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Social Justice

UW report finds failure to respond to ICE detainees’ sexual abuse complaints

ICE Detention Center
Ted S. Warren
/
AP
Boxes for detainees to file grievances are shown during a media tour of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center, Monday, Dec. 16, 2019, in Tacoma, Wash. The GEO Group is the private company that operates the center for the U.S. Government.

A new report by the University of Washington Center for Human Rights shows that there have been more than 60 sexual abuse allegations — ranging from harassment to assault — at the ICE detention center in Tacoma.

The 16-page report titled “Calls to Nowhere: Reports of sexual abuse and assault go unanswered at the NWDC” traces sexual abuse allegations at the detention facility over the last 10 years.

University of Washington researchers pored over thousands of pages of documents, many of them obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Specifically, researchers examined documents provided by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, Tacoma Police Department reports and paper trials that name GEO Group, the private prison company that runs the ICE detention center in Tacoma.

There are various ways that those in ICE custody can report allegations of sexual misconduct, including through a hotline and in writing. But UW researchers found officials often failed to track these alleged incidents and respond to them appropriately, violating their own standards and federal law.

In 2016, for example, a man said he was raped at the ICE detention facility. Although the Tacoma Police Department dispatched an officer to St. Joseph’s Hospital to interview the detainee, ICE officials never documented the alleged incident in what’s known as its Significant Event Notification System — as their own standards require.

The following year, another detainee said they were inappropriately touched “inside their underwear” by a health care provider at the ICE detention facility. The detainee said they experienced panic attacks and had suicidal thoughts as a result. The alleged rape was also never documented in ICE’s Significant Event Notification System.

And three years ago, a Honduran man detained at the facility called the hotline to complain guards and his ICE deportation officer failed to respond when he attempted to report an assault. An investigator then walked into the detainee’s room and in front of others, spoke loudly about the sexual assault complaint, violating privacy rules.

Angelina Godoy-crop.jpg
Courtesy Angelina Godoy
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University of Washington Professor and Director of the Center for Human Rights Angelina Godoy.

Ultimately, this labyrinth of reporting systems simply doesn't work,” said Angelina Godoy, director of the Center for Human Rights at the University of Washington in a recent interview about the report.

Godoy and other researchers also note that the deportation of victims, witnesses and alleged abusers can make investigations into sexual assault complaints at the facility difficult to complete.

In a statement, GEO Group said it strongly rejects the report’s allegations.

“The Northwest ICE Processing Center (NWIPC) has a long-standing record of providing high-quality safe and humane care,” said GEO Group Corporate Relations Manager Christopher Ferreira. “We take all allegations of sexual assault with the utmost seriousness and mandate zero tolerance towards all forms of sexual abuse and sexual harassment.”

David Yost, an ICE spokesperson, said the agency focuses its "civil immigration enforcement priorities on the apprehension and removal of noncitizens who pose a threat to our national security, public safety, and border security."

UW researchers conclude there is no easy fix for the lack of accountability when it comes to claims of abuse at the facility, in part because studies have shown even independent audits of ICE detention centers have not led to improvements.

“The problem this reveals is not one that can be solved by further investigations or audits; the problem is that the agency has total control over detained people’s location, well-being, and access to the outside world, and there is no effective oversight—neither by federal or local governments, nor the courts—to ensure this power is wielded without abuse,” UW researchers write in the report.

Updated: May 16, 2022 at 5:10 PM PDT
Updated with statement from ICE.
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