Violence Against Women is the Dark Underbelly of The USA’s Migrant Detention System

Donald Trump is fond of ascribing violence in American cities to immigrants. He has even gone so far as to propose a Constitutional amendment that would erase the bedrock law of giving citizenship to any baby born on American shores.

But what about violence inflicted on migrants once they crossed the border?  The fact is,  many who come to the USA fleeing violence–particularly women–are subject to abuse upon arrival.

Central American women, detained in Texas last year, alleged sexual abuse in detention. Many were asylum-seekers. Some had suffered sexual violence back home. But the nightmare was not over. Guards took them from their cells for sex, women said. They groped mothers in front of their children. Playing on detainees’ desperation, guards told women they would help them once released – but in exchange for sex.

The horror stories hardly stop there. Transgendered women especially are at risk. Despite identifying as female, they are often placed in all-male units. Nicoll Hernández-Polanco, one transgendered woman detained in Arizona, fled Guatemala seeking asylum from persecution based on gender identity. In six months in all-male detention, she alleged that male guards constantly groped and insulted her. Another male detainee sexually assaulted her. When she protested these conditions, she was put in solitary confinement, she said.

These are only a few of many more sexual abuse allegations. The Government Accountability Officeinvestigated over 200 such complaints filed from 2009 to 2013. Yet even this number is an underestimate. Detainees often avoid reporting incidents, fearing retaliation or re-traumatization.

The sexual abuse of migrants in detention centers is the dirty underbelly of the USA’s migrant detention system. It’s a problem that has been known to authorities for years, yet there has not been sufficient effort to clamp down on these kinds of criminal activities that prey on deeply vulnerable women.

So what can be done to stop the abuse?

For starters, freeing certain detainees would probably help. Last month, a federal judge ordered the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to release mothers and children detained together. (The Texas women who alleged sexual abuse had been in such a family-detention center.) While a welcome change, this one step is far from a solution. Thousands of women are still detained. They are still potential victims of abuse.

There are broader, systemwide changes that might also push the needle in the right direction.

For one, the DHS does not follow guidelines set by the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). These rules include more checks, training, and restrictions on guards. A first step is to improve compliance with PREA. Yet even that would only go so far. Detainees, like prisoners, are inherently vulnerable to abuse.

Also, many detainees are simply waiting to go to court. They have been convicted of no crime and pose no security threat. Detention is a drastic method just to ensure court attendance. Detainees might stay locked up for months. Each day they spend in detention, they remain at risk of abuse.

Finally, alternatives to detention already exist in many countries. In the USA, effective methods include social services and legal representation. Asylum-seekers are very likely to pursue their cases, even with no supervision.  With a better chance in court, people are more likely to show up for hearings. They need not be locked up beforehand.

Changes will be slow. The detention system is entrenched. To comply with Congressional budget directives, DHS must detain at least 34,000 people a day. Politicians must change this mandate to make detention reform possible.

The United Nations can play a role. It has already urged US compliance with PREA in detention centers. It can make more Americans aware of the abuses in detention centers and the alternatives to detention. Many voters know little about immigration detention, which happens in remote sites.  Alternatives to detention may be hard to imagine. The UN can help US advocates see how other countries have successfully used alternatives. With this knowledge, advocates can press for reforms to detention.

No immigration system should allow abuses in detention. Women fleeing violence must not suffer again. Asylum-seekers to the US must truly find refuge there.

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