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Sex Abuse in Immigrant Detention at Center of Political Storm
By newamericamedia.org
Published: 12/09/2011

WASHINGTON, DC—The word “fear” is repeated constantly in Esmeralda Soto’s testimony. Soto, a transgender woman, says that in 2003 she was forced to perform oral sex on an employee of an immigrant detention center in San Pedro, Calif. The government will soon adopt new regulations to protect victims of sexual abuse in prison--but those detained for their immigration status won’t be included under the protections.

“I desperately wanted to get rid of the taste of the officer’s semen, but the investigators wouldn’t let me wash my mouth out until they got the sample for the rape kit. The assault happened at 2:00 pm and I wasn’t taken to the hospital until the next morning. The memory of the taste is extremely upsetting and I have these memories all the time,” Soto said in testimony compiled by the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission (NPREC).

She is not alone. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), since 2007 in California alone, there have been at least 17 complaints of sexual abuse in prisons in Yuba, Santa Ana and Otay. The state of Texas is leading in this tragic statistic, with 56 complaints in the same period.

The problem isn’t limited to immigrant detention centers; it exists in the general prison system across the country. That’s why in 2003 a law was passed to eliminate rape in prison, called the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).

Under that law, sexual assault in state or federal prison constitutes a violation of the 8th Amendment of the Constitution. The law also demands that all establishments apply a zero tolerance policy to address the problem.

The law called for a comprehensive study and new regulations to address the problem. In January 2011, the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a first draft of regulations subject to comments and changes. In it, immigrant detention centers were not included.

Last week the DOJ sent the final regulations to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Several civil rights groups are afraid that despite the criticism, immigrant detention centers will continue to be excluded.

“On our many visits to immigration jails, we’ve never found a place where all the necessary standards have been implemented. Many detainees don’t even know who to talk to in case of abuse,” explained Michelle Brané, director of the Women’s Refugee Commission.

The agency that is the biggest opponent of applying these regulations to immigrant detention centers is the Department of Homeland Security. In fact, on Nov. 30, former NPREC president, Judge Reggie Walton, sent a letter to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, in which he specified the seriousness of the situation in an attempt to change DHS’s position.

“Excluding immigrant detention centers from the PREA requirements and the implementation of the final regulations that the DOJ will adopt, will leave detainees in a situation vulnerable to continued abuse,” argues the letter obtained by La Opinión.

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