Female Detainees Allege Unlawful Strip Searches By Immigration Center Officials

CREDIT: Esther Yu Hsi Lee

Advocates call on the Obama administration to end the practice of detaining families in detention centers in October 2015.

At least 31 female immigrant detainees have alleged that they were unlawfully strip searched at a California detention center contracted by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, according to a complaint lodged by the immigrant advocacy group Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC).

The complaint alleged that strip searches were conducted at the time of booking, when women were being transferred from immigration court back to the jail, and when women had in-person visits with their attorneys. None of the women said that they were informed beforehand that they would be strip searched. After women were transferred from immigration court back to the jail, the complaint indicated that they were subjected to at least one pat down while clothed. They were taken to a holding cell to undergo a strip search before being returned to the general housing population or to the transgender module, the complaint alleged. Complainants alleged that the strip searches were done without reasonable suspicion or probable cause and appeared to be a blanket policy of the Santa Ana City Jail, which contracted with ICE to operate as an immigration detention center beginning in March or April 2015.

One detainee said that she went through five strip searches in two months, then again every time she came back from immigration court. Another detainee said that she had to undergo ten strip searches in seven months at the facility. And women who menstruated were not provided with special provisions either, having to remove their period pad in their underwear during inspections. A 67-year-old woman also endured multiple strip searches at the jail, despite suffering a hip dislocation and pain. Even asylum seekers who survive sexual assault and rape were subjected to strip searches. Gloria Hernandez, a lesbian and a sexual assault survivor from Honduras, said that she has been strip-searched seven or eight times, which resulted in her suicide attempt at the jail.

Sometimes, visual strip searches turned into physical body cavity searches by non-medical officers. They were also sometimes done in front of other detainees. One transgender woman indicated that she “felt completely humiliated” after officers mocked her during her strip search. “In all of these cases, the trans women are not allowed to choose the gender of the person performing the search,” the complaint stated in part.

“Strip searches at the Santa Ana City Jail amount to state-sanctioned sexual assaults on women,” Christina Fialho, an attorney and the co-executive director of CIVIC, wrote in an email. “Santa Ana City Jail has been operating outside the limits of the Constitution and state law, while flagrantly violating federal standards for strip searches.”

Under ICE’s 2011 Performance-Based National Detention Standards (PBNDS), strip searches in immigration detention centers are prohibited unless there’s a reasonable suspicion of contraband possession. An updated guideline also calls for strip searches to be performed by staff of the same gender as the detainee and for transgender individuals to choose the gender of the staff member conducting a body-cavity search.

The pattern of overreach and abuse by immigration officials isn’t new. A 2011 Frontline investigation found no evidence that the vast majority of the more than 170 allegations of sexual abuse — mostly against guards and other staff at detention centers — made by undocumented immigrants over four years were investigated or resolved. Last year, the immigrant advocacy group Kino Border Initiative found that more than one-third of deported migrants experienced some type of abuse or mistreatment by agents in the process of being sent away from the country.