The U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General (DHS OIG), the organization that does independent inspections of the government agency, claims it opened investigations into a total of 247 of 33,126 complaints lodged against its component agencies between January 2010 and July 2016.
OIG data shows the office conducted a total of 570 investigations of sexual and/or physical abuse, but only 247 of those cases came from complaints filed by people in DHS detention. The data was obtained via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request released by Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC), an advocacy group that visits immigrant detainees, which also filed a civil rights complaint on Tuesday.
According to the data gathered by CIVIC, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection — two agencies responsible for the arrest, detention, and deportation of immigrants — received 75.5 percent, or 24,988 of all complaints during the six year period, including allegations of coerced sexual contact, sexual harassment, and physical or sexual abuse.
The ICE agency received anywhere between 1,016 and 2,573 sexual abuse complaints from people in DHS detention — a number that’s difficult to pinpoint because there was no “detainee reported sexual abuse or assault” category in their collection of complaint categories prior to May 28, 2014. Other categories include “detaine reported abuse,” “non-criminal misconduct,” “other criminal misconduct,” “physical or sexual abuse,” and “sexual harassment.” However, an additional 1,557 complaints lodged against ICE and CBP were categorized as “coerced sexual contact,” “sexual harassment,” and “physical or sexual abuse” between January 2010 and July 2016.
The CIVIC complaint charged that OIG only investigated 24 complaints lodged after May 2014, with the agency declining to investigate 92.6 percent of those cases or referred the complaint to the relevant agency without requesting follow-up.
R. Santos, an immigrant brought to the country as a nine-year-old from the Dominican Republic in 1981, is part of the complaint that CIVIC filed against the DHS agency. Santos was held at the York County Prison in Pennsylvania in 2013 for petty theft during which time she appeared before an immigration judge to plead her case. As a male officer escorted her back to her detention cell, he told her that she was under his control and that she needed to do whatever he said.
“We get close to the holding cell [attorney-client meeting room] where we’re supposed to meet with our lawyers, and he screamed that we ought to do what he said or there would be ass fucking 101,” Santos told ThinkProgress in a phone interview. She requested for the publication to withhold her first name in fear of retaliation by the officer who she said now holds a “cubicle job” at the prison.
“There’s no one to scream out for any help.”
“He put me in a holding cell where there’s no camera,” Santos added. “There’s no one to scream out for any help.”
When her lawyer came in 10 minutes later, Santos said that she wanted to file a complaint against him. She said that she was put in solitary confinement for 11 days because of that, an “act of retaliation” to ensure that she wouldn’t do that again. She recalled that her 14 months in detention were hellish because the male officer had the night shift so she never slept at night and she lost 20 pounds. She asked for counseling, which she also did not receive.
“I felt tracked,” Santos said. “I never know if he would do things. I always had that fear that he would do things that he was not supposed to especially if there were no cameras.”
Santos wanted to be a part of the CIVIC complaint because she felt that she needed to speak out for other women who may have gone through similar situations at the hands of immigration agents.
Santos’ claims have some similarity to other allegations made by immigrants who reported being sexually abused by immigration officials. Her damning story comes one nearly a month after the American Civil Liberties Union advocacy group filed two administration claims on behalf of two sisters who said that a CBP agent sexually assaulted them in a closet-like space within a detention facility. The abuse extends to children too — five human rights groups filed a joint complaint on behalf of 116 kids who alleged abuse by border agents and officials. One in four children represented by the 2014 complaint reported that they were physically abused, sexually assaulted, beat, or made to sit in stress positions.
The complaint is concerning in part because President Donald Trump has signed an executive order to hire thousands of additional immigration agents, an issue that could lead to greater abuse. A 2013 Center for Investigative Reporting report found that thousands of would-be agents got to the last steps of the hiring process without polygraph screenings which became mandatory in 2013. Some prospective agents who did undergo the polygraph tests admitted to murder, bestiality, rape, and other crimes.
“I’m doing this for other girls who have to stay quiet.”
“Imagine these girls who doesn’t speak English, who are afraid to speak out and say something because they want to stay in the United States,” Santos said. “These are [immigration agents] who if you do something, [the girls] would stay quiet. I’m doing this for other girls who have to stay quiet.”