Detainees Seek Prison-Rape Protection

Human rights advocates are calling on the Obama administration to do more to protect people in immigration detention centers from sexual assault. A new federal rule that will take effect next year covers inmates in jails and prisons, but some Homeland Security officials want an exemption for facilities that house illegal immigrants.

Survivors of abuse inside those facilities say that would be a dangerous oversight. One of them is a man who came to the U.S. about a decade ago on a visa designed for crew members working on a ship. NPR isn't naming the man because of the sensitivity of his case.

He says that in 2009, immigration agents arrived at his workplace in the Midwest, told him he'd overstayed his visa and took him into federal custody to be deported to India. And, like many detainees, he wound up spending years behind bars.

One night last year, he says, three gang members living in his Illinois detention facility showed up at his cell.

Difficult To Report

"At 10 o'clock, they just came to my bed after the count and, you know, started the assault. It was a pretty scary, scary moment in my life, you know?" he says.

The man says he was afraid to report the abuse, which went on for months, because the gang members were close to guards at the facility. He told a few people who didn't take him seriously. Eventually, he spoke up again, to an officer based in Chicago.

"And he just looked at me and sat there, you know, and went and got some tissue paper for me to just, because I was crying, and I was begging him not to send me back over there, and I even told him like, 'If you send me back, I'm going to kill myself.' I even told him that," he says.

Months later, with the help of a lawyer, the man got released. He's still fighting to stay in the U.S. with his American wife and children, and possibly to get a visa available for victims of crime.

What I saw in the detention center — it was the ugly side of America. I never knew that side of America. Now I do.

Human rights advocates say his experience has been repeated far too often. In the past five years, immigrant detainees have filed about 200 sexual abuse complaints with the federal government. That's a vast underestimate, according to Joanne Lin, a legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union.

"Many immigration detainees do not speak or read English well, and do not know what their legal rights are in the United States," Lin says. "Traumatized by the sexual assaults, they are understandably loath to report the abuse to the same government authorities that have the power to rape, detain and deport them."

Lin and a coalition of civil liberties experts say the U.S. can do more by including immigration detention centers in a new federal rule designed to eliminate prison rape. The rule springs from a 2003 law called the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) that Congress passed unanimously. It's supposed to give inmates a better sense of how to report abuse, and to make clear to guards and wardens that sexual abuse will not be tolerated.

Zero Tolerance

The law gave the Justice Department the authority to develop a rule proposal. But officials at the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees immigration detention centers, are balking. They say the Justice Department shouldn't have the authority to direct them what to do — and the law Congress passed is unclear. What's more, they say, they already have a zero tolerance policy with respect to sexual abuse that goes just as far as the prison rape elimination rule would.

DHS has been moving to overhaul the troubled detention system for nearly three years, negotiating with unions to do more to cut back on sexual violence in its facilities, and pushing its biggest private contractor to do more, too.

But that's not enough for advocates such as Chris Daley, deputy executive director of Just Detention International, a group that brings attention to the prevalence of rape behind bars, and tries to advocate for inmates and immigrants.

"After eight years and millions of dollars spent in PREA implementation, we are on the cusp of the best opportunity in modern U.S. history to end sexual abuse in detention," Daley said. "Whether these protections are implemented in immigration detention facilities — as Congress intended — rests squarely with the Obama administration. It will be a disaster if political squabbling between factions within the administration prevents immigration detainees from having as much protection from sexual abuse as detainees in criminal facilities."

Brenda Smith, a law professor at American University who studies sexual abuse in prison, worked on a commission to find solutions to the problem. She believes there needs to be one clear rule, across the board.

"Immigrant detainees are moved from facility to facility, and just from the point of view of equal protection and also for consistency, whether you are protected from abuse at the hands of someone who is supposed to be your custodian should not differ whether you are in a jail, a prison or in a [Homeland Security] facility," she says.

Smith and others who follow the issue say a string of recent guilty pleas by guards who worked in immigration facilities based in Texas, California and Arizona demonstrates the system isn't working.

Michelle Brane, who works for the Women's Refugee Commission, says she's heard other horror stories.

"We've also had detainees who ... have asked for HIV tests after reporting an abuse, a sexual violation, and who spend months and months before any medical exam is provided," Brane says.

That's what happened to the man from India who says he suffered abuse in the Illinois facility.

"What I saw in the detention center — it was the ugly side of America," he says. "I never knew that side of America. Now I do."

The White House is reviewing the plan to eliminate prison rape with an eye toward releasing a final rule early next year.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.