GAO to Investigate Allegations of Sexual Abuse in Immigration Detention System

February 3, 2012

Government Watchdog Responds to Congressional Concerns over NIJC Complaints

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has announced plans to investigate complaints of sexual violence against immigrants in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) exposed by Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC).

The GAO decision responded to a letter from 30 members of Congress that cited complaints NIJC submitted to the DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in 2011 on behalf of 17 lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender immigrants.

“We hope the GAO investigation will force President Obama to reckon with the human rights disaster that the immigration detention system has become,” said NIJC Executive Director Mary Meg McCarthy. “The administration must take immediate steps to end these abuses, including applying the Prison Rape Elimination Act to DHS immigration detention facilities.”

The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), expected to be implemented in 2012, would require officials to investigate allegations of sexual abuse in jails and prisons, implement policies to prevent sexual assault and rape, and protect those who report it. Despite Congress’s original intent that PREA protect all prisoners in the United States, the Obama administration has refused to apply it to the immigration detention system.

The congressional letter, written by U.S. Representatives Jared Polis (D-CO) and Michael Quigley (D-IL), asked the GAO to conduct a detailed audit of immigration detention facilities to examine the incidence of sexual violence, identify what steps DHS is taking to rectify the problem, and suggest actions that would eliminate sexual violence from the immigration detention system. In addition to the NIJC complaints, the Congress members cited an October 2011 Frontline documentary, Lost in Detention, which revealed stories of sexual abuse at DHS’s Willacy County Detention Center in Texas and exposed nearly 200 allegations of abuse from immigrants in detention facilities across the nation that have been reported to DHS since 2007.

Click here to download the congressional letter (PDF)

Read more about NIJC’s efforts to end human rights abuses against detained immigrants