Last month the Star Tribune reported that an 18-year-old high school student who was being held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the Sherburne County Jail suffered repeated sexual assaults by his cellmate. The student, who had been taken into federal immigration custody, was housed with another “boarder” in the jail, a convicted sex offender who was locked up in the Sherburne County Jail under a contract with the Minnesota Department of Corrections.
The allegations of assault, while shocking, are hardly surprising. According to the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, which tracks reports of sexual violence in corrections facilities under the Prison Rape Elimination Act, sexual victimization of incarcerated persons is a widespread and growing threat to the estimated 1 in every 108 adults incarcerated in prison or jail in the United States. BJS noted that “correctional administrators reported 8,763 allegations of sexual victimization in 2011, a statistically significant increase over the 8,404 allegations reported in 2010 and 7,855 in 2009” and that “total allegations of sexual victimization rose significantly between 2005 (6,241) and 2011 (8,763).”
And given the number of people detained by ICE pending deportation, it’s also sadly not surprising that the victim in this case was detained by federal immigration authorities. According to the National Immigration Forum, the number of beds available for detention in ICE custody has nearly doubled in the past seven years alone, skyrocketing from 18,000 beds in 2004 to 34,000 for Fiscal Year 2014, while the number of people who pass through the ICE detention system nearly has doubled from 209,000 in 2001 to 392,000 in 2010.
Part of this growth may be related to federal appropriations laws that have been interpreted to mandate that 34,000 immigration detention beds be filled each day, regardless of whether each particular alien is either detained subject to federal immigration law’s mandatory detention provisions or whether they have been found to be a risk of flight or a danger to the community.
The growth is also related to the tightening relationship between federal and immigration authorities and local law enforcement. The Advocates for Human Rights’ recent report, Moving from Exclusion to Belonging: Immigrant Rights in Minnesota Today, details how once in jail for any reason, people are subject to interrogation by ICE and how individuals are routinely turned over to federal immigration authorities upon a “detainer request” from those agencies, with no scrutiny by prosecutors or courts about the constitutional validity of the underlying arrest. And today the ACLU of Minnesota sent a letter to all Minnesota sheriffs warning that honoring ICE detainer requests violates the U.S. Constitution.
People detained on civil immigration status violations are held in over 250 jails, prisons, and secure detention centers around the United States, operated variously by ICE, state and local governments, and private prison corporations. Although ICE has promulgated detention standards, the standards are not legally enforceable and failure of contracted facilities like county jails to meet standards carries no penalty. And while detention standards promulgated in 2011 added provisions regarding prevention of sexual assault against detained persons, facilities continue to follow outdated detention standards from 2008 and 2000, while others that have agreed to abide by newer standards claim to still be in the process of implementation.
The United States has the power to control immigration, but that authority is limited by our obligation to respect the fundamental human rights of all persons. In designing and in enforcing our immigration laws, the rights to safety and security of the person, freedom from arbitrary detention, and freedom from inhumane conditions of detention must be protected. In the case of detained persons – who are wholly at the mercy of the state, the United States puts itself in the position of guarantor of human rights and assumes a specific duty to respect and guarantee that the human rights of detained persons are respected, protected, and fulfilled.
The United States’ immigration detention system is riddled with systemic failures to protect human rights, but momentum is growing to correct some of the most glaring injustices. This week the Detention Watch Network will bring together advocates and activists from around the United States who are dedicated to challenging the human rights violations that result from immigration detention. At the top of the agenda is a campaign to end the detention bed quota which results in the arbitrary detention of thousands of people in immigration custody every year.
By: Michele Garnett McKenzie, attorney and director of advocacy for The Advocates for Human Rights. She is responsible for policy advocacy and community and coalition engagement around The Advocates’ priority issues, including human trafficking and refugee and immigrant rights.