A federal civil rights complaint filed this week claims that, out of 33,126 complaints of sexual and physical abuse in immigration detention, only 570 cases have been investigated by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General, the agency’s oversight office.
The complaint filed by the immigrant rights group Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC) on Tuesday includes reports of sexual and physical assaults during medical examinations, strip searches, and rapes in detention allegedly perpetrated by guards and other detainees.
The complaints reviewed were filed between January 2010 and July 2016. The advocates say “there has been no formal complaint filed with this clear and massive amount of data” until now.
The reports of abuse were made at several DHS agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Customs & Border Protection, Transportation Security Administration, and the Coast Guard. In an overwhelming majority of cases, CIVIC found, the Office of the Inspector General sent cases back to the accused agency with no request that they follow up with OIG.
The complaint filed by CIVIC recommends Congress mandate that DHS start publishing information on all reported complaints of sexual abuse in their facilities and the investigation outcomes on a quarterly basis. Currently, this information is not publicly available.
The complaint found the top five facilities with the most sexual assault complaints are all privately run immigration detention facilities.
About 44.4% of the reports (or 14,693 of the total number of complaints) were made against ICE, according to the complaint, which relied on data obtained from the OIG through Freedom of Information Act and state public record requests made by CIVIC. Customs & Border Protection came next with 10,295 reports (31.1% of the total), according to the complaint.
The statistics included in the complaint are especially alarming given that President Donald Trump has proposed quickly hiring 5,000 more Border Patrol agents and 10,000 more ICE officers, and expanding immigration detention to help enforce his executive orders. Advocates fear the hiring spree could lead to less thorough background checks and trainings for staffers, which could make matters worse.
Currently, the average daily population in ICE detention is just over 40,000 detainees, according to the agency. A leaked internal DHS document obtained by The Washington Post this week said that DHS has allegedly identified an additional 33,000 detention beds it can use to detain undocumented immigrants. The documents also showed the agency is considering ending polygraph and physical fitness tests to speed up the hiring process for Border Patrol agents.
“What we have learned from this federal data and from interviews with people in detention is that many of these sexual assaults are being perpetrated by ICE officers, contracted facility guards, and even medical professionals,” Christina Fialho, an attorney and the co-executive director of CIVIC, the group which filed the federal complaint, told Fusion.
The acting Department of Homeland Security press secretary, Gillian Christensen, told Fusion the agency’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties will review the complaint but said the statistics included in the report are not accurate.
“Unfortunately, the report just released by [CIVIC] regarding purported sexual abuse and sexual harassment at ICE and CBP facilities is grossly inaccurate,” Christensen said in a statement sent to Fusion. “While ICE’s goal is to prevent all sexual abuse among its custody population, given the volume of individuals who annually pass through its detention system, the agency believes the overall incidence of such activity is very low.”
Christensen did not respond to requests for documentation supporting DHS’ claim that the CIVIC complaint was inaccurate. The agency said that the DHS Office of the Inspector General generally focuses on cases involving alleged employee misconduct and mostly refers alleged incidents involving detainee-on-detainee abuse to ICE for internal investigation—a fact apparently serving as a possible explanation for the discrepancy between the number of abuse reports filed and the number of those cases investigated. (That said, the Inspector General’s office can choose to investigate any claim of wrongdoing.) We asked DHS to clarify, but the agency stopped responding to our inquiries.
Fialho, meanwhile, is standing by the data collected by CIVIC and said the numbers could be even higher because sexual assaults are underreported.
“If DHS is going to say that our statistics are inaccurate, then the agency needs to provide data to back up this baseless statement,” said Fialho, who noted ICE did not comply to CIVIC’s FOIA request on statistics on sexual assault complaints.
None of the reports OIG provided to CIVIC tracked abuses by gender identity, even though CIVIC has identified transgender women who filed complaints. A 2014 Fusion investigation found ICE detains about 75 transgender detainees per night who often face abuse; for every five victims of confirmed sexual abuse in ICE detention, one victim is transgender.
Christensen said DHS “is firmly committed to providing for the safety and welfare of all those in its custody.” She noted that ICE, in particular, has taken significant steps in recent years to prevent and respond to sexual abuse involving its detainee population. As an example, Christensen highlighted the Sexual Abuse and Assault Prevention and Intervention (SAAPI) Program, which she says “ensures effective procedures for preventing, reporting, responding to, investigating, and tracking incidents or allegations of sexual abuse or assault against individuals in ICE detention.”
But Fialho, the co-executive director of CIVIC, says whatever DHS is doing is not enough, because reports of abuse are still ongoing.
“If DHS is either unable or unwilling to ensure that zero sexual abuses occur in immigration detention, then Congress should halt all expansion efforts and consider defunding immigration detention entirely,” Fialho said.