97 Percent of Sexual Abuse Reports in Detention Centers Aren't Investigated

Cristian Newman

An overwhelming majority of sexual assault reports by people detained in immigration detention centers are not investigated, a complaint filed by Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC) on Tuesday notes.

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CIVIC, a national immigration detention visitation network working to end U.S. immigration detention, claims the DHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) failed to investigate 97 percent of reports of sexual abuse in detention centers throughout a two-year period.

"The majority of the cases that are being so-called investigated may likely be labeled 'unfounded' or 'closed,'" said Christina Fialho, co-founder and co-executive director of CIVIC. "But the real problem is that they're not investigating the complaints."

CIVIC lodged the complaint on behalf of 27 alleged victims of detention-based sexual assault, many of them claiming they were attacked by Immigration and Customs Enforcement personnel.

Among them: Douglas Menjivar, a Salvadoran man who said he was first raped by a fellow immigrant while detained in a detention center near Houston, Texas in 2013. The man did not report the assault because the perpetrator threatened to kill his family.

Menjivar, 41, was allegedly attacked again, this time in the shower. While trying to escape, he fell on the tiles, hitting his head and slipping into unconsciousness for "some number of hours." In need of medical attention for his head wound, he reported the rape to an ICE agent, who blamed him for the attack.

"He said, 'You're the stupidest of the stupid'," Menjivar told Broadly.

Menjivar's rape wasn't reported and he didn't receive medical or mental help.

Months later, he was transferred to another facility, where he reported the rape to a doctor. In response, the man was put in solitary confinement in "retaliation" for speaking up. While locked away, he attempted to kill himself three times. Guards allegedly told him don't "bother us" when he asked for help.

Advocates like Fialho say Menjivar’s treatment isn’t uncommon, and that "abuse, apathy and lack of accountability" is pervasive in immigration detention centers.

According to CIVIC, between May 2014 and July 2016, the DHS Office of Inspector General received 1,016 complaints of sexual abuse filed by people in detention centers – that’s more than one accusation a day. Of them, only 24 – or 2.4 percent – of those cases were investigated.

A spokesperson for the DHS Office of Inspector General told the news site that with a staff of about 725 people, the office is "not in a position to investigate all, or even most" of the reports it hears.

CIVIC is calling on the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties to "immediately investigate" its complaint and create standards to ensure all sexual assault reports are adequately investigated. It is also asking DHS to establish a policy that makes survivors of sexual violence in detention centers aware of possible eligibility for a U visa, a visa for victims of crimes.

The group is also urging Congress to develop the second bipartisan National Prison Rape Elimination Commission to "investigate the effectiveness of PREA," the Prison Rape Elimination Act, and require DHS to publish quarterly reports on sexual abuse complaints in its centers.

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"It is really time for Congress to undertake a comprehensive investigation of sexual assault in the U.S. immigration detention system," Fialho said. "If DHS is either unable or unwilling to ensure that zero sexual abuses occur in immigration detention, then Congress should defund immigration detention and close all facilities."