For TakePart.com | Earlier this year, a 13-year-old boy was taken into U.S. Customs and Border Patrol custody in Hidalgo, Tex., separated from his sister, and placed in a holding cell among adult men for three days. According to a complaint filed in June by the ACLU in conjunction with four other nonprofits, two adults in the cell that night threatened the boy, telling him they’d “ ‘eat him up’ while he slept.”
The boy, identified as J.P., was sexually molested. Then he was molested again.
“J.P. repeatedly tried to report the abuse to CBP officials,” the complaint reads, “but they ignored him. J.P. continues to feel afraid when he remembers what happened to him.”
According to the graphic complaint, which was delivered in a letter to the Department of Homeland Security on June 11, immigrant children and teens in U.S. detention facilities have been enduring brutal abuse for years. With the recent surge in the number of apprehensions of unaccompanied minors making national news, the question now is whether such incidents are becoming more frequent.
One in four migrant children caught entering the U.S. and taken into CBP custody “reported some form of physical abuse, including sexual assault, beatings, and the use of stress positions by CBP officials,” the ACLU complaint alleges.
Assuming the ACLU sample is representative, extrapolating it to the number of juvenile migrants currently in CBP custody would mean the number of underage abuse victims potentially totals more than 13,000.
Over the last three years, the ACLU has been agitating for information related to sex abuse perpetrated against immigration detainees held in the United States. After Freedom of Information Act requests went unanswered, ACLU lawyers sued for the public records.
Children reported being forced to eat spoiled food, getting sick from a lack of medical attention, and being verbally and physically abused by agents. Verbal abuse was reported to include agents calling children “dogs,” “parasites,” and “sluts.” One teenager, identified as C.S., said, “The only drinking water available…came from the toilet tank in her holding cell.” A female J.P., age 12, and her sister “required medical treatment for dehydration” after their release from custody in Texas. A 19-year-old mother said that during nine days in custody, she had only been allowed to change her infant daughter’s diaper once. Five-year-old O.M., an asylum seeker accompanied by his mother, reportedly ate a single cookie each day for three days straight, sleeping at night on the hard ground with no bedding.
These children and teens are a new subset of the “most vulnerable” detainees, up until now regarded as women, gay, and transgender immigrants.
The problem isn’t that a protective framework doesn’t exist. The Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 was revised in March 2014 after a damning investigation by Frontline in 2012 found that the large majority of sex abuse complaints in immigration detention centers were never investigated, let alone resolved. On Nov. 20, 2013, a Government Accountability Office report agreed: Hotlines for reporting abuse had been set up, but no one bothered to answer the phones. Certain reports of abuse vanished. A quarter of all cases under investigation had been closed because of “lack of evidence”—that is, the victim had already been deported. No one was tracking the government agency’s responses to allegations of abuse.
The new, expanded federal PREA guidelines are supposed to make all facilities under the Department of Homeland Security umbrella, including immigration detention, subject to standardized reporting.
But meaningful change, oversight, and accountability could still be a long way off. The June 2014 abuse complaint against the Department of Homeland Security, filed months after the PREA update was passed, is strikingly similar to one the ACLU filed in 2011.
Abuses by immigration officials “have been documented and reported to DHS for years,” the ACLU noted in its letter. “But the government has not implemented reforms or taken any action to hold agents accountable.”