Though the number has decreased over recent months, there are still thousands of refugees from Central America are still being apprehended along the Texas-Mexico border. The issue has largely fallen out of the media spotlight, but the border region is still facing many problems.
Several of these issues came to light over the past two weeks as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) filed two complaints with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security alleging abuses at the Karnes County Residential Center in South Texas. The first complaintalleged that detainees lacked access to food, phones, and resources to care for their children. The second, filed last week, brought to light allegations of sexual abuse in the detention center.
According to the MALDEF complaint, several truly disturbing abuses are taking place in the Karnes detention center (emphasis mine):
1. Karnes Center guards and/or personnel removing female detainees from their cells late in the evening and during early morning hours for the purpose of engaging in sexual acts in various parts of the facility;
2. Karnes Center guards and/or personnel calling detainees their “novias,” or “girlfriends,” and using their respective position and power over the highly vulnerable detained women within the detention facility by requesting sexual favors from female detainees in exchange for money, promises of assistance with their pending immigration cases, and shelter when and if the women are released; and
3. Karnes Center guards kissing, fondling, and/or groping female detainees in front of other detainees, including children.
The Karnes County Residential Center is run by a private, for-profit, prison operator called the GEO Group. The company, based in Florida, has seen several contracts already canceled in Texas, and have been highlighted in news reports about prison abuse and neglect.
The GEO Group has refuted the allegations. A spokesperson told CNN, “The Karnes County Residential Center provides a safe, clean, and family-friendly environment for mothers and children awaiting required processing by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. The center provides high quality care, and our company strongly denies any allegations to the contrary.”
Many of the women in the detention center were fleeing from sexual violence in their home countries in Central America. Instead, they have encountered even more dehumanizing conditions. As Marisa Bono, staff attorney for MALDEF, told the Latin Post:
“…if you are a prisoner you can’t really give consent because you are in a very vulnerable situation and you’re facing, in this case, guards and personnel who are abusing their power and abusing their authority over you. And this applies especially in this context, because these women are fleeing horrific violence, including sexual violence and extortion in their home countries and so they are especially vulnerable to that type of abuse and manipulation.”
MALDEF has been monitoring the detention center, as well as contacting pro bono lawyers to help with detainees’ immigration cases.
Yesterday, State Senator Leticia Van de Putte joined La Unión Del Pueblo Entero (LUPE) and representatives from non-profit organizations in the Rio Grande Valley to speak out against the alleged abuses. She called for a full investigation of the allegations:
“If these allegations of sexual assault are true, it is abhorrent. There is no excuse for sexual assault. A full and thorough investigation by the federal government is warranted and those who have caused these immigrant women and children harm must be held accountable.
Texans won’t stand idly by, while mothers — here legally or not — are assaulted. Women and children who fled horrific violence in Central America should not have to face more suffering here in Texas.
Those who use extreme rhetoric about immigrants fleeing violence in their home countries should pause and ponder whether their words are inciting such mistreatment of women.”
The guards’ actions are potentially in violation of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which prohibits sexual contact between guards and prisoners. It is a serious violation, and it is vital that an investigation move forward so that those responsible can be held accountable for their actions.