El Paso Rep. Veronica Escobar is calling for answers from the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) watchdog and top administration officials following a disturbing complaint last week alleging that officers at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility in Texas carried out a “pattern and practice of sexual harassment and sexual assault” against detained people.
“Since the complaint was filed, three new reports have emerged of such sexual assault, including one from a victim who is currently detained, and another who has already been deported,” Escobar writes to DHS Inspector General Joseph V. Cuffari, unlawfully appointed acting DHS Sec. Chad Wolf, and acting ICE Director Matthew Albence. “Because of such retaliation, instances of assault at the El Paso Processing Center may be much higher than reported or alleged.”
Some of the abuses detailed by advocacy group Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in the complaint to Cuffari’s office last week included allegations that guards used the detention facility’s “camera blind spots” to assault detainees. One person said she sought assistance from a captain after getting assaulted in one of these areas, only to get dismissed. One of those guards then only became more aggressive towards her.
“Although lieutenants, captains, and ICE supervisors have been made aware of these patterns of sexual misconduct, we present a pattern by which they have failed to protect detainees as required by U.S. law and ICE internal guidance,” Las Americas said last week. “The experiences of three detainees are detailed in this complaint and serve to illustrate a pattern and practice of sexual exploitation and retaliation for reporting harassment at EPPC by EPPC staff.”
Another person detailed in the complaint said he was thrown into solitary confinement, which is torture, after complaining about a guard touching himself while watching him and others shower. “The complaint also alleges that after two of the victims reported their assault, they experienced retaliation,” Escobar’s letter notes, raising alarms that there are others who may be too afraid to report abuses against them.
”In the letter, Escobar also called on DHS to prevent retaliation against survivors, preserve all physical and electronic evidence during the time period in question, release the victims still in custody to a sponsor, and halt their deportation in order to make the victims available to investigators for questioning,” her office said. “Congresswoman Escobar concluded the letter by requesting responses to her questions and an immediate telephonic briefing on the status of the investigation being conducted and the steps being taken to prevent retaliation.”
These reported abuses represent only a small fraction of the thousands of complaints against the out-of-control ICE agency: “About 14,700 complaints alleging sexual and physical abuse were lodged against ICE between 2010 and 2016, according to federal data obtained by the advocacy group Freedom for Immigrants,” The Texas Tribune reported. “The group found that only a small fraction were investigated by the Office of Inspector General.”
Per Escobar’s letter, the DHS inspector general is investigating these allegations, but the agency has continued to remain unaccountable for far too long now. “The United States has an obligation to protect migrants in our care,” she continued. “When any allegation is made that details a violation of that standard of care it is our duty to seek the truth and hold violators to account.”