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Staff at Immigration Center Accused of Sexually Abusing Women Detainees

Several civil rights organizations have filed a complaint against a privately run detention center in Texas, citing widespread allegations of sexual abuse and harassment.

Last week, attorneys from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), the Immigration Rights and Civil Rights Clinics at the University of Texas Law School, Human Rights First, and the Law Office of Javier N. Maldonado asked the Department of Homeland Security and the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to investigate the newly-opened Karnes County Residential Center, where more than 500 mothers and children have been detained.

According to the complaint, at least three facility guards and staff have removed "female detainees from their cells late in the late evening and early morning hours for the purpose of engaging in sexual acts in various parts of the facility; calling detainees their 'novias,' or 'girlfriends' and requesting sexual favors from female detainees in exchange for money, promises of assistance with their pending immigration cases, and shelter when and if the women are released; and kissing, fondling and/or groping female detainees in front of other detainees, including children." The groups say the offenses are a clear abuse of the detained's rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, and a violation of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which institutes a zero-tolerance policy for sexual assault and rape in certain federally-operated facilities.

Detainees reported the abuses to Karnes personnel, but so far, no significant action has been taken to stop the harassment. "These women and children have fled horrific conditions in their home countries, including sexual violence and extortion," Marisa Bono, staff attorney with MALDEF, said. "Guards using their respective positions of power to abuse vulnerable, traumatized women all over again is not only despicable, it's against the law." Bono said the allegations prove the federal government should "not be in the business of detaining families."

The complaint comes just a week after a second complaint against Karnes was filed by many of the same organizations. That complaint detailed disproportionate disciplinary tactics and limited food, health, and mental health services. Barbara Hines, Co-Director of the University of Texas Immigration Clinic, said called these new allegations "particularly disturbing" in light of ICE's refusal to release some mothers and children on bond, even when they've met the threshold for an asylum claim.

The Karnes County Residential Center opened August 1, through an intergovernmental partnership between long-time private prison operator the Geo Group, Inc. and Karnes County. While DHS and ICE are responsible for enforcement of PREA's zero-tolerance policy prohibiting rape and sexual assault and other offenses, Karnes is not licensed under Texas state child welfare standards, which complicates the federal agencies' oversight power.

"It is clear from both the alleged and continuing conduct and the failure to respond to reports of abuse that either there is no prevention plan in place for the Karnes Center, or the Karnes Center policy is not being properly implemented, overseen, or enforced," the complaint reads. "DHS simply cannot continue to detain vulnerable individuals whom they are unable or unwilling to protect."

In December, a bipartisan group of Congress members urged the President to issue stronger protections to prevent the sexual abuse of immigrant detainees. Since then, feminist activists have continued to push for comprehensive immigration reform and an end to deportations by the Obama administration. The allegations also come on the heels of a complaint filed this summer against US Customs and Border Protection agents working at the US-Mexico border in Texas and Arizona citing 116 allegations of child abuse.

Media Resources: Feminist Newswire 12/2/13, 6/19/14, 8/29/14; MALDEF

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