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Illegal immigrants held in U.S. immigration detention facilities filed more than 170 allegations of sexual abuse over the last four years, mostly against guards and other staff at the centers, according to government documents obtained by FRONTLINE and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
A FRONTLINE investigation found no evidence that the vast majority of complaints had been investigated or resolved. Most of the complaints went through the Department of Homeland Security's Inspector General's (IG) Office, which is the primary office responsible for investigating outside complaints. IG records show only 15 "reports of investigation," which resulted in six substantiated or partially substantiated cases. Two guards were convicted of sexual abuse; three others have been terminated from their positions.
The documents, together with interviews of dozens of detainees, employees, investigators and officials, present a portrait of detainees with few effective recourses if they are victims of crimes while in detention. Many say they face continuous pressure to sign deportation orders. And unlike in the criminal justice system, immigration detainees do not have a guaranteed right of legal representation, and so have difficulty with access to counsel if they have a grievance.
A former mental health coordinator at Willacy Detention Center in Raymondville, Texas, told FRONTLINE that officials attempted to cover up complaints of sexual abuse, which she described as common among female detainees. The coordinator said she later resigned because of the treatment of detainees at the facility.
In response to our queries about these complaints, ICE spokeperson Gillian Christensen said that the Inspector General's Office and the Office of Professional Responsibility (another DHS office that investigates such complaints) investigate "all allegations of sexual abuse or misconduct" and that the agency takes appropriate action "when those allegations are substantiated."
'Who's Going to Believe You?'
In 2009, a Canadian immigrant living in Florida was pulled over during a routine traffic stop. When the officer typed her name into his computer, a 10-year-old outstanding warrant for a $230 bounced check from Wal-Mart popped up. The bounced check, combined with her undocumented status, led to her detention.
The woman, whose identity FRONTLINE is withholding because she is an alleged victim of sexual assault, agreed to be interviewed under the name "Mary." She said that when she was taken into custody she left her four young children, all U.S. citizens, in the care of a relative. After a local sheriff's deputy drove her to jail, the authorities notified Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Mary was sent to Willacy. She said that when she arrived, a fellow detainee warned her that another female detainee had been raped by a male guard. Mary, who had never been behind bars, didn't know what to believe. "This is the government. The U.S. government," she remembered thinking.
Mary said she tried to keep quiet at Willacy. She took trips to the law library to escape the dorm and work on an appeal of her deportation case. A male guard first approached her in the library, she told FRONTLINE.
"He would talk to me nicely, and ask me questions, where I'm from, and [say] 'Oh, you're beautiful,'" she recalled.
During subsequent trips to the library, he made her uncomfortable, but she said she was too afraid to say anything. On the third encounter the guard touched her, Mary said. "He came up, and he started holding my hands, and he kissed me. I said 'You shouldn't be doing that. … I don't like what you're doing.'"
"I can help you get out of here," the guard replied.
Mary says she pushed him away, and said she was going to report him. "Who are you going to tell?" he responded.
Mary said she felt alone, and didn't tell anyone what happened. "Who's going to listen to you?" she explained. "Who's going to believe you? You're criminals. You're a detainee. Who are you going to go complain to?"
A short time later, Mary said, the guard sexually assaulted her. She said he approached, saying, "I love big-breasted women." She said he placed his hands in her pants, penetrated her with his fingers. Mary said she pushed him away and that the guard told her, "If you tell anyone, you wouldn't come out of here alive to see your family."
Mary says she confided in a female guard, who told her it was "useless" to complain: "Nobody's going to believe you, nobody's going to do anything." The guard told Mary complaining would only make things worse.
Desperate to get out of Willacy, Mary consented to be deported back to Canada immediately. "I said 'I want to go back home. Please. I want to go back home. Get me out of here, 'cause if this goes on one more time with me and I don't get out of here, I'm going to kill myself."
She has not seen her children, who remain in the United States, for two years. They are still living with a relative. Their father lives in another country. Despite her experience, Mary hopes to make it back to Florida one day. In the meantime, she's working on getting her children into Canada.
The tip of the iceberg
Sigrid Adameit, a former transportation guard at Willacy, told FRONTLINE that cover-ups of sexual and physical abuse were pervasive at Willacy. One day, she said, a manager called her in to transport a female detainee who claimed she'd been raped. Adameit came in to work while the detainee was still in the medical unit receiving a rape kit.
Adameit said the manager asked her to find the next flight out for the detainee. "Make sure nobody talks to her," he said. "Don't say nothing to her. Just get her in the van and meet up with the U.S. Marshals up at the airport.'"
FRONTLINE asked ICE for results of all positive rape kits at Willacy, but the agency did not respond to our request. The company that runs Willacy for the government, Management Training Corporation (MTC), declined our request for comments about operations at Willacy.
Sexual abuse is one of the most underreported crimes in America, according to Department of Justice. More than 60 percent of victims never report their abuse to the police. Immigration lawyers and human rights advocates told FRONTLINE the problem is even greater in immigration detention centers.
"The cards are stacked enormously against the individual immigrant who's raped or assaulted in a detention center from exerting his or her rights," said Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU. "You're dealing with the most vulnerable of populations, where they don't have access to lawyers, where they're at out-of-the-way places."
"We're only scratching the surface of what we know is a much bigger phenomenon," Romero says. "We know there are many more cases that don't get investigated, where people do not get held accountable for the abuse or the rape of immigrants."
Problems at Willacy
According to the 170 records examined by FRONTLINE, Willacy Detention Center garnered more complaints of sexual abuse than any other facility.
MTC also received more than 900 grievances filed by detainees in its own internal grievance process, according to a 2009 audit by Creative Corrections, a company contracted by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to perform the audit. Of the 900, four grievances were resolved in favor of the detainee. There is no indication as to what the grievances were about or whether any of these were forwarded to oversight agencies in Washington, D.C.
The audit found 49 physical assault incidents at Willacy, but contained no details about the assaults or who was involved. None of the assaults was classified as sexual.
But during the same period covered in the audit, the DHS Inspector General's office received at least two allegations of sexual assault at Willacy, according to the documents reviewed by FRONTLINE. It is unclear whether there was any resolution to the complaints.
Recently, Edwin Rodriguez, a former guard, pleaded guilty to sexually abusing a detainee on Oct. 26, 2008, which would have also been during the same time period as the audit. The legal documents report that "Rodriguez pulled the victim into the guard's bathroom located adjacent to the victim's pod and engaged in intercourse with her." The victim reported it immediately, including to a former guard supervising her pod.
It is unclear why it took more than two years for Rodriguez to be indicted, or why he continued to work at Willacy for eight months after the abuse occurred, according to an e-mail obtained by FRONTLINE. "ICE holds all of its employees and contractors to the highest level of professionalism and no one is above the law," ICE spokesperson Brandon Alvarez-Montgomery responded to our inquiry about Rodriguez.
Washington Gets Involved
MTC placed Rodriguez on administrative leave on June 22, 2009. The date coincided with a visit from Dora Schriro, then a senior adviser to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, who had asked Schriro to evaluate the detention system and make recommendations for reform.
Schriro first visited Willacy in April of 2009. She told FRONTLINE she was struck by the state of the women during her April trip. "Their demeanor was very subdued, more than usual in my experience," she explained. Schriro said after her trip "several women" made reports about sexual abuse in the facility.
After that first visit, Schriro ordered an investigation into the women's allegations as well as a survey of all the detainees inside Willacy.
Twana Cooks-Allen, a mental health coordinator, was put in charge of coordinating the survey at Willacy. By then, Cooks-Allen was already distressed, having listened to several detainees complain about sexual abuse, among other issues.
One HIV-positive male detainee told Cooks-Allen he was raped repeatedly by another male detainee while the guard just turned his head. A female detainee who couldn't speak English came into her office with tears streaming down her face, drenching her shirt: "She just looked like somebody had turned on a faucet in her eyes and let it roll out," Cooks-Allen said. Through a phone translation service, Cooks-Allen discerned a guard was "touching her in places that she didn't want to be touched."
Cooks-Allen told FRONTLINE that when she delivered the first batch of survey results, local ICE officials wanted to know which detainees had complained. Cooks-Allen said she was "bombarded" the next day by detainees who said ICE had harassed them about their statements in the survey. One detainee said he'd been threatened with deportation.
The Willacy surveys were shut down prematurely by ICE, Cooks-Allen said, but reports of problems at the facility continued to make their way up to Schriro.
FRONTLINE asked Schriro, who has since resigned from DHS for unrelated reasons, about the specific allegations we had heard about Willacy, but she said she could not talk about individual cases.
FRONTLINE also asked to talk to the local ICE field office director about sex abuse and other allegations we were hearing about Willacy. ICE declined this request, but sent us a written statement detailing 13 criminal staff misconduct cases at Willacy it had opened as a result of Schriro's investigation.
Nine of the 13 cases involved sexual abuse, and two resulted in substantiated sexual abuse complaints. A female contract security officer resigned after admitting to an inappropriate sexual relationship with a detainee, and a second security officer was terminated after she was found to be observing females showering in the nude, and smuggling in drugs and "contraband" food. Of the remaining sexual abuse cases, five were unsubstantiated and two were unfounded.
After Schriro's visit, several women were moved to another detention facility, according to ICE, for their protection. In addition to the 13 cases above, FRONTLINE has learned of at least one other ongoing criminal sexual assault investigation at Willacy.
Exempt From the Prison Rape Elimination Act
In 2003, Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which set up a commission to investigate the problem of sex abuse in detention and worked for five years to develop national standards that would address many of the issues seen at Willacy and other civil immigration and criminal detention centers.
In its final report, published in June 2009, the commission singled out immigration detainees noting their "heightened vulnerability" and "unusual circumstances" that require "special interventions," and set forth a set of additional standards to apply to immigrant detention facilities. It stated that sex abuse in immigration detention facilities has yet to receive "the attention and research it merits."
"The fear of deportation is a tool in the hands of abusive officers, both to coerce sex and silence victims," the report concluded.
But the Obama administration excluded immigration detention centers from proposed rules to comply with PREA earlier this year.
As a result, the civil immigrant detainees will remain largely out of the public eye, said Chris Daley, deputy executive director of Just Detention International, a nonprofit that helped push for the 2003 legislation and has closely followed the standards. "The fact that criminal detainees will have more protection than civil detainees is troubling," he said. "They should have equal protection."
ICE spokeswoman Christensen told FRONTLINE that the current ICE Performance Based National Detention Standards, which cover 50 percent of its detainee population, mirror many of the "most critical" PREA provisions. She added that ICE is working on new standards that would contain even stronger PREA-related provisions. "ICE has zero tolerance for sexual abuse," she wrote in an e-mail.
But activists like Daley say ICE's standards have no teeth and are not legally enforceable.
The administration's final PREA rules are due to be released later this fall.
Monica Arpino with the Investigative Reporting Workshop contributed to this report.
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