Why Immigrants in Detention Are More Vulnerable to Sex Abuse

Officials at immigration detention centers failed to report 40 percent of sex abuse allegations to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) headquarters, according to a government report released this week.

That’s a high percentage of cases that weren’t being logged. The Government Accountability Office (GAO), which published the report, looked at 10 different detention facilities and 70 cases of alleged sexual abuse from October 2010 to March 2013.

The report found that not all detention centers were following federal guidelines for documenting sexual assault allegations. For example, some facilities weren’t forwarding along allegations of harassment, even though federal law required those incidents to be reported.

Immigration officials said that they are already in the process of addressing the issues raised in the report.

“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is deeply committed to eliminating sexual abuse in immigration detention; our zero-tolerance policy is a key part of immigration detention reform, which has been and continues to be an agency priority,” spokesperson Gillian Christensen said in a statement.

Any sort of detainee is vulnerable to sexual abuse, but that’s especially true for immigrants being held for possible deportations.

Immigrants may have social and cultural differences that make them less likely to report an assault, according to the government report. And of course, in many cases there is a language barrier.

Someone new to the U.S. also may not understand American prison culture, and how to minimize the chance of abuse.

There’s also a practical issue: the GAO report found that calls to a complaint hotline meant for sexual abuse simply weren’t being answered. That happened 14 percent of the time between 2010 and 2012.

The biggest problem, however, is a conflict of interest. Immigrants are being detained by the same agency that has the power to deport them. The threat of deportation — or the hope of a reprieve — could motivate people to stay quiet, even as they’re being abused.