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Rep. Roybal-Allard & Congressional Women Leaders: Don’t Ignore the Plight of Immigrant Mothers in Detention

On the eve of announcement by President Obama on immigration executive action, women leaders call for investigation of sexual abuse of women in detention; criticize continuing incarceration of mothers and children

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Washington, November 19, 2014 | Ben Soskin ((202) 225-1766) | comments
Today, on the eve of an expected announcement by President Obama on immigration reform, Members of the Congressional Women’s Working Group on Immigration Reform, led by the group’s Chair, Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard (CA-40), called for an independent investigation of allegations of sexual abuse of detained immigrant mothers in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.  They also reiterated their strong belief that detention in prison-like conditions is inappropriate for families.

The alleged sexual abuses, which included reports that women may have been groped in the presence of children, occurred at the Karnes County Family Residential Center in Karnes County, Texas – a contract detention center.

Tragically, many of the women currently held in the federal government’s new family detention centers fled to the United States to escape sexual violence in Central America – a region including countries with some of the highest rates of violence against women in the world.  The U.S. immigration policies which have resulted in the incarceration of these women and their young children are consistent with the general failure of our broken immigration system to respect the basic rights and needs of vulnerable immigrant women.

“It’s tragic and completely unacceptable that women who fled their homes to escape sexual assault and domestic violence have suffered abuse in our government’s custody,” said Congresswoman Roybal-Allard.  “Detention is inappropriate in most cases for families and it doesn’t make sense to incarcerate women who are survivors of sexual or domestic violence.  Young mothers and rape victims do not pose a threat to our national security and we should stop treating them like dangerous criminals.  We can address the humanitarian situation at our border without endangering these vulnerable women or compromising our most basic American values.”

"No one in federal custody should ever have to fear for their human rights,” said Congresswoman Gwen Moore (WI-04). “The severity of these allegations call for swift action for an independent investigation.  If there is any truth to these troubling accusations, we must do everything in our power to reestablish an institutional culture that rejects abuse in all its forms.  Our country prides itself in being a global leader in human rights but if we are to keep this honorable title, we must address these concerns in a transparent and expedient manner."

“These allegations of abuse are disturbing but not surprising given the known perils of detaining such a vulnerable population,” said Michelle Brane, Director, Migrant Rights and Justice, Women’s Refugee Commission.  “The Administration should take all necessary steps to ensure that the countless mothers and children fleeing violence are able to access justice and protection, rather than be detained in remote detention centers that further their trauma. There are alternatives that are more cost effective and humane.”

"While we are thrilled to see President Obama finally moving towards executive action to curb excessive deportations, any remedy that does not also end the practice of family detention is simply not good enough,” said Silky Shah, Co-Director, Detention Watch Network.  “From children losing weight to women facing sexual abuse, the problems in these facilities are numerous.  DHS must prioritize an investigation into the allegations of sexual abuse at the Karnes facility and also immediately halt plans to open the 2,400-bed Dilley family detention facility in Texas."

The full text of the letter is below.   

November 19, 2014

The Honorable Jeh Johnson
Department of Homeland Security
3801 Nebraska Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20528

Dear Secretary Johnson:

We sincerely appreciate your leadership in finalizing the Department of Homeland Security’s Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) regulations earlier this year.  This critical step will help to protect vulnerable individuals in your Department’s custody from sexual violence.  

However, we write to express our serious concerns regarding recent allegations of sexual abuse and harassment at the Karnes County Family Residential Center in Karnes County, Texas.  We strongly urge you to take immediate action to ensure that these claims are independently investigated and to prevent potential victims and witnesses to crimes at Karnes from being deported pending the outcome of any inquiry.  Further, we request that you take steps to verify that PREA protocols intended to prevent, detect and respond to sexual abuse are strictly adhered to at Karnes and at other detention centers where families are held.  

As you know, more than 500 mothers and children are currently incarcerated at the Karnes family detention center.  Unfortunately, detailed complaints have been lodged with your Department alleging a troubling pattern of exploitation of women by guards and staff members at the facility.  Female detainees held at Karnes describe being removed from their cells late at night and then coerced into engaging in sexual acts with facility personnel.  They also allege that guards have inappropriately solicited detainees with promises of money or help with their immigration cases in exchange for sexual favors.  Further, women at the facility report being groped and fondled in the presence of other detainees, including young children.  

These startling allegations are made even more troubling by the fact that many of the women held at Karnes suffered extreme domestic or sexual violence in their home countries and journeyed to the United States seeking refuge from their abusers.  Most came from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras—countries with some of the highest rates of violence against women in the world and some of the lowest conviction rates for perpetrators of this heinous crime.  A thorough, independent investigation is urgently needed to determine whether women fleeing violence and abuse in Central America were traumatized for a second time while in the custody of our government.  

The complaints at Karnes also raise urgent questions about the extent to which protocols mandated by the PREA regulations have been effectively implemented at DHS facilities, especially those where women and children are held.  Given the serious nature of the allegations that have been made at Karnes and the acute vulnerability of the women held at this and other family detention centers, we believe it is critical that your Department act as quickly as possible to ensure that all of the PREA requirements have been appropriately implemented.  

More broadly, these complaints once again cast serious doubt on the wisdom of continuing to incarcerate mothers and their young children.  We strongly believe detention is inappropriate in most cases for families and that every effort should be made to fully utilize proven Alternatives to Detention, especially for women who are survivors of sexual or domestic violence.  

Given the seriousness of these allegations, we respectfully urge your immediate attention to this matter.  Once again, we appreciate your leadership in seeking to protect women in our government’s custody from abuse and we look forward to working with you to ensure that these vulnerable women are always treated with basic dignity and respect.  


Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard
Congresswoman Gwen Moore
Congresswoman Grace Napolitano
Congresswoman Barbara Lee
Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham
Congresswoman Diana DeGette
Congresswoman Katherine Clark
Congresswoman Jackie Speier

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