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Immigrant Detainees Say They Were Sexually Abused In CBP Custody

Mar 24, 2019
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

According to a new government report, several dozen immigrant detainees allege they were sexually abused in Customs and Border Protection holding facilities in recent years. The agency says that's a small fraction of immigrants who pass through these facilities. Immigrant advocates, however, say these allegations are just one part of the many problems in the nation's immigration detention system.

Silvia Vinas of Radio Ambulante has the story of two young women who say they were victims. And a warning, this story contains graphic descriptions of sexual assault.

SILVIA VINAS, BYLINE: It was the summer of 2016, and two young sisters were lost in a remote stretch of Texas desert. They had traveled from their small town in Guatemala and crossed the border without papers. Thirsty and afraid, they flagged down the Border Patrol. The older sister described what happened at the station.

SISTER #1: (Speaking Spanish).

VINAS: She says a Border Patrol agent took her to a room that looked like a pantry or a closet. He said he was going to search her because that was his job.

SISTER #1: (Speaking Spanish).

VINAS: And then she says he ordered her to remove her clothes. She began to cry when he fondled her breasts. And when she begged to keep her underwear on, she says he forcefully pulled it down and touched her. Afterward, the agent took her sister, a minor at the time, into the same small room.

SISTER #2: (Speaking Spanish).

VINAS: Her sister describes a similar scenario - being ordered to strip, the inappropriate touching. NPR isn't naming the two young women because they're alleged victims of sexual assault. They were 17 and 19 years old at the time. They came to America to get away from gang violence in their hometown and to be with their mother, Gloria. She has lived here as an undocumented immigrant for years and developed health problems. Days after they arrived, Gloria got a call.

GLORIA: (Speaking Spanish).

VINAS: The man on the line introduced himself as an investigator from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

GLORIA: (Speaking Spanish).

VINAS: He told her that her daughters had reported being assaulted and that an investigation had been launched. Gloria says the investigator told her to be strong, that they would help her. That's when she started to cry.

GLORIA: (Speaking Spanish).

VINAS: The Border Patrol released the sisters to their mom after a few days. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, has a policy of zero tolerance for sexual abuse and assault of anyone in their custody. But critics say that's not enough.

JAMES TOMSHECK: I believe there's a cultural problem at CBP.

VINAS: That's James Tomsheck. He was head of internal affairs at CBP from 2006 to 2014, and he became a whistleblower at the agency. He says he was disturbed by an alarming rate of sexual misconduct among frontline agents who deal with immigrant detainees. He says it was much higher than at other law enforcement agencies.

TOMSHECK: I believe it can be directly attributed to the hiring mandates and hiring surges that allowed unsuitable persons to enter the workforce. They had, in their backgrounds, conduct that should have caused them to be found unsuitable.

VINAS: After that hiring surge, more safeguards were put into place. But Tomsheck says he worries the Trump administration's plan to rapidly increase the size of the Border Patrol could lead to more problems. And immigrant rights advocates worry that widespread abuse continues. They say government reports don't capture assaults that immigrants are too afraid to report or that aren't investigated when they do.

ANGELICA SALCEDA: Those are just the cases that have been reported and have been elevated.

VINAS: Angelica Salceda is a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. She filed the legal actions on behalf of the two sisters.

SALCEDA: We've seen troubling cases, extensively documented history of human rights abuses at the hands of Border Patrol and CBP officers. So certainly it's more than just a few bad apples.

VINAS: Advocates say thousands of immigrant detainees come forward every year with allegations of physical or sexual abuse by CBP or Immigration and Customs Enforcement and that the agencies often dismiss them. According to the most recent CBP report, only one case against staff was found to be substantiated out of nearly 40 allegations of abuse by staff and other detainees over four years.

As for the sisters' case, CBP investigators closed it, saying there wasn't any physical evidence. Then, last month, the agency settled a lawsuit filed in the younger sister's case for $125,000. CBP said the settlement is not an admission of liability or fault and that the agent is still employed there.

SALCEDA: There's a long-fought battle with the government to ensure that there is justice in this case for our client who, at the time, was a minor.

VINAS: Salceda says the young woman didn't want to take the case to trial and relive the incident over and over in court. But it still affects her. She's very religious and worries that her future partner will reject her if he finds out. Her sister has returned to Guatemala. For NPR News, I'm Silvia Vinas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.