Sexual Violence in Immigration Detention Centers
[TW: This article discusses a few forms of trauma, predominantly sexual violence and forced sterilization. This warning also applies to any embedded links.]
On multiple occasions in the spring of 2008, Robert Luis Loya, a then-guard at the Port Isabel Immigration Detention Center in Los Fresnos, Texas, groped female patients in the facility’s infirmary. Loya, who volunteered for infirmary duty, would enter the medical isolation rooms while the women were asleep, falsely tell them that he had been ordered to examine them, ask them to remove their clothes, and then sexually assault them.
A year prior, in the fall of 2007, Wilfredo Vazquez, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent was transporting a female detainee from ICE’s Krome Detention Center in Miami-Dade, Florida to the Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach; on the way, he stopped at his home in Tamarac and raped her.
The facility the woman was being transferred from—Krome—opened in 1980 and reports of sexual abuse—which ranged from sexual molestation to rape, including trading sex for favors—started to emerge quickly thereafter. In 1990, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) started to look into the Krome allegations; a report of their findings was never made public and there is no record of any legal or disciplinary action being taken. Ten years later, in May of 2000, some of the same staff accused of sexual abuse in 1990 were the subjects of new allegations. At the end of that year, about 1 in 5 women at Krome reported experiencing sexual misconduct of some kind; 1 woman was even impregnated by a guard.
Immigration detainees—according to a report conducted by the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission—are “especially vulnerable to sexual abuse and its effects while detained due to social, cultural, and language isolation.” Their report found that immigrants and asylum seekers, depending on the conditions they fled from, often possess a sense of hopelessness and lack of control (some experience this as PTSD), all of which can make them more susceptible to sexual victimization and less likely to report it.
The United States has formally forbidden the mistreatment of people in government custody through its ratification of international treaties—such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 1992 and the Convention against Torture in 1994—however, sexual assault by state actors in immigration centers occurs all too frequently. Between 2010 and 2016, 33,126 people filed complaints with the Office of the Inspector General regarding sexual and/or physical abuse they experienced while in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The assaults were documented at 76 immigration detention centers across the United States and only .07% (247 cases) were investigated. In 2018, 49 unaccompanied minors (i.e., children) reported being sexually assaulted by detention center staff. These numbers only reflect the cases that have been reported, in actuality, there may be many more survivors. But, whether the number of allegations is 10 or 10,000, it is evident that sexual violence against immigrants in detention centers occurs too frequently and is met with little to no consequences.
In recent decades, xenophobic nationalism, which led to the separation of “us” and “them,” has cultivated fear and contempt surrounding immigration and prompted an immense increase in the size, budget, and scope of immigration enforcement agencies. It has also allowed many Americans to see people who immigrate as less than equal—the label “alien” also certainly doesn’t help. Today, ICE oversees the quickest growing American incarceration system. In 2019, across its 211 family and juvenile detention centers, ICE, on average, held 50,100 people a day. This is an increase of about 616% since 1994, when approximately 7,000 people were impounded daily, and is indicative of a drastic and continuing upward trend.
ICE detainees—who have committed civil, not criminal, violations of immigration law—include asylum seekers, undocumented immigrants, unaccompanied minors, and legal permanent residents convicted of certain crimes. Refugees who have been accepted for resettlement by the United States but who did not apply for permanent residency in time and American citizens whose citizenship the government debates are also occasionally targeted. Regardless of why they were apprehended, all immigration detainees face an indefinite stay in a detention facility while their case makes its way through the court system. Federal government data obtained by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) under the Freedom of Information Act indicates that in 2012 70% of people were held in immigration detention centers for one month or less. Paradoxically, the people who often spent the longest time in custody—sometimes upwards of a year—are those who are legally permitted to live in the United States.
The time one spends in a detention center—be it one day or one year—can be traumatizing for a myriad of reasons (e.g., the separation from one’s family, the anxiety of awaiting trial, the fear of being deported, the aforementioned risk of being sexually abused). Added to this laundry list is also the risk of medical negligence and/or medical abuse.
In 2020, Dawn Wooten, a nurse at the Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC), submitted a whistleblower statement questioning the number of women at ICDC undergoing hysterectomies as well as their ability to understand and consent to the procedure. A hysterectomy, which is the surgical removal of the uterus, is a form of sterilization. When a person is sterilized after refusing the procedure, without informed knowledge, or without the opportunity to provide consent, it is considered forced. Forced sterilization, when targeted at a specific national, ethnic, or racial group, is an act of genocide according to the United Nations. The allegation raises concerns that these women (and their reproductive rights) are being targeted, coerced, and/or taken advantage of because of their social and economic status.
The complaint, formally filed by social justice advocacy group Project South, raised many concerns regarding the lack of medical care, including “the rate at which hysterectomies are performed [...] under ICE custody.” It outlines the allegations against the DHS and ICDC using personal accounts. It states that one detained woman said that neither the staff at ICDC nor the doctor she was taken to see explained to her what procedure she was going to undergo. Another account reflects that proper English-Spanish translation was not provided; “the sick call nurse tries to [...] speak Spanish to detained immigrants by simply googling Spanish or by asking another detained immigrant to help interpret.” The Medical Director of the ICE Health Service Corps (IHSC), Dr. Ada Rivera, disputes these claims. Wooten was not, however, the first person to voice concerns regarding abuse, negligence, and mistreatment at ICDC. In 2017 Project South filed a separate complaint that voiced similar concerns. Furthermore, a few detainees have come forward and claimed that Wooten was also complicit with the abuse.
Sexual violence is common and costly; it leaves mental scars that long outlive the physical bruises. The number of sexual assault allegations against ICE officers who have sworn to “serve and protect” seems hard to ignore yet are routinely overlooked. Furthermore, these surgeries were not conducted in secrecy at the facility nor were meticulous steps taken to hide what was happening. As such, these human rights violations cannot be blamed on a single person or entity, but on the system as a whole. Immigrants held in detention centers are being regularly abused and silenced by a cruel system of unnecessary incarceration.
What we are seeing is not a rare phenomenon or an isolated incident, it is a pattern; a pattern of abusive, manipulative, and coercive behavior by people in positions of power. We have a systemic problem of looking the other way, of not believing survivors, of minimizing people’s trauma. “Immigrant” is not synonymous with “inhuman”; a person cannot be illegal and sexual assault cannot be justified.
*If you or someone you know is experiencing or needs help coping with sexual assault you can contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at (800)656-HOPE (4673). To learn more visit: https://www.rainn.org/about-national-sexual-assault-telephone-hotline.