Detainment Factories: The processing, shipping and mishandling of detained immigrants

Jean Paul Plaza

The outbreak of violence and poverty in Central America has recently ignited an unprecedented migration of women and children to the U.S. Last year alone, the number of families immigrating increased dramatically by 500%1 and the number of detainments and deportations has risen proportionally in response. As part of U.S.’s effort to discourage further migration, immigrants are promptly being arrested and held, often unnecessarily, in detainment centers that house the very same conditions that many are desperately trying to escape. These centers are wrought with violations of human rights including poor sanitary conditions, the shackling of pregnant women and sexual abuse by the very officials running the centers. The recent influx of immigrants has only put a greater strain on detainment centers leading to a surge of sexual abuse allegations in the face of the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) “zero tolerance” for sexual abuse1. These harrowing conditions call for a closer examination of the DHS’s “zero tolerance” sexual abuse policy in detainment centers and of the broken immigration system that continues to nurture abuse and exploitation.

In March 2014, in response to the 215 allegations of sexual abuse from 2010 to 20122, the DHS finally elected to extend the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) of 2003 to protect those in detainment centers 3. Through this measure the DHS adopted a “zero tolerance” standard on sexual abuse. However, the standard has yet to curb sexual abuse. It lacks the necessary strict enforcement and oversight to monitor and report sexual abuse cases.

Sexual abuse cases continue to be fueled by the manipulation of immigrants who are fearful of being deported and by the stigma that exists in discussing sexual abuse. Reports indicate that guards have coerced women into sex in exchange for immigration help, groped women in front of children and have even removed women from their cells at night to engage in sexual acts1. However, these cases go unreported by immigrants who are afraid of speaking up and who aren’t always fully aware of their rights.4

Moreover, guards and officials get away with sexual abuse due to weak sanctions and poor and infrequent monitoring in the detention centers.4 Not all centers have constant video monitoring and official assessments aren’t frequent or rigorous enough. As a matter of fact, from 2009 to 2013, 40 percent of allegations never got reported by field offices to ICE headquarters.2 However, of the 215 reported cases, only 7 were actually sustained3. This extensive passivity of both judges and lawyers only further discourages immigrants from reporting abuse.

Worse, under the current policy there is no external oversight over Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), making ICE answerable to only itself. Thus, its “internal standards” and their enforcement are rarely reviewed by a third party, unlike the Federal Prison System by the Bureau of Prisons which is held accountable to such standards.5

The little oversight that does exist over ICE, however, comes mostly from community and civil society groups rather than from the government5. The problem is that this oversight is very limited and is contingent on ICE’s relationship with the organization. In the past, ICE has suspended visitation programs in the fear that allowing these organizations to visit the detention centers might lead to even more allegations against them. Terminating these visiting programs without providing official surveillance has and will only continue to breed sexual abuse. To commit to a “zero tolerance” standard, the DHS needs to establish a central office dedicated solely to addressing sexual abuse cases in detainment centers. Moreover, it must ensure that all detainees and detention officials know the standard and have the tools and resources to act appropriately.

The problem of oversight is further complicated by the rise in the privatization of detainment centers. Due to the lack of detainment centers, the ICE has had to turn to private companies to provide detainment services which has meant relinquishing the already little oversight and control they have. The use of private for-profit firms has become what Christina Parker, a project coordinator at Grassroots Leadership, describes “a recipe for abuse, neglect and misconduct”.7 In fact, there recently have been a slew of sexual abuse reports against the GEO Group, the second largest for-profit prison business that provides detainment services, despite GEO Group’s steadfast claims of maintaining a “zero tolerance for sexual abuse.”1 It is likely that these recent reports are far from isolated. A troubling 60% of detainment services are provided by private parties, suggesting that cases like these are likely commonplace in detainment centers throughout the nation.8 Consequently, for the DHS, establishing greater accountability will require divesting from private firms whose aims to maximize profits undermine the DHS’s very efforts to ensure safe and humane conditions.

Perhaps the largest problem with the policy adopted by the DHS is that it attempts to work around a broken system of immigration. The current system treats those that cross the borders as criminals or worse. However, is attempting to escape poverty and violence a crime? Unlike criminals, undocumented detainees have no right to an attorney and are held by ICE, the same entity that deports them5. Thus, for these detainees, challenging their conditions means risking their immigrant status, a grave risk for those who are fleeing violence.

Sexual abuse in detainment centers, consequently, is not a just a failure of the DHS’s “zero tolerance policy”; but also is a symptom of a dysfunctional immigration system. While addressing the need for greater oversight, transparency and enforcement must be at the forefront of their agenda, the U.S. and the DHS must also be cognizant of the endogenous nature of abuse in the current immigration system. Truly adopting a “zero tolerance” policy, therefore, will require more than strengthening their policies; instead, it will require reforming the immigration system from the ground up.


1. Seville, R Lisa. “Sex Abuse Alleged at Immigrant Family Detention Center in Texas”. NBC News. September 15th, 2014.

2. Government office of Accountability. Additional Actions Could Strengthen DHS Efforts to Address Sexual Abuse December 6, 2013. Available at

3. Gruberg, Sharita. “How the Prison Rape Elimination Act helps LBGT immigrants in detention”. American Progress. Aril 2, 2014.

4. Kaiser and Stannow, “Immigrant Detainees: The New Sex Abuse Crisis”. The New York. November 23, 2011.

5. “Detained and at Risk”. Human Rights Watch. August 2010. Available at

6. Eichelberger, Erika. “Watchdog: Feds Are Muzzling Us for Reporting Alleged Immigrant Detainee Sex Abuse”. Mother Jones. March 19, 2014

7. Rentz, Catherine. “How much sexual abuse gets lost in detention”. PBS. October 19, 2011.

8. Taylor, Marisa. “Immigrant women allege sexual abuse at detention center”. Aljazeera. October 9, 2014.