A woman locked in a Texas immigrant detention center is alleging that her 12-year-old daughter was sexually abused by another detainee there last month.
The charges, contained in an affidavit obtained by The Huffington Post and submitted to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, surfaced just days after the facility won a temporary license to operate as a child care center.
The woman and her daughter, both Salvadoran immigrants, have been detained at the Karnes County Residential Center since March. A federal judge ruled last year that children shouldn’t be held in family detention centers for more than a few days, and immigrant rights groups continue to view them as jails by another name. However, the facility has tried to convince Texas authorities that it can comply with the ruling by providing adequate accommodations for families and children.
The abuse allegations and other elements of the case highlight a number of glaring problems with the U.S. immigration system, particularly as authorities struggle to address an influx of women and children fleeing violence in Central America.
Escaping Abuse In El Salvador
The mother -- who declined to be identified, citing fears for her family’s safety in El Salvador -- wrote in her affidavit that she came to the United States after being repeatedly abused and threatened by a gang.
In January, members of the gang shot and killed her brother-in-law while he was on his way to work, she stated. During the wake, she was handing out coffee to her neighbors when four men pulled her away from the crowd and raped her, she said. They claimed to be the same people who killed her brother-in-law.
“They said they would kill my husband and rape my daughter if I told anyone what they did to me,” the woman wrote. “They said that my daughter was pretty and they wanted the same from her.”
For the next two months, the woman said, the gang members returned to her home to rob her. In March, she wrote, they broke into her home and each of the four men raped her again.
El Salvador currently has the highest homicide rate of any peacetime country, at roughly 116 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. Neighboring Guatemala and Honduras also struggle with extreme violence, weak policing and gang wars.
More than 275,000 families and unaccompanied minors from those three countries have fled to the United States since 2014, according to Customs and Border Protection. Many ask for asylum or other humanitarian relief, saying they will be killed or abused if they're deported to their home countries.
The woman says that she crossed into the U.S. in March and told an immigration officer that gang members in El Salvador had raped her and threatened her life.
But she claims the officer told her it didn’t matter to authorities whether she had been raped in her home country. When she went before immigration authorities for a “credible fear” interview, the first step in applying for asylum, she didn’t mention the rapes -- both because of what the officer had told her and because her daughter was sitting alongside her.
Both she and her daughter were locked in a holding station, then transferred to the Karnes County Residential Center outside of San Antonio, Texas.
Complaints About Another Detainee Ignored
Once they arrived at the detention facility in Karnes City, Texas, the mother says she immediately complained to guards about her female suite mate, who she said made lewd comments about her and her daughter.
But according to the affidavit, the guards ignored her concerns. Authorities only moved the suite mate after she flashed the child and touched the child’s genitals, according to the girl's mother.
“My worst nightmare became a reality when my daughter was sexually assaulted in jail by a woman we were forced to share a room with,” the affidavit reads. “My daughter’s abuser remains in this detention center and we must see her every day. My daughter is afraid to be without me for even a minute.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement said they concluded an investigation into the allegations last month.
“Three agencies -- the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, Child Advocacy Centers and the Karnes County (Texas) Sheriff’s Department -- closed the case April 20 of a 12-year-old, housed with her mother at the Karnes County Residential Center, who alleged she was inappropriately touched by another female resident,” ICE said in a statement to HuffPost. “All three agencies concluded that information provided by the minor could not be corroborated, and the case lacked evidence to pursue any further action."
Despite the severity of the threats the mother claimed to face in El Salvador, an immigration judge denied her request for asylum. RAICES, a group that offers pro-bono legal representation for women locked up at Karnes, asked for another interview last month, arguing that their client omitted key information in her first interview. That appeal was also rejected.
“This case represents everything that’s wrong with the policy of deterring refugees with detention,” Jonathan Ryan, the executive director for RAICES, told HuffPost. “She faces imminent death if returned, and she can’t even get an interview to explain why. It defies comprehension.”
Last month, the attorneys petitioned the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to issue protective measures for the woman and her child. It’s uncommon for attorneys to go over the federal government’s head on immigration issues, though the IACHR has ruled in immigrants’ favor in the past.
Unknown Adults Aren't Supposed To Be Sleeping With Kids
Amid protests and lawsuits, the Obama administration largely ended the policy of family detention back in 2009.
But the Karnes detention facility was repurposed as a family detention center in 2014 when a growing number of Central American mothers, children and unaccompanied minors entered the U.S., setting off a storm of political controversy. The Obama administration also hastily constructed another family detention center in Dilley, Texas, to lock up women crossing into the United States with their children.
Immigrant rights activists and lawyers describe both facilities as little more than jails, used to deter victims of violence from seeking asylum. Both detention centers are run as for-profit enterprises by private companies that specialize in prison contracting.
A spokesman for GEO Group, the company that runs the Karnes County Residential Center, declined to comment on the abuse allegations.
Federal judge Dolly Gee ruled last year that locking children up with their mothers in family detention violates the 1997 Flores settlement, which requires the federal government to keep kids in the least restrictive setting possible and to generally favor a policy of releasing them.
To comply with the ruling, both the Karnes and Dilley family detention centers applied for licenses to operate as child care facilities. Texas state officials granted Karnes a temporary license for six months last week, but the state faces an ongoing lawsuit aimed at derailing the process.
Luis Zayas, a professor of social work at the University of Texas at Austin who has interviewed more than 20 women and children detained at Karnes, says that a facility conceived as a detention center isn’t equipped to make that transition abruptly.
Child care facilities differ from prisons and detention centers, he said. Kids housed in child care facilities often leave the grounds on field trips or other excursions, while children in family detention are stuck there.
The alleged child abuse at Karnes would not have happened if the facility were actually taking the precautions child care facilities are required to, Zayas said, pointing out that the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services prohibits most adults from sleeping in the same room as minors. Among other requirements, mental health staff must screen adults who might potentially sleep in the same room as kids they're not related to for "any past history of sexual trauma or sexually inappropriate behavior."
To allow such a sleeping arrangement, a social worker or mental health professional must also provide a written and dated evaluation confirming that it is in the child's best interests.
A spokesman with TDFP declined to comment because of the lawsuit.
“Staff needs to be trained in identifying abuse and mental health problems in children, parents or other staff,” Zayas told HuffPost. “These regulations and rules are not being applied in the manner they should, or the way they are applied to other child care settings.”