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Coalitions Fighting Sexual Violence Speak Out Against ICE Detention Abuses

Ed Williams / KUNM
Women and their children line up in 2014 at the Artesia, N.M., immigrant detention center, which was accused of being out of complaince with state child welfare laws.

Thousands of people have come forward with complaints about sexual abuse inside immigration detention facilities—including children. But few have ever been investigated.

Now, organizations representing survivors are demanding that detention centers enforce federal laws against abuse of prisoners and stop separating families, which they say makes kids vulnerable to assault.

KUNM spoke with longtime advocate and attorney Claire Harwell of the New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs. Harwell says asylum-seekers are often fleeing sexual violence in other countries before they’re locked up in U.S. facilities, where they may face the the same violence.

Harwell: We’re creating new vulnerabilities with the detention and the conditions of detention. We are creating an atmosphere and an environment where people can be harmed again in the same ways or similar ways to the kinds of things that they experienced in their home countries.

The idea that silence is part of what allows abuses to happen unchecked is not a new one in the fight against sexual violence, that’s a core idea. But in this case, few people can really see what’s going on inside these detention centers and reporters are prevented from talking to people in there, so how can the silence be broken?

Harwell: There are a number of things that are happening through the work of amazing nonprofit entities and through the work of volunteers. There are people going to facilities interviewing individuals. Lawyers are doing that. And there are organizations that have done FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] requests from governmental agencies to get a big picture of what this has looked like.

And the realities that have emerged are horrifying at the individual level, but also at the larger level as we begin to get the picture that really, from 2009 on, sexual violence was a problem in immigration detention centers. And now because there’s so many more people being held for longer periods of time in detention, and the stakes are so much higher, but even under these harsh conditions, there have been complaints, many thousands of complaints. Many people under these harsh conditions—survivors who have bravely stepped forward—have shared their experiences.

Sexual harassment, abuse and assault—and that there’s hardly ever investigations into these crimes inside these facilities—those are all violations of the Prison Rape Elimination Act.  Who should make sure that detention facilities follow the law?

Harwell: There are a combination of things that aren’t happening that need to happen. One of the things that has been exposed is that very few cases have been investigated by the Office of the Inspector General. They investigated less than 3 percent of the allegations that were brought from 2014 to 2017. That’s a subject that we need, as a country, to look at very closely: How many of these have been really investigated?

A very large number of cases were ‘unfounded,’ which means that they were found to be without enough supporting evidence to do anything with them in terms of any kind of formal sanctioning process. We need to bring some scrutiny to bear on those ‘unfounded’ cases to be certain that they in fact were cases that nothing could be done.

The other portion of it is that we as citizens really have to vote. We simply have to use our votes well.

The problem feels so urgent, so just waiting to vote and make sure that you vote for someone who wants to take care of this, that feels like a distant resolution. How can these public officials or whomever it is that’s supposed to be overseeing this stuff, how can we hold them accountable today?

Harwell: I think you have a very fair point. I guess I don’t know the answer to that. A number of different nonprofit agencies have tried to do that. The ACLU has filed a number of lawsuits. Other organizations have filed lawsuits. We can support those entities that are filing lawsuits on behalf of survivors. But in terms of what we do beyond that, I guess I’m not clear what the next step really should be.

What do you think this kind of widespread assault inside of a government facility will mean for survivors in the future?

Harwell: Survivors need to know that government and the state will be a bastion of defense for them. That there will be protection if they decide to take on reporting what’s happened to them. And unfortunately, in society generally, we don’t always live up to our obligation. But it is horrifying the degree to which we are not living up to that obligation to these individuals who have already been brutalized in other countries.

Marisa Demarco began a career in radio at KUNM News in late 2013 and covered public health for much of her time at the station. During the pandemic, she is also the executive producer for Your NM Government and No More Normal, shows focused on the varied impacts of COVID-19 and community response, as well as racial and social justice. She joined Source New Mexico as editor-in-chief in 2021.
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